Well that was an absolutely dreadful weekend of transfer news, culminating in the proverbial and yet somehow literal kick in the crotch that was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s odd loan + buy option for next year at €24M the following term. In its wake, enough e-ink has been spilt over the transfer saga to drown even the most epic of football or FC Barcelona fans. Predictably, much hand-wringing has been made about the financial bath that the Blaugrana took from this mess, and rightly so. This was an unmitigated financial disaster that is going to cause us a fair amount of monetary distress, not to mention the problems if Zlatan is injured during the season and Milan balks at the purchase, but also making everyone involved in the deal look very very bad. Truly this was another of Pep’s phyrric victories, his scorched earth policy that consumes all who get on his bad side and all agents who would deign to deride his managerial style. However, should we, as Barça supporters be so down about this as to become fed up with everything and start laying blame everywhere, even when it may not be so deserved? Maybe we can brave this one with a little humor, a level head, and the man with the knowledge on La Liga at the Guardian Sid Lowe, whose excellent article provides all the quotes below.
Let’s start with some concessions. Yes, I and others who write in these spaces defended Ibrahimovic’s play last year (although we shouldn’t have had to, since he had a good year for a 9 playing partly out of position in this system) and his presence on the team, stating multiple times that he would not be moved, nor should he have been. I freely admit now that not only were mistakes made with how he was handled, but he may have also been misutilized by Pep at times. Of course, it is also now clear that he had to go by the end of all this. But enough of contrition, you came to hear about the shit show. So, let’s chat, what do we know about the situation, what should we have seen coming, and what does it all mean?
What We Know
That this was much much worse than any of us here feared or knew. If the relationship was this toxic then it is no wonder we were looking for a place to dump Ibra in the wake of all of this coming out so swiftly. In hindsight, we now know a lot more about the key players too.
Firstly, all those comments that Pep made avoiding questions about Ibra and his place on the team during the preseason were not so much about Rosell looking to sell off Zlatan to the lowest bidder but were more about a frosty relationship based on a communication breakdown at the end of last season. That breakdown evolved into something we haven’t seen very often involving our own Don Draper: a sniping match wherein Pep let his true feelings be known. Last year, after losing out on Villa, who Pep wanted to replace Samu Eto’o originally, Pep let Samu go because of a “feeling” and little else was said. Sure, the writing was on the wall (“I don’t like Eto’o’s style, he’s a child sometimes, lazy others, and he won’t play how I want him to”), but it was never explicit. Now it was laid bare by Pep, via Raiola and Zlatan.
Guardiola wants to win, but he wants to do it his way, with his people, and through his own symphony. If a player is not cutting it or is not playing the game the way it should be played, he will let that player walk, and with a quickness too. Eto’o, Yaya (maybe not wholly on the player, but with Çeluk, this was always going to happen and he may have influenced Toure’s thoughts and actions), and now Zlatan have seen how Pep takes to players that try to make themselves bigger than the team, so too have we. He wants harmony, he demands perfection, and while we love him for trophies, and comments, and his outstanding haberdashery, he is also wont to cut down anyone in his path. This process shows that we have a manager who is tactically and strategically gifted, but who may also cut off his nose to spite his face.
Second, Zlatan did not like how he was treated. He derided the coach for speaking to him only twice in six months and only hours before his departure became imminent, showing up at the Camp Nou, stating that he was there to sign his renewal. This went south rather quickly. Sid Lowe has more:
“The ‘philosopher’ has kicked me out,” spits Ibrahimovic as he strolls into the scrum. “I don’t know what his problem with me was. Whenever I walked into a room he walked out again … maybe he was scared of me.”
Alright then. So Ibra has been pissed at Pep for a while, likely since his exclusion from the squad at the end of the season to the benefit of the littlest 11, Bojan. Seeing Barcelona nearly triumph against all of Mourinho’s might in the Champions League and complete a second consecutive conquest of La Liga while sitting on the bench must not have sat well with the big guy. What started in a flourish,
He hasn’t been a failure at Barcelona. Not really. He got 21 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, scored the winner against Real Madrid, and averaged a goal every other game in the league. He even scored in the Champions League – twice, against Arsenal. Only Gonzalo Higuaín was directly responsible for securing his side more points in La Liga.
soon came to be what we all feared: a situation with a star striker who didn’t fit the system and eventually weighed on both manager and team. To wit,
As one insider puts it: “Zlatan thinks he’s Messi and he’s not.”
