Earlier this week, during a raid in the port city of Alicante, Spanish police confiscated a batch of hallucinogenic chocolates that had been molded into the shape of the FC Barcelona crest. The chocolates, which were allegedly laced with marijuana and mushrooms, had been disguised as soccer-themed candies by the only person arrested in the operation, a master confectioner nicknamed “Willy Wonka.” The incident gave rise to a whole host of significant questions. For instance: Isn’t “Willy Wonka” pretty much the only possible nickname for any master confectioner freelancing in black-market drug work? Was there even a fallback option for this guy? Is “master confectioner baking controlled substances into candy products” the topic heading of basically the shallowest nickname pool known to humanity? Is the phrase “my candy guy, Willy Wonka” inevitably followed by a bemused chorus of “which one?” at drug-kingpin summits? How does the fraternal organization of master confectioners keep its narcotics mailers straight?
Anyway, as drug operas go, the downfall of Willy Wonka was maybe a few rails shy of Scarface. Where FC Barcelona was concerned, though, it felt portentous. For a half-decade and more, Barça’s tiki-taka soccer has been celebrated for — just listing some traits — evading capture, holding (the ball), and giving fans a sweet, relaxing, mildly psychedelic experience. This season, though, and especially in the last few weeks, soccer’s mellow darlings have cruised into uptight weather. It’s not hard to picture Xavi stirring a vat of bubbling cocoa butter while Iniesta peeks between the blinds at some ominously approaching red and blue lights.
What happened? In April, Barça lost three games in a row for the first time since 2003,1 were knocked out of the Champions League by their lesser Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid, lost to their blood enemies Real Madrid in the final of the Copa del Rey, dropped a league match to Granada (“the club your grandparents forgot about”), found themselves flirting with third place in La Liga, got hit with a 14-month transfer ban for breaking rules in signing foreign youth players, and watched Lionel Messi lapse into what almost felt like a normal human slump. While all this was happening, political infighting within the club’s board surged to Hilary Mantel–novel temperatures, the coach became a lame duck, and content providers around the world trampled over each other to get “Is this the end for the Barcelona dynasty?” content out.2
Well, is it? And if so, who’s to blame? Let’s take this point by point.
You could confidently date the arrival of Barcelona as the defining club of this soccer era to the moment in April 2007 when the 19-year-old Leo Messi scored this goal against Getafe. (How long ago was April 2007, by the way? Frank Rijkaard was the Barça coach. I’m pretty sure that means Tutankhamun was the pharaoh of Egypt.) Not only was it a work of physical genius in its own right, it was a near-perfect re-creation of the most famous goal ever scored by Messi’s fellow Argentine Diego Maradona; it was one of those moments in sports when sheer unlikelihood creates the impression of magic. Barça didn’t win the title that year, but there was already something about them that seemed supernaturally touched — the way they donated the space on the front of their jerseys to UNICEF, the way Messi had overcome a growth-hormone deficiency to become the world’s most promising young player. Their admittedly self-serving motto, “More than a club,” seemed hard to deny; you couldn’t classify them in the same group with any other soccer team. They were different.
Over the next seven years, Messi did something magical about twice a week. He scored 73 goals in 60 appearances in 2011-12, won 14 trophies in four years under Pep Guardiola, took home every individual award in soccer, and became, by a huge margin, the most adored player in the European game. Which is why this season has been such a shock: Nagged by injury3 and doubts about his ability to mesh with high-profile Brazilian signing Neymar, Messi has averaged less than a goal a game for the first time in three seasons. Before his winner against Athletic Bilbao last weekend, Messi had gone seven games without scoring a non-penalty goal, and that stretch included those key losses to Atleti and Real in the Champions League and Copa del Rey. So: Is Messi, at 26, in decline? Is it time for Barça to move him and build the squad around the younger, hotter, and more Rufio-from-Hook-resembling Neymar?
Verdict: Are you joking? You are joking. Messi has scored 39 goals in 42 games this season. He netted two the day he returned from the hamstring injury. And do you realize how ridiculous “he hadn’t scored a non-penalty goal for seven games until his winner against Athletic” is as the definition of a slump? Messi has been the best player in the world for the length of the 2010s. It is way, way, way too early to write him off.
