A decade ago, Barcelona was the toast of the football world. Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka football left fans, pundits, and the club’s rivals in awe and earned the master coach 14 trophies in four seasons until 2012, including a pair of Champions League crowns.
That Guardiola side will go down as one of the greatest in football history, and their influence transcended club competitions. When Spain beat the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final, six of the Spanish starting XI were products of Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy. A seventh came off the bench, and Barca’s Andres Iniesta scored the winning goal. With the biggest stadium in European football, the iconic Camp Nou, and one of the greatest players of all time in Argentine genius Lionel Messi, Barcelona was well and truly on top of the world.
They would win La Liga in 2012-13 after Guardiola’s departure, and the league-Champions League double in 2014-15. Since then, Barcelona’s awesome might has crumbled into misery.
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Once the highest-earning club in sport, they have spiralled into monstrous debts. Off field drama has become ever present. On the field, things have steadily become worse despite successive managers splashing the cash on massive transfers. And Camp Nou is falling apart – perfectly embodying the appalling collapse of a football powerhouse.
Messi, the team’s talisman, was forced to walk away. And after just 14 months in charge, Ronald Koeman was almost mercifully sacked on October 28 after presiding over a torrid era.
The Spanish giants are facing problems of colossal proportions. Many of them are their own making.
LA MASIA PIPELINE DESTROYED
Barcelona’s dominance may have been masterfully guided by Guardiola, but it was forged in the halls of La Masia.
La Masia (‘the farmhouse’) is one of the greatest youth academies in football. It has produced dozens of truly world-class players, including Messi as well as Guardiola himself.
As stated above, the 2010 World Cup final saw eight Barca players feature – with seven of them products of the club’s academy. That year, all three finalists for the Ballon d’Or – the award for football’s greatest player – were Barcelona players and La Masia graduates: Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi Hernandez. And in November 2012 the team made history in a league match against Levante where the coach and all eleven Barca players were academy products. They won 4-0.
In fact, from the academy’s founding in 1979 to 2009 over 440 youngsters were developed in La Masia. More than 40 would go on to represent Barcelona’s first team. The academy was built around a singular philosophy, which saw players as young as six adopting the strategy – and often the formation – of the senior side. That philosophy was founded on the ‘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, embedded that ideology into the club’s DNA as a player, coach, and technical advisor – with Guardiola playing in his Barca side in the ‘90s.
La Masia was a pipeline to the first team, churning out top player after top player. It also meant that Guardiola’s hugely successful era came remarkably cheap in terms of transfer expenditure. But the pipeline has broken down. From Sergi Roberto – the club’s 29 year old midfielder – to Riqui Puig – a 22-year-old midfielder – there is a seven-year age gap in the squad of no La Masia graduands.
There are still members of the golden generation at the club: Roberto, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, and Jordi Alba all emerged from the academy and played under Guardiola. But that seven-year gap shows that between the rising stars of the next generation, and the fading stars of the last great Barcelona generation, there is a gaping chasm of established products.
In the past, losing top academy products to rival clubs was a rarity. When Cesc Fabregas went to Arsenal, before returning to make over 100 appearances at Barcelona, it was considered a humiliating mistake by the Barcelona board. Gerard Pique was another academy product who was quickly brought back to an embarrassed Barcelona who initially let him leave.
In recent years, top talents leaving has become the norm. The list is staggering: Arsenal’s on-loan defender Hector Bellerin. Wolves’ Adama Traore. Thiago, now scoring wonder-goals for Liverpool after becoming a superstar at Bayern Munich. Dani Olmo with RB Leipzig. Mauro Icardi with PSG. Andre Onana with Ajax. In fact, there are a whopping 42 La Masia players currently in Europe’s top five leagues – equal-best with Real Madrid’s academy.
Of the current crop of rising stars (born 1999 onwards) none have played more than 37 times in the league. That is not even a complete league season of 38 games. The lack of established academy products, reared with the Barcelona philosophy front of mind, is a crucial factor behind Barcelona’s decline.
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SHOCKING TRANSFER WASTAGE
In tandem with the decline of the academy was a shift to big-money transfers. With Guardiola’s departure at the end of the 2012 season came a strategy of signing already-established players regardless of the financial burden. It was an approach centred on extending Guardiola’s epoch of unprecedented success, of extracting the most out of a golden generation by bringing in top players.
This is not to say the club had not spent big on top stars in the past – Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Dani Alves all cost plenty – but the spending reached staggering new heights.
While some other expensive transfers like Luis Suarez or Neymar were worth every penny, most have struggled.