All this blame cannot be laid on him, because there is too much to go around. His attitude certainly did not help matters and he apparently had no clue how to deal with Guardiola or how he would fit into the squad at all. Maybe we should have known he would cause internal problems because when you have former fans warning you of that, it’s probably a bad sign.
Third, Mino Raiola. He’s an ass and apparently damn good at his job. I’ll let Mr. Lowe take this one to the house:
Those who called Raiola an idiot, the world’s worst agent, are as wrong as those who call Pedro López the world’s worst serial killer. Look at it his way: he’s the best. Yes, he’s a clown and a big mouth, a walking parody, but he’s a ludicrously rich one, feisty as hell and successful too. Ibrahimovic has now commanded €140m in transfer fees. You’ve got to admire their balls. Just don’t let them catch you doing it.
His commentary throughout the entire situation may have been the final nail in this coffin. Statements that Zlatan would certainly last longer at Camp Nou than Pep due to the contracts they had signed were disconcerting to some fans worried about Pep’s future at the club and laughable to others of us at the time. Now they seem as opening salvos. And out of all of this, Raiola may be the most culpable in turning it from a “normal” transfer saga–if any transfer with Braça can be so called–into something toxic and awful:
The same Guardiola that Raiola said, “should be in a mental hospital”, “has a problem with himself” . . . “You don’t buy a Ferrari and just leave it in the garage,” Raiola complained.
Fourth we have the much vilified Sandro Rosell. First Sandro was said to have been looking to sell Ibra as a way of getting rid of all of Laporta’s latest signings (after the Chygy move was made to save some money). Then Rosell was an idiot who couldn’t get anything out of this deal and had to take a bath due to his own bravado in some misguided attempt to make his own imprint… um, wrong. Sandro apparently knew that Ibra and Pep were not getting along and flyers were out all summer trying to sell Ibra, but the market wasn’t great as it has been depressed and the only big spenders, Man City, who were looking for young guys and no more Adebayors, were not looking for a deal. So a deal was struck, a really shitty, stupid deal, but one that had to be made based on the circumstances: an inability for player and coach to coexist and a need to save umpteen millions in salary, financial crisis or not.
The cost was high. Some newspapers splashed their covers with a little round sticker like it was Tesco Value Thick Slice, declaring “double saving: Barcelona make €24m and save €60m in wages”. Or screamed: “Good riddance Ibra”. Others pointed out that Barça had lost €40m on the deal.* They were right. Last season, Barcelona bought him for €45m plus Eto’o, formally valued at €20m. It looked like a ridiculous deal then: it looks like even more of a ridiculous deal now. It also underlines an uncomfortable truth: Guardiola wanted David Villa
Finally, fans. Yes, we should have seen more of this coming and yes we should have been more appreciative for how Ibra played last year.
What We Should Have Seen Coming
Hindsight is 20-20 they say, and here, they are certainly right. We missed that giant pink elephant sitting on the other end of the room, staring us in the face and knocking shit off the walls. This had to happen in a lot of respects, possibly in this very manner. Sure a partnership up front of Villa, Ibra, and Messi would have been superb, if it worked, but failing that, it could have been the downfall of the most talented team in club football. It should have been clear as day from the time the big Swede was removed from his role as the starter and it became a permanent injunction:
For all that the coach was seduced by the idea of having a Plan B, it hadn’t worked when they needed it most. When Barcelona made a final, hugely impressive push for the title, they did so without Ibrahimovic and with Bojan Krkic. The group mattered most so at the end of the campaign he insisted on Barcelona selling the Swede – no matter what the cost.
Pep wanted Villa all along. Laporta finally made it happen, but maybe a year too late. Pep knows Villa can play the wings, and he has shown his ability to play as a lone man up front or in a two-man strike formation for La Furia Roja, and he wanted this. Villa is the player who does what is needed and who stuck around for a team with almost zero chance of succeeding in little more than holding out hope of continental football for three years too long, playing his ass off each year. This is what Pep wanted and this is what he has now.
In short, we should have seen Zlatan’s signing for what it was last year, an ill-fated, ill-conceived, and short-sighted marriage of convenience to get rid of Eto’o on short notice to a team willing to give up a good player. Inter was that white knight, they got the better end of that deal.