Rating: 0 of 10 adorable Argentine teddy bears
Since signing with Barça for €57 million last summer, Neymar and his interesting hair have managed just 15 goals in 40 appearances. They’ve also spawned a prosecutorial investigation into the legality of his transfer fee that’s already taken down the club’s president.4 Maybe most troubling of all, he just sort of doesn’t look like a dude who would be comfortable playing second fiddle to Messi. (I know, #analysis, but if you think that sort of consideration isn’t the unacknowledged fuel behind a ton of forum debate, I have some hard evidence that Alex Ferguson isn’t actually an alcoholic to sell you.) He’s got slender bones and a pronounced cock-of-the-walk quality, like someone the Three Musketeers would realize they respected only after they’d already killed him.
Verdict: I’m not totally sold on Neymar as the future of European soccer, but he’s searingly talented and he’s trying to break into a club that — with its still-intact La Masia contingent — is not always accessible to outsiders. The critique that he’s been stifled by having to play in a system designed around Messi is in no sense a reason to dump Messi, but there might be enough truth to it to warrant giving him another season.
Rating: 2 of 10 horrorcore Daniel Boone faux-hawks
The Relentless March of Time
I first predicted the end of Barcelona in May 2011. Since then, the Catalans have won La Liga twice, a Copa del Rey, a Champions League title, and a FIFA Club World Cup; the Spanish national team, which features a core of Barcelona players, won Euro 2012. So there is a certain amount of evidence that I don’t know anything whatsoever. On the other hand, it was at least not plausible three full seasons ago to worry that time and wear were catching up to Barça’s midfield and defense. As of today, Xavi is 34, Carles Puyol is 36, Dani Alves is 30, and even some of Blaugrana’s younger players — say, the 29-year-old Andres Iniesta — have logged so many kilometers on deep runs into club and national-team competitions that their cartilage is nostalgic for music their parents grew up with. Is Barcelona just too old to compete?
Verdict: It’s complicated! Neither of tiki-taka’s twin pistons, Xavi and Iniesta, has been in peak form this season, and for Barça, a weary Xavi is worse than a red card. On the other hand, most of the squad isn’t old at all (Busquets, 25; Pique, 27; Fabregas, 26; Song, 26; Neymar, 22; et al.) and there’s a phalanx of eager 23-year-olds ready to bounce into war at a nod from the manager. It’s less the case that time has decimated the club than that time and a sometimes-wack transfer policy have left it a little unbalanced.
Rating: 4 of 10 winged hourglasses
OK, they were never going to replace Pep Guardiola. But Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s tactics have irked Barça socios in pretty predictable ways. He hasn’t shown Guardiola’s flair for cultivating youth players (weird, since Guardiola used to manage the youth team). He’s worn out the senior players by giving them too many minutes; he makes confusing substitutions. He’s willing to move away from tiki-taka if he thinks maybe holding the ball only 84 percent of the time and occasionally attempting a seven-yard pass gives his team the best chance to win. He’s reached into the club’s DNA and emerged with nothing but damp forearms, and all the while, he just stands there in the technical area, visibly not being Pep Guardiola, I mean audaciously just existing as a human being who probably wouldn’t even answer if you addressed him as “Pep”; it’s maddening. Is Tata to blame for the club’s disastrous April?
Verdict: It doesn’t matter, because he’s going to be fired no matter what happens, and that may ultimately be the biggest problem here. Part of what Guardiola gave Barça during his tenure was a respite from the sandstorm of manager panic that seems to assail just about every top club just about all the time. Every year until Guardiola announced he was leaving, they knew he would be running the team the next season, which meant not just freedom from some vaguely defined “distraction” but freedom from ego clashes and jockeying for influence over the direction of the team. But while Guardiola came in to the Barça job as an untouchable saint, Martino has been, from the very beginning, just a regular schlub in the office, and that, more than his tactics, has hurt the squad’s focus.
