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president election, Lionel Messi future, problems at the club, La Liga

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On Sunday, Spanish football giants Barcelona will elect a new president. It is a seminal moment in the history of one of the world’s greatest sporting franchises.

But the winner will inherit a giant on its knees, after years spent lurching from crisis to crisis.

The incoming president faces dire financial woes, a stadium in need of significant redevelopment, and a team which has not made a Champions League final in six years.

There are also question marks over the coach, a transfer strategy that has proved disastrous to say the least, and a youth development academy that has fallen apart. Then there are legal troubles which saw the previous president resign before being arrested last week as police raided the club itself.

But the most glaring issue of all for the new president to address is this: Lionel Messi, one of the greatest footballers of all time, has fallen out with his beloved Barca. The glue which has papered over the cracks for years could now be headed out the door.

In short, when 110,000 club members vote on their new president this weekend, their selection will inherit one of the most challenging jobs in football. What happens next could shape European football for years to come.

But how did things get this bad?

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A decade ago, Barcelona was the best team in the world, if not the greatest team of all time.

Under Pep Guardiola, a former Barca player, the club won 14 trophies in four seasons (2008-2012), including two Champions Leagues.

In the EIGHT seasons since then, the club has won 15 trophies – and just one Champions League.

The reasons behind their slump are complex, but can be boiled down to three key factors: the decline of the famed La Masia academy, its replacement by big-money transfers, and player revolt against the club hierarchy.

THE DECLINE OF LA MASIA

La Masia (‘the farmhouse’) can make a strong case as the greatest youth academy in history. It has produced dozens of truly world-class players, including Lionel Messi himself.

At the 2010 World Cup, eight Barcelona players were in Spain’s victorious World Cup final team. Seven were from La Masia.

That year, all three finalists for the Ballon d’Or – the award for world football’s greatest player – were Barcelona players, and La Masia graduates: Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

When Guardiola – a former La Masia youngster himself – guided Barcelona to Champions League glory in 2009, seven of the starting XI in the final were academy products.

And in November 2012, the team made history in a league match against Levante when all eleven players and the coach were academy products. The team won 4-0.

In fact, from 1979 (when the academy was founded) to 2009, over 440 youngsters were developed in La Masia. A whopping 40-plus would represent Barcelona’s first team.

The success of the academy came from its singular philosophy. Players as young as six would play the Barcelona way, following a philosophy – and often even a formation – that was the same as the first team.

That philosophy was based on ‘Total Football’ pioneered by the Dutch in the 1970s, combined with the Spanish one-touch passing style known as tiki-taka. Johan Cruyff, the Dutch icon, drove the development of that style as part of the club’s DNA as a player, coach, and technical advisor.

The highly-watchable style of play tore rivals apart under Pep Guardiola – a Cruyff pupil – in four years from 2008 to 2012. It was also the foundation of Spain’s dominance on the international stage as they won the European Championships in 2008 and 2012 to bookend their 2010 World Cup victory.

But things have changed.

Seven La Masia pupils played in Spain’s 2010 World Cup grand final victory.Source: News Limited

These days, only Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto remain of that golden era. All are past their heyday, with 29-year-old Roberto the youngest of the group.

In the current squad, there is an eight-year age gap to the next La Masia graduates: Riqui Puig and Oscar Mingueza, both 21. Ansu Fati and Ilaix Moriba (18) are the only other academy products in the current squad to have appeared in the league, which Moriba has done just twice.

That means that there are just four La Masia youngsters in the side – and this season, Puig, Fati, and Moriba have a combined 16 league appearances across 25 rounds.

The academy pipeline has broken down. La Masia is no longer the heart of the club, the epitome of the ‘més que un club’ (more than a club) motto which is painted onto the stands at Camp Nou.

The famous La Masia building in 2011, the year it was replaced with a sprawling new academy complex.Source: Getty Images

Instead, some of the best youngsters are leaving in droves, what was once an exception now becoming the rule.

The departure of academy product Cesc Fabregas to Arsenal, before he later returned to make over 100 appearances at Barcelona, was considered an embarrassing mistake by the Barcelona board.

A decade ago, then-academy co-ordinator Albert Puig explained: “Other clubs like Real Madrid have a good youth system too, the difference is just that they don’t use theirs. So the work is left unfinished.

“We on the other hand incorporate our talents into the first team on a regular basis. It’s a little bit like producing a Ferrari but then not using it.”

Plenty of Ferraris have taken the road away from Camp Nou since then.

Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin. Manchester City’s supremely talented central defender Eric Garcia. Wolves’ Adama Traore. Southampton’s Oriole Romeo. Thiago, now with Liverpool after becoming a superstar at Bayern Munich. Dani Olmo and Marc Barta are also stars in Germany. Mauro Icardi in France. Iago Falque in Italy. Takefusa Kubo could prove the worst loss of the lot, if the hype on the Japanese superstar, now with Real Madrid, proves legitimate.

