With each passing day, each passing season, FC Barcelona, perhaps the greatest passing team the world has known, moves further from the glories of the Pep Guardiola days. First there was drift, then there was decline, now a sense of chaos seems to be engulfing the club.
These have been a turbulent few days at the club, bringing problems to such a head that there will be an emergency board meeting on Wednesday to discuss the future of coach Luis Enrique, although his position is not thought to be under immediate threat.
Andoni Zubizarreta, the former Barcelona goalkeeper and captain, was dismissed as director of football on Monday, with his assistant Carles Puyol, the former center back and captain, announcing his departure soon afterwards. The direct trigger for their removal was the decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport last week to uphold the decision by FIFA to ban Barcelona from signing players for two transfer windows for a breach of regulations relating to the registration of players under the age of 18 between 2009 and 2013.
Barcelona continues to insist the issues were largely administrative and the result of a conflict between Spanish and FIFA rules, and there is a small possibility that it might appeal to a Swiss court, but, as the matter stands, it will be banned from signing any players until January 1, 2016.
On Sunday night, Zubizarreta, who had served as director of football since 2010, had suggested in a television interview that Josep Maria Bartomeu, the president of Barcelona, bore some responsibility for the transfer ban for decisions taken during his time as vice president.
Sunday also brought defeat at Real Sociedad, a listless display from a surprising team selection.
Lionel Messi, Neymar, Dani Alves, Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Pique were all left on the bench. The three South Americans had only returned to training on Friday after extended Christmas breaks – and gastric problems caused Messi to miss training on Monday (a special open session for children in celebration of Kings Day) – and so there was perhaps some logic in that, but the omission of Pique, inconsistent as his form has been, left Barca without any aerial presence.
Luis Enrique likes to shuffle his pack, but, even by his standards, this was a curious team to put out, particularly against a side that has been showing signs of recovery under David Moyes, and, moreover, in a stadium in which Barcelona hasn’t won in five years. It’s true that Messi had been given a long winter break in each of the five previous seasons, missing the first game in January as a consequence, but why omit Neymar? Why sit Dani Alves?
Luis Enrique’s explanation was that those players have Copa America in June – but then so do Javier Mascherano (Argentina) and Claudio Bravo (Chile) and both of them played (as did Uruguay's Luis Suarez, who will miss the tournament, still suspended internationally for biting Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup). The absence of Neymar and Messi laid bare just how reliant Barca has been on them this season – which in turn highlighted the change of ethos at the club.
Of course Barcelona without Messi has always lacked a certain dazzle, but in the past the process was good enough, the enactment of the club’s philosophy efficient enough, that Barcelona would still pass teams to death – more than that, for that sounds a little functional. Now Barcelona is reliant, like so many other moneyed clubs, on its superstars.
On Sunday the spotlight fell on Suarez, and he failed to deliver. The defeat wasn’t solely his fault – wasn’t even mainly his fault – but it did highlight the problems he has had in settling since his £75 million move from Liverpool. And that, of course, is one of the reasons Zubizarreta has gone.
When Barca appealed against the transfer ban when it was first imposed last April, it was granted a stay of execution.
The summer window was as pressured as it has ever been at the club: however much Barca believes in its innocence, it knew there was a possibility it would be banned from signings for the following two windows.
It was essential the club got its transfer activity right, and it failed. Thomas Vermaelen has had knee surgery and still hasn’t started a game. Brazilian fullback Douglas has played just one game and looked hopelessly out of his depth. The priority was sorting out the defense, and, while Jeremy Mathieu has started 13 games at center back, the arrival of a solid, but unspectacular, 30-year-old is not enough.
That accounted for Zubizarreta, but the next question, with Barca a point behind Real Madrid at the top of the table having played a game more, was what happens to Luis Enrique. Even if the suggestions that there was some sinister reason for Messi’s absence from training, and evidence of Luis Enrique’s lack of command of the dressing room are spurious, it’s natural that there should be questions about his position.
The lack of an obvious alternative may spare him for now, but with the president increasingly unpopular and little sign of progress on the pitch, it feels as though Zubizarreta’s departure is only the beginning of the upheaval.