Three of the top eight most-expensive transfers in history were Barcelona signings: Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann, and Ousmane Dembele, in 2018, 2019, and 2017 respectively. Combined, they cost well over £300m without bonuses or wages. All three failed to live up to their billing. A struggling Coutinho was loaned to Bayern Munich, Griezmann loaned back to Atletico, and Dembele has struggled with persistent injuries. None will command anywhere near their original fees should Barcelona choose to sell. Griezmann alone will depart for €80m less than what Barca paid when his loan move to Atletico is made permanent at season’s end.
Suarez, who arrived for £65m from Liverpool in 2014, was forced out of the club before last season, departing for free to rivals Atletico Madrid despite the protests of Messi and many fans. He scored 21 goals including the final-day winner as Atletico claimed La Liga and Barca finished third – with the Catalan giants paying a hefty portion of the Uruguayan’s salary all the while.
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 league that season by beating Barcelona on their own turf.
Overseeing years of horrific transfers was the club’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu, hardly a great football mind, who was in charge from 2014 to 2020. At first, most of the transfer decisions were made by sporting director and legendary Spanish goalkeeper Andoni ‘Zubi’ Zubizarreta. He had signed players like Neymar and Suarez and was held in high regard. But Bartomeu quickly sacked Zubi and eventually had five sporting directors in his six years.
Beneath Bartomeu were rival factions pushing for different signings – often without the coach even being informed, let alone having a say. The chaotic approach to transfers meant a host of arrivals who did not fit the system or address gaping issues within the squad.
Bartomeu’s personal role in the mega-money signing of Dembele was cataclysmic. Having just pocketed a record sum for Neymar, the club was cashed-up and under pressure from fans to deliver a big name. They rejected Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland, two of the greatest stars of the next generation. They landed on Dembele three weeks after Neymar’s departure. Bartomeu and another Barca staffer flew to meet Dembele’s Borussia Dortmund bosses. The NY Times reported that before they walked into the meeting, they agreed on a firm limit of €80m. By the end of the meeting Bartomeu agreed to pay €105m immediately plus €42m in (very attainable) performance bonuses. Even Mbappe would have been cheaper.
Rival clubs knew Barcelona would pay almost anything to land their desired targets, so bumped up their prices accordingly. But Barcelona were also victims of their own remarkable mistakes. In early 2019, they signed Ajax youngster Frenkie de Jong for €75m. The football agent who advised the Dutch club, Hasan Cetinkaya, told the Financial Times it was nearly double the figure Ajax had hoped to receive.
From the end of the 2014-15 season, when remnants of the golden generation managed to win the Champions League, Barcelona spent a staggering €989m on just 23 players (until last season). At the same time the club generated €539m in sales – but with every purchase or sale came huge fees for agents and other intermediaries, meaning the losses were far greater than they appear.
Even despite the massive spending spree, “every year we were a little bit worse,” said veteran centre-back Gerard Pique last year.
Last season’s Barcelona squad cost €826m in transfer fees to assemble (per CIES Football Observatory), the fourth highest in the world – yet they finished third in the league, their worst result since 2007-08. They were bundled out of the Champions League before the quarterfinals, and only won the minor consolation prize of the Copa del Rey. The year before, they failed to win a single trophy despite a similarly expensive squad.
Barcelona blew hundreds of millions of dollars on transfers which launched them down a spiralling path of failure and debt. And they are still paying off fees from transfers completed years ago.
At the same time, wages also skyrocketed. Messi alone earned over €555m between 2017 and 2021, and his wages reportedly tripled between 2014 and 2020. As Messi’s wages grew, so too did the demands of his teammates – demands the club failed to curb. The club’s overall wage bill grew by 61 per cent between the 2016-17 and 2020-21 seasons, outstripping their rivals across Europe.
But with the club continuing to struggle on the field, Bartomeu continued to push for bigger and bigger transfers. He was emboldened by the club’s massive revenues – over €800m or a billion pounds in the 2018-19 financial year, the first sports club to ever cross that milestone. But the club was losing money all the time, as wage and transfer spend soared above their revenue.
Then Covid-19 hit, and Barcelona’s revenue fell to €715.1m in 2019-20 then €631m in the financial year just concluded. That was due to the lack of crowds as well as numerous other factors.
But wages still had to be paid, and debts soon surged. In the 2020-21 financial year alone, they accrued debts of €481m. The total debt now stands at a crippling €1.35 billion. One of football’s greatest teams has gone from riches to rags. For comparison, Real Madrid turned a slim profit in each of the past two financial years.
New president Joan Laporta – the man who had handed Guardiola the job 13 years ago, before returning last year and ending Bartomeu’s sorry reign – said in August: “The base of everything is the previous administration’s disastrous management which we inherited.”
