The end of an era: Barcelona F.C’s downfall

February 19, 2021

It is incredibly painful to watch Barcelona’s latest 4-1 defeat against Paris Saint-Germain, especially for anyone who fell in love with the game of soccer in the late 2000s or early 2010s. The appointment of the legendary midfielder Josep (Pep) Guardiola as the manager during the summer of 2008 marked the beginning of a new era in world soccer. Pep’s team went on to complete the sextuple (winning the league title, domestic cup, UEFA Champions League, domestic super cup, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA World Cup in the same season) and claimed the title of “Best Team in the World” from Alex Ferguson’s legendary Manchester United, whom they beat 2-0 in the 2009 Champions League Final. This kind of an achievement was unmatched in soccer history until last Thursday, Feb. 11, when Bayern München won the FIFA World Cup and became the second team in history to complete the sextuple. Guardiola’s revolutionary strategy, tiki-taka, was so successful that the Spanish national team, which at the time was mainly composed of Barcelona players, won the 2010 World Cup without Guardiola’s coaching simply because they used the same tactic they had been using in club competitions. 

It wasn’t until May 2010 that a manager developed an antithesis for Guardiola’s play. The Champions League semi-final clash between Inter Milan and Barcelona was the first major defeat Pep’s side had faced. Jose Mourinho, the manager of Inter Milan, was later appointed as the manager of Barça’s archrival Real Madrid with only one mission: displacing the Catalans from the top of the league. Although Mourinho is often credited with finding the “antithesis” of tiki-taka, he only won two games, drew four and lost five against the Catalan mastermind during his career in Spain. This only means one thing: Nothing could have stopped Barcelona, nothing but themselves. 

In the summer of 2012, Pep parted ways with the Catalan club after facing heavy criticism, mainly because of the disappointment in the Champions League semi-final matchup against Chelsea. With Lionel Messi, who evolved to be the best player of his time under Guardiola’s management, taking the leadership, Barcelona won another Champions League trophy in 2015 and won the league five more times. They even had another golden era led by the famous trio MSN (initials of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar Jr.). Although Pep’s legacy in Barça was unmatched by any other manager, it would be unfair to