Barcelona completely deserted their strategy of picking La Masia youngsters regularly, of putting that youth pipeline at the core of their club. The change has proved nothing short of disastrous.

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THE NEW MODEL

After Guardiola departed in 2012, the club was desperate to continue his remarkable record of success at any cost.

That led to a strategy of signing already-established stars regardless of the financial burden, trying to build teams around players in their prime rather than take youngsters and develop them into the next superstars.

This is not to say the club had not spent big on top stars in the past – Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o or Dani Alves all cost plenty – but the spending reached staggering new heights in the past seven years.

While some other expensive transfers, like Luis Suarez or Neymar were worth every penny, most have flopped.

Three of the top six most-expensive transfers in history have been made by Barcelona: Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezman, and Ousman Dembele, in 2018, 2019, and 2017 respectively. All three have proved failures.

In fact, this season’s squad cost a whopping 826 million euros ($A1.281bn) to assemble, in terms of transfer fee (per CIES Football Observatory). That’s the fourth-most in the world. Last year’s squad was similar – and finished the season with no trophies for the first time in 12 years.

Suarez, who arrived for £65 million from Liverpool in 2014, was forced out of the club before this season, departing for free to rivals Atletico Madrid despite the protests of Messi and many fans. He has scored 16 goals so far and sent Atletico top of the league – playing like a man determined to make Barcelona rue their mistake.

It’s not the first time Barcelona has been burned by a farcical transfer decision.

David Villa went to Atletico for free in 2013 and won the title that season – by beating Barcelona on their own ground, the famed Camp Nou.

Transfer mistake after transfer mistake has driven Barcelona into a pit of despair, and a record debt over 1.2 billion euros.

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PLAYER REVOLTS AND CLUB STUFF-UPS

The sale of Suarez was just one of many flashpoints as Messi and his teammates fell out with the club’s hierarchy.

Messi, who had always avoided discussing matters of club policy and leadership, has in the past couple of years suddenly gone public with his discontent.

He lashed the board for ‘throwing out’ Suarez, who he called “one of the most important players in the history of the club.”

He battled with former sporting director Eric Abidal who hinted players weren’t “working hard” after Ernesto Valverde was sacked as coach in January 2020.

He fought with the club over rumours players were rejecting pay cuts during the coronavirus pandemic.

He blamed the club after his mammoth salary of 139 million euros per year was leaked to the media, something the club denied.

The Argentine legend went so far as demanding a free transfer at the end of last season, after a historic 8-2 humiliation in the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich.

The greatest player in the club’s history is furious with his own club (which he says had “no project or anything for a long time”), and spending as much time fighting battles off the field as on it. He could very well leave at the end of the current season.

Things reached a new low on Monday when Spanish police made four arrests over the club’s 2020 ‘Barcagate’ scandal, when then-Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu was accused of hiring social media firm I3 Ventures to attack the club’s players (including Messi), ex-players and managers.

Despite denying the accusations, Bartomeu resigned in October last year, while the club’s board resigned. He has now been arrested by police alongside his adviser Jaume Masferrer, club CEO Oscar Grau and head of legal services Roman Gomez Ponti.

Bartomeu resigned last year.Source: AFP

THE ELECTION

And so we come to this weekend, and a pivotal moment in the club’s history. Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Toni Freixa are the three names up for election.

The favourite, Laporta, has prioritised the renovation of the ageing Camp Nou, which has been a project the club board has discussed – but failed to deliver – for a decade. He is a former president from 2003 to 2010, and was responsible for promoting Guardiola into the manager’s role from the Barcelona B team.

Font has been backed by ex-Barca captain Carles Puyol. Font has spoken of a hope of bringing in club legend Xavi as the new head coach.

Freixa also wants Xavi as head coach – but in the future, having him run the Barcelona B side first. Freixa strongly backed current manager Ronald Koeman, who this week said: “I have a contract. When we know who is going to be the president, of course we will talk and I want him to show me where he wants to take things.”

Freixa also has declared he has lined up a 60 million euro per season deal for a new shirt sponsor, something that will ease the pain of their debt.

That financial crisis – significantly worsened by coronavirus – forced a fire sale of talent last season, and is a key factor in Messi’s future. Selling the club’s highest earner would make a huge dent in their financial prospects. It could also begin a rebuild at the Catalan giants. But convincing him to stay would be a huge vote of confidence in the future of the club.

It is the first – and biggest – decision facing the new president. It is far from his only challenge. The future of one of sport’s greatest clubs is at stake.

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