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.
GALLERY: Tifos around the world
Best soccer tifos from around the world
Galatasaray fans display a sensational "Rocky" tifo ahead of their clash against rival Fenerbahce. It didn't inspire a victory, though. The Turkish rivals played to a 0-0 draw.
Borussia Dortmund fans channel their 1963 cup triumph over Benfica ahead of the teams' second leg in the Champions League round of 16 at Signal Iduna Park.
Hapoel Be'er Sheva fans turn to Moses for tifo inspiration, with his splitting the Red Sea illustrating how "impossible is nothing" in their Europa League series against Besiktas.
Fans of Tunisia's Club Africain display this pointed tifo at a friendly against PSG, whose Qatari owners have pumped millions and millions into the club.
U.S. fans in Columbus, Ohio, make a "One Nation, One Team" statement ahead of the USMNT's World Cup qualifying match against Mexico on November 11, 2016.
Germany fans display their heart for the team colors ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Czech Republic in October 2016.
Italy fans spell out their support for the Azzurri ahead of a massive World Cup qualifier vs. Spain in October 2018.
Iceland fans keep up their world-famous passion for the national team during a World Cup qualifier against Turkey in October 2016.
Fans in the United Arab Emirates set their sights on reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia during a qualifying match vs. Australia in September 2016.
Colombia fans send a massive jersey around the stadium during a World Cup qualifier vs. Venezuela in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn to Game Of Thrones for inspiration in a game against the Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps in September 2016.
Djurgardens fans go all out in Sweden for a match against AIK in September 2016.
Zulte Waregem fans prepare Kortrijk for the absolute worst in this Belgian top-flight match in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn their pop culture reference to Poltergeist in March 2016 ahead of the season home opener against Sporting Kansas City.
The Timbers Army doubles down on their Eastbound and Down theme, adding another wrinkle during the club's MLS Western Conference final first leg vs. FC Dallas on November 22, 2015 at Providence Park.
Fans make a French flag tifo at Wembley Stadium during the singing of Le Marseillaise ahead of England's friendly vs. France, which took place days after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
The Timbers Army referenced Eastbound & Down's Kenny Powers with their "Cup Bound and Down" tifo for the Portland Timbers' MLS playoff elimination game against Sporting Kansas City on October 29, 2015.
Brondby IF fans display a gladiator holding up a lion's head during the team's Danish Alka Superliga match against FC Copenhagen, whose logo is a lion's head, on September 27, 2015.
New England Revolution fans equate Jermaine Jones to Indiana Jones on their quest to capture the 2015 MLS Cup on September 26, 2015.
New England Revolution fans display a Lion King theme in honor of Orlando City FC's first visit to Gillette Stadium on September 5, 2015.
Red Bulls fans take a shot at NYCFC's two summer arrivals, 37-year-old Frank Lampard and 36-year-old Andrea Pirlo, ahead of their third MLS meeting of 2015.
Germany fans in Cologne salute their World Cup champions ahead of a friendly against the United States in June, 2015.
Real Madrid fans went all out prior to the second leg of the 2014-15 Champions League semifinal vs. Juventus.
Lazio fans display a stunning eagle tifo ahead of the Rome derby against AS Roma in their penultimate Serie A match of the 2014-15 season.
Barcelona fans bid farewell to veteran midfielder Xavi with this banner at his last league game at Camp Nou before he departs for Qatari club Al Sadd.
Fans at Anfield pay tribute to Steven Gerrard in his final home match as a Liverpool player in May 2015.
Juventus fans state their case to beat Real Madrid in the 2014-15 Champions League semifinals and reach the final in Berlin.
Fans at Benfica's Estadio da Luz remind rival Porto who the Primeira Liga reigning champion is during an April 2015 match in Portugal.
New York Red Bulls fans send a pointed message to their NYCFC counterparts prior to the teams' first MLS meeting in May, 2015.