It was largely the fact that Inter would take him that forced their hand and finally ensured it would be Ibrahimovic that signed instead.
It ended how all marriages of convenience do: with both sides hurting and one making out better than the other. Zlatan, Raiola, and AC Milan got us here, it was always going to be like this. You can only make the best out of a bad situation sometimes, and this is one of those times.
What Does It All Mean?
In short, a lot, and yet, not so much. Zlatan’s time here was short and acrimonious, but we achieved goals, winning La Liga and the 2010 Supercopa amongst others with his contributions, and they were many. And yet, that hole up front may not be so large after all. Sure, he’s 6’3″ and can hold the ball up well, but maybe that is just not what we needed in our system, maybe we just needed the player our manager wanted all along and the one we got this summer.
And that’s the thing. When the dust finally settled, Barcelona went into the opening game of the season and destroyed Racing Santander with two wonderful finishes from Messi and Iniesta. There was also – and you should get used to this phrase – a goal from Villa. It may have been costly, painful and hugely embarrassing, it may still come back to bite them but now, at last, after all the bickering and the shouting and the name-calling; after the accusation and counter-accusation, the chest-puffing and posturing, Raiola has finally got what he wanted – a huge great big lorry pulling into his drive loaded with cash – but so have Barcelona. The harmony Guardiola demanded and the perfect addition to an already fantastic side, a striker who should have joined a really, really big club years ago. “This team is even better than last year,” the Racing coach Miguel-Ángel Portugal sighed.
Sometimes you have to look bad, get shat upon, and otherwise take the blunt end of a tire iron to the chin in order to move forward. If things were as bad as Lowe, and others have intimated, this partnership could never have worked. A player who thinks he’s everything and cannot get behind a team effort is not going to function or be long for this era of Barça’s history. This deal means stopping something that was never sure to falter but could not have been good for the entire year. When a star player is hating life and his situation where he is, you can be assured it is no good for the overall success of the club.
This may also put an end to a lot of the speculation that Rosell always wants to overpower Pep and that Guardiola despises the President. Let’s be clear about something, this was not Rosell’s move, this was what Pep wanted, and everyone should see that now, loud and clear. When Pep had a player he disliked, even one who was difficult to move, Rosell found a suitor and sold him off, however bad it was for Barcelona, he got rid of that player, just like Laporta did with Eto’o 2 years ago. Instead of this being some calculated move by our totalitarian dictator, it was a calculated bombshell dropped by our totalitarian manager (and as Isaiah said, it’s only ok when the manager is a totalitarian). This was a move that needed to be made and resolved quickly, and it was. We took a PR hit and lost a good bit of money, but this cloud has a silver lining and we have to see that,
Some newspapers splashed their covers with a little round sticker like it was Tesco Value Thick Slice, declaring “double saving: Barcelona make €24m and save €60m in wages”. Or screamed: “Good riddance Ibra”. Others pointed out that Barça had lost €40m on the deal.* They were right. Last season, Barcelona bought him for €45m plus Eto’o, formally valued at €20m. It looked like a ridiculous deal then: it looks like even more of a ridiculous deal now.
Many hated the Eto’o deal, but we made the best of a bad situation where the player was not good for the team and the manager did not want the player. So with 1 year left, we sold him for what now appears to have been very expensive, good looking spare parts. We made the best of it, winning a few more trophies, losing only once in La Liga, in large part thanks to his contributions. And now, 1 year later, we’ve made the same “deal with the devil”, allowing Milan to take Ibra for change and moving along with the front Pep wanted all last year: Villa, Messi, Pedro, Iniesta, and Bojan. You have to get out of a bad situation, sometimes in any way that seems fit at the time. For Barcelona, this seemed fit, and now, we have to move on and make the best of a situation wherein we still have more talent than any other team and will still compete for all the trophies we already would have.
For Barça, better yet was the news coming in from Palma. Last year Barça dropped just 15 points all season; they already have a two-point lead over Real Madrid after Mourinho’s side could only draw 0-0 with Mallorca and have started off where they finished last season – without The Tall Man and top of the table. “Zlatan was the centre of attention on Saturday,” Guardiola said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d quite like my team to be.”
Long story short, I’ll get over it.
Photo 1: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe
Photo 2: Miguel Ruiz/FCB