That is a brutal, but fair, assessment.
THE CRUMBLING CAMP NOU
Guardiola once said Barcelona and its iconic Camp Nou stadium was a ‘cathedral’ that Cruyff built. “Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona.”
The cathedral is quite literally falling apart. Stone steps and parts of the ceilings are crumbling, as fan pictures on social media frequently evidence. Tarpaulins and scaffolding semi-permanently cover external areas of the building, while bright red seats have long been bleached into grey. Recent reports said the club ignored warnings of mite and fly infestations.
“The Camp Nou stadium is literally falling down and it has to be repaired,” Barcelona’s ex-interim president Carles Tusquets told RAC1 in December 2020. “Some pieces of the ceiling are falling. We cannot have our club members hit by the pieces of the ceiling …”
Dubbed New Camp Nou, the stadium renovation is estimated to cost €420m, part of a bigger project, Espai Barca, to renovate the club’s entire stadium precinct. It is estimated to cost up to €1.5 billion – hence the club’s inability to implement the long-awaited project.
The stadium renovations include rebuilding two tiers of seating, reinforcing the rest of the arena, a host of fixes and replacements to ageing parts of the structure, and a new roof to cover the entirety of the ground. Capacity would increase from 99,354 to 105,000, bringing with it long-term commercial benefits. For now, the club is looking for investors in the project and even considering fundraising from members.
In the meantime, the stadium crumbles.
The financial crisis was one aspect behind a series of shocking decisions that created a rift between players, coaches, and the club bosses – particularly Bartomeu.
Messi publicly and privately begged Bartomeu to bring back Neymar in mid-2019, after Neymar had told him he wanted to leave PSG. PSG were willing to sell the Brazilian star for less than the world-record €222m they had paid Barcelona for his services in 2017.
Barcelona – already running out of money – baulked. Instead, they splashed out €120m for then 28-year-old Griezmann, a record fee for a footballer older than 25. Messi was infuriated, a sentiment which intensified when the club bullied Suarez out of the club and back to Atletico Madrid.
Then there was the club’s 2020 ‘Barcagate’ scandal, when then-Barcelona president 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 2020, alongside the rest of the club’s board. He was subsequently arrested by police alongside his adviser Jaume Masferrer, club CEO Oscar Grau and head of legal services Roman Gomez Ponti.
Perhaps the greatest off-field scandal of all was the club’s involvement in the ill-fated Super League concept earlier this year, an attempt to bring Europe’s biggest clubs together in a mega-money breakaway tournament. Fans – and no small number of players – were up in arms about the move, which was aborted inside 72 hours. However, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus have all committed to pushing for a revamped version of the plan, in no small part due to the financial pressures facing the trio of European heavyweights.
It was a massive blow to Barcelona’s credibility and that of the other clubs which signed up to the plan.
And with results on the field continuing to disappoint, unrest among Barcelona faithful only grew.
The most humiliating proof of the club’s fall from grace was losing Messi. The club’s amortisation on past transfers and their wage bill, Messi included, would have made up 110 per cent of their revenue this season. Under La Liga rules, total salaries and amortisations must be 70 per cent or less of the club’s revenue. Even without Messi, the club’s wages and amortisations were still 95 per cent of their revenue – showing just how unbalanced the books were.
So they were forced to part ways with their favourite son. The talisman of La Masia, the genius who embodied the slick and stylish football Barcelona espoused. His tears as his departure was announced told the story of a club in disarray after nearly a decade of mismanagement.
Messi left for free, the greatest player of all time walking out the door and joining Paris Saint-Germain without a dollar going to Barcelona’s empty pockets.
It was just the start of an epic fire sale. Barcelona’s entire squad seemed up for grabs – and even as they sold players, they could only spend only 25% of what they made in transfer fees or saved in wages, on new signings due to Spanish rules.
Griezmann was punted. Junior Firpo went to Leeds, Emerson Royal to Tottenham. 15 players departed in all, including eight first-team players, but for a relative pittance. In return, they signed a few players for free – including former Barca starlet Eric Garcia whose Manchester City contract had expired, and veteran striker Sergio Aguero after a similar situation at City. It meant their wage bill reportedly plummeted from €382 to €97m for the season – though that hardly made up for the departure of the club’s greatest-ever player.
KOEMAN AXED AS FAVOURITE SON RETURNS
Coach Ronald Koeman entered the season with a threadbare squad and little in the way of tactical fluency or cohesiveness. Despite winning the Copa del Rey the season prior, his standing was already on thin ice when things quickly went downhill.
In September, Barcelona was outclassed 3–0 at home to Bayern Munich in their Champions League opener. Two weeks later it was another 3-0 Champions League defeat away to Benfica. They would lose to league rivals Atletico then Real Madrid in October. The final straw was a 1-0 defeat to Rayo Vallecano, their first league loss to that club in 19 years. Koeman was punted after just 14 months in charge – a move that, of course, meant a multimillion-dollar payout.
Suddenly the club had lost its coach, its talismanic best player, and around half of the senior squad in mere months. Shackled with a billion-euro debt and a crumbling stadium, down in ninth in the league and struggling in the Champions League, the club had hit rock bottom.
In his last post-match interview hours before being axed, Koeman took a dig at the club’s grave situation.
“In the last few years our rivals, the best teams, were strengthened each season, while we couldn’t do it. And this is something that also counts – not in today’s game because in today’s game the injuries had a huge part.”
And yet, it still – somehow – got worse. Legendary former player Xavi returned to take the reins, but even before he stepped foot in Barcelona striker Aguero suffered chest pains midgame and was diagnosed with a serious heart arrhythmia. He has been ruled out for three months but is lucky not to be forced into retirement. Earlier injuries meant he played just five games and scored once since his arrival at the start of the season.
XAVI RIGHTS THE SHIP – FOR NOW
Nevertheless, Xavi has righted the ship for now at least. He immediately brought in former teammate Alves on a free transfer, and set about implementing a more Guardiola-esque tactical style.
Barcelona is unbeaten in three league games and an equal number in the Champions League, where qualification to the knockout stages will be decided on the final matchday in a fortnight. Barcelona would earn €9.6m in prize money for reaching the knockout stage – and every little bit helps. But with unbeaten Bayern Munich ahead, they are at serious risk of missing out on the knockouts for the first time since 2000-01 – when Xavi was a playing member of the Barcelona side.
The league is a more dire situation. If Xavi cannot turn things around quickly, seventh-place Barcelona will not qualify for next season’s Champions League, meaning they’ll miss out on a €15.64m qualification bonus (and the chance of further prize money).
To strengthen in January, Xavi will reportedly be handed a transfer budget of just €16m. It is a far cry from the days of splashing a hundred million euro on a single player. He said: “I’m still optimistic. We’re Barca; we have talent and players to make a difference … We will see what we can do on the market in January.”
But it is the need to sell players, to continue to tighten Barcelona’s once-outrageously overblown wages, that could hurt most of all. Perhaps even more than the departure of Messi.
THE BILLION-EURO WONDERKID
Pedri is the centrepiece of Barcelona’s future. Recently anointed European football’s ‘Golden Boy’ as the best youngster on the continent in a calendar year, the 18-year-old was the first Barca player to receive the award since Lionel Messi in 2005. Many who have won the award have gone on to become superstars, like Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, or Kylian Mbappe more recently.
Pedri is one of Bartomeu’s rare transfer success stories. He signed as a 17-year-old from Las Palmas ahead of last season for just €5m and immediately became a star, making 52 appearances for the club in his maiden campaign.
He also was a key figure as Spain reached the Euro 2020 semi-finals before being named Young Player of the Tournament. A month later, he reached the finals of the Olympic Games with Spain’s under-23 team, missing out on gold in extra time.
No wonder Barcelona subsequently slapped a world-record billion-euro release clause on the young central midfielder.
“The message we want to send is that we want him at Barca forever. The clause is €1bn but Pedri’s worth much more,” said president Joan Laporta when the new deal was announced.
A boyhood Barcelona fan who idolised Iniesta, Pedri declared he wished to stay “many more years after 2026”.
“These are difficult times” he said at the time. “But we are the best club in the world and we’ll go on to achieve great things.”
But Bayern Munich, sensing Barcelona’s weak financial position, are looking to poach the brilliant youngster in January. They are reportedly prepared to quadruple his wages immediately, and their opening offer to Barcelona will reportedly be a transfer fee of just €80m – a world away from his €1bn release clause.
Try as they might to hold on to one of their brightest stars, Barcelona’s dire financial situation means they could easily lose Pedri. After Messi’s departure, losing another potential generational talent would complete the humiliation.
Barcelona lost their way, caught up by the dazzling wealth of the modern game and the pursuit of glory at the cost of long-term stability. They lost arguably the world’s best coach in 2012 and stumbled on a path to ruinous debt as their stadium crumbled. Then they lost their greatest player as losses mounted on the field.
Now it is up to Xavi to revive the memories of that golden generation. To do so, he must again turn to La Masia – though the three-centuries old farmhouse has been replaced by a shining new academy.
The problems Xavi faces are gigantic in proportion. But he is already a giant of the club, and his legacy can only grow.
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