Inter Milan's Curva Nord announces its presence ahead of the April 2015 Derby della Madonnina–the annual clashes between city rivals Inter and AC Milan.
Bayern Munich fans implore their club to (translated) "Never give up" in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg vs. Porto. Bayern then turned a 3-1 first-leg deficit into a 7-4 aggregate win and a place in the semifinals.
Dortmund fans commemorate their 1997 Champions League trophy in the club's clash vs. Juventus–the opponent on the wrong side of that title bout.
Portland Timbers fans speak out against homophobia with this tifo in a 2013 match against Chivas USA
Atletico's supporters display a banner reading "Atleti crushes" before the Spanish league match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid,
Borussia Dortmund fans put on a remarkable display ahead of a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match.
Brondby IF fans unveil a tifo ahead of a match in Denmark against Randers FC.
FC Barcelona fans display a huge banner in memory of former head coach Tito Vilanova.
Galatasaray fans support their team during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray at the Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul.
The American Outlaws unveil a huge tifo ahead of a 2014 World Cup send-off match between the USA and Turkey at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
Marseille's supporters use paper sheets to create an "OM" (Olympique de Marseille) tifo at the beginning of the French L1 football match between Marseille and Genoble.
Seattle Sounders fans display their tifo that shows coach Sigi Schmid playing cards and holding a Royal Flush before a match against the Portland Timbers.
Panathinaikos Athens fans display a banner during the UEFA Europa League match against Dynamo Moscow.
Fans of the Saudi Al-Hilal team celebrate after the scoring of a goal against Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor.
Seattle Sounders fans unveil a tifo inspired from the “Build a Bonfire” chant, featuring Sounder players holding torches on horseback ahead of a game against the Portland Timbers.
Fans of Hertha BSC before the Bundesliga match between Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen in Berlin.
Sporting Kansas City fans channel their inner Mario ahead of the 2013 MLS Cup final vs. Real Salt Lake.
Brondby IF fans.
Thousands of Barcelona fans hold up cards to spell out "Barca! Orgull," which translates to "Barcelona pride" ahead of a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich at Camp Nou.
Fans raise a tifo celebrating “Community, Club and Country” ahead of a CONCACAF Gold Cup match between the USA and Belize in Portland, Oregon.
Vitesse fans unfurl a massive Eagle banner at the Dutch Eredivisie match against Ajax at the GelreDome.
Valencia fans drape a banner featuring a king for a Copa del Rey ("The King's Cup) match against Atletico Madrid.
Juventus fans make a statement in Turin in a match vs. Inter Milan.
Dortmund fans put on another strong display at a Bundesliga match against Mainz 05.
German fans boast the newest star earned by the national team, symbolizing its 2014 World Cup triumph, at a Euro 2016 qualifying match in Dortmund.
Real Madrid fans make a point to display the club's 10 European championships ahead of the October 2014 clash against rival Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
San Jose Earthquakes fans unleash a massive tifo to mark the opening of Avaya Stadium, MLS's newest soccer-specific venue, in March 2015.
Barcelona fans show all who the real 12th man is ahead of the March 2015 Clásico vs. Real Madrid.
Ahead of a clash with Mexican foe Monterrey, Tigres players are treated by this message by its fervent supporters.
Standard Liege fans have a pointed message for Steven Defour, who departed the club for Belgian rival Anderlecht.
Orlando City fans mark their club's inaugural MLS game vs. fellow expansion side New York City FC with a statement that the Lions' "reign begins now."
Real Madrid fans salute Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo after he captured the most prestigious individual prize in world soccer again.
Vitesse fans pay homage to Operation Market Garden ahead of an Eredivisie match against SC Heerenveen.
Sevilla's fans deploy a giant banner in the stands before the UEFA Europa league final match between Benfica and Sevilla.
Fans in Liverpool’s Kop End at Anfield commemorate those lost in the Hillsborough disaster.
Lyon fans during a game against Saint Etienne.