25 Feb

How Barcelona Lost Its Way

A club once praised for its methods on and off the field has recently descended into a drifting, crisis-riddled, backstabbing soap opera. That it still leads La Liga misses the point.

Credit…Jose Jordan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Rory Smith

By Rory Smith

  • Feb. 25, 2020, 1:00 a.m. ET

-Lionel Messi’s word choice was telling.

Perhaps he has started to develop a little resistance to Barcelona’s capacity for self-immolation over the last few weeks. The club has, after all, spent most of 2020 lurching and bouncing from one drama to another, almost all of them of the team’s own making.

There was the abysmal handling of the dismissal of Ernesto Valverde, the coach; the unnecessarily public and eventually unsuccessful courting of Xavi Hernández as his replacement; the spat between Eric Abidal, the sporting director, and Messi over the former’s allegation that the players had conspired in Valverde’s demise.

This is a club that is being sued by one of its own players in a dispute over bonus payments; that sold two attacking players in January to make room for a reinforcement that never arrived; that has somehow gotten itself into a position in which it could lose one of the greatest players in soccer history for nothing this summer.Rory Smith On SoccerSign up for Rory Smith’s weekly soccer newsletter at

Even by those standards, though, one controversy stood out to Messi. Earlier this month, the network Cadena SER reported that Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barcelona’s president, had engaged a digital technology firm not only to try to bolster his image on social media, but also to denigrate the reputations of a group of people that included a prospective rival for the club’s presidency and — the punchline — members of the team’s squad.

Messi was away on vacation when all of this was happening. When he caught up with it upon his return to Catalonia, though, he could only really think of one way of describing it.

“To me,” Messi said, “it all seems weird.”

Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, front left, has come under withering criticism after news reports that he hired a company to denigrate some members of the team.
Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, front left, has come under withering criticism after news reports that he hired a company to denigrate some members of the team.Credit…Alberto Estevez/EPA, via Shutterstock

It is typical of Barcelona, of course, that at the end of six weeks of claim, counterclaim and chaos, it now sits alone at the top of La Liga. Two weeks ago, it seemed to be struggling to clutch on to Real Madrid’s coattails. Now, thanks to a sudden stutter from its rival, it is two points clear and building up a head of steam.

On Saturday, Messi scored four times as Barcelona swept past Eibar, perfect preparation for its evocative meeting with Napoli in the Champions League on Tuesday — it will be the first time Messi has played at the Stadio San Paolo, the place Diego Maradona once called home — and then, next weekend, the second clásicoof the season, on the road in Madrid. Victory there, and a third consecutive Spanish championship would flutter onto the horizon.

Barcelona has made a habit of this in recent years. Just when it seems the long-awaited, fin de siècle moment has arrived, it weathers whatever crisis it is enduring and emerges, at the end, in glory, or something close enough to be confused for it. There is no real mystery as to how: The slender shoulders of the man in the No. 10 jersey are strong enough to bear tremendous weight.

But if Messi’s presence means Barcelona the team may be able to stave off wholesale change for a while yet, Barcelona the club is different. Over the last two decades, Barcelona has not only become a reference point for the way a team should play — “every team should try to play the Barcelona way,” as Bobby Charlton once put it — but also the way a club should be run.

The current incarnation of Barcelona dates to 2003 and the election of the charismatic, ambitious outsider Joan Laporta as president. He had the air, back then, of a Catalan Kennedy: a handsome lawyer, an ardent separatist, ushering in a bright new era. He trailed in his wake a slew of specialists cut from precisely the same cloth: Sandro Rosell and Bartomeu would both go on to be presidents of Barcelona; Ferran Soriano would be given the keys to Manchester City; Marc Ingla now runs the French club Lille.

Laporta stood for what he called a “generational revolution.” Barcelona had been run for too long by the same old faces with the same old voices and the same old ideas. He saw a need to drag the club forward. He encouraged his subordinates to come up with ideas to increase Barcelona’s flagging revenues. He wanted the team to reflect the place: not just by building the team around the talent flowering at La Masia, the club’s academy, but by tapping into the booming entrepreneurial spirit of turn-of-the-century Catalonia.

Barcelona has continued to act in that spirit, even as the faces in charge of the club have changed. Laporta was deposed in 2010, and his successor, his onetime protégé Rosell, resigned in disgrace after he was accused of financial crimes in 2014. But in 2017 the club started an innovation hub, with the stated aim of becoming the Silicon Valley of soccer. And in 2018 it laid claim to being the first sports team to surpass $1 billion in revenue.

Barcelona, slowly, made the leap from sports team to business consultancy case study. In his book “The Barcelona Way,” Damian Hughes, a professor of organizational psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, detailed the five key principles that underpinned Barcelona’s success. By following the club’s methods, he wrote, it is possible to “learn to unlock the DNA of a winning culture.”

Just a couple of years later, though, it increasingly appears that Barcelona’s winning culture exists despite, rather than because of, its corporate management structure. Any chief executive searching for inspiration might be best served to draw no conclusions beyond “make sure you have Lionel Messi.”

Perhaps that should have been obvious for some time. Indeed, to some extent the club’s troubles now are relatively superficial, compared with, say, the transfer ban it was handed for recruiting minors in contravention of FIFA’s rules or the scandal over Neymar’s transfer that eventually sent Rosell to jail. This is a club that has grown too accustomed to “weird” things happening.

It is to the credit of Messi and his teammates that they have achieved so much against that backdrop, but it is inevitable that, at some point, they will not be able to mask the club’s failings any longer.

All of Barcelona’s success — its status as the world’s pre-eminent team of the 21st century so far — started with that spirit of revolution, the sense that something fundamental had to change, in 2003. It may be that another watershed is approaching. Even Messi, after all, can hold back the tide for only so long.

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