Actually, you could make the case that Martino’s tactics have been not so bad, because the weird thing is that Barça actually looked good as a counterattacking club. They beat Rayo Vallecano 4-0 early in the season while holding the ball less than their opponent, which is a little like saying the ’27 Yankees thrived playing small ball, or that yes, of course Brad Pitt looked better after the acid attack. It was only after sustained complaints about the direction of the club’s style that Martino tacked back toward Xaviball. And that was right around when everything started to go wrong.
Sub-verdict: Sports are extremely ridiculous.
Rating: 7 of 10 waterfowl plodding forward on crutches
I’m not even sure how to describe the Barcelona board in the wake of club president Sandro Rosell’s resignation over the Neymar transfer. It’s sort of like … well, remember your middle school lunchroom? Now set that on Westeros.
Verdict: Spanish businessmen do not always mean it when they tell each other they are friends.
Rating: 35 of 10 blood-spattered copies of Sweet Valley High: Wrong Kind of Girl
The Transfer Ban
It’s been suspended pending appeal, so the club will be able to sign new players this summer. But in general, breaking the rules on signing overseas youth players 10 separate times is kind of a dick move if you’re selling your brand as the embodiment of liberal enlightenment. You make your motto “More than a club,” you have to act with a certain uprightness. Probably why Real Madrid went with “Will cheat to win” instead.
Verdict: Uncertain, depending on the appeal. At least the club will be able to sign new players this summer to (1) shore up the defense, and (2) replace Puyol and goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who both want out after this year. On the other hand, I’m not sure this is the panacea some people are implying, given that the new players will be bought by many of the same inebriated burghers who crafted this mess in the first place.
Rating: ? of 10 flamboyant midfielders who have somehow failed to recapture the form they displayed with Dinamo Minsk last season
An Eroding Sense of Identity in a World That Doesn’t Care
In 2007, when Messi scored his wondergoal against Getafe, Barcelona was one of the last big European clubs to refuse corporate shirt sponsorship. Instead of taking a huge payday to shill for some fly-by-match-fixing betting site, the club donated the space on the front of its jerseys to UNICEF, which, even in the most worldly interpretation, was the kind of PR boost you couldn’t buy. Then, in 2010, it turned out you could buy it, and Barça accepted a €150 million deal with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development — basically a fig-leaf transaction whereby the Qatari government purchased the club’s moral aura to help with its World Cup bid.5 Now, with new abuses in Qatar’s labor market coming to light seemingly every day, and as many as 1,200 Indian and Nepalese migrant workers already dead in World Cup construction, we’re watching a strange phenomenon play out at the Camp Nou every week: Soccer’s most admired club, which self-consciously stands for freedom and liberation, is advertising its ties to the worst offender in the sport.
Verdict: It’s not as though having a Qatar Foundation logo on the front of your shirt makes you run slower. But I’m not convinced that the increasing air of cynicism around Barcelona has no practical effect. The club’s golden era was special in part because it involved players who seemed to understand and believe in what FC Barcelona stood for. You can sneer at this, but that shared belief was at least partly the basis of the teamwork that made the club so formidable. Well, what does Barcelona stand for now? Having UNICEF on your shirt doesn’t make you league champions — but having it, then selling it, then watching as the hypocrisy of your club’s dealings is exposed gradually year over year? That has to make you at least a tiny bit more selfish, a tiny bit less willing to give yourself up to the cause. I’m talking about slivers of percents, maybe just the effect of enemy crowds chanting a fraction louder. But soccer at a high level is often decided by slivers of percents.
Rating: 3 of 10 long, slow sighs at the fallenness of the world
What’s happened to Barça, in other words, and also of course, has more to do with a complex interplay of factors than with any one cause.6 What you see, running down a list like this, is that, given the opportunity to buy new players, the chance to start over with a new coach next season, Messi’s impending return to form, etc., the on-pitch stuff still has a chance to be OK. It’s the other component of the Barcelona dynasty that may be lost forever. I mean the sense that the club isn’t just like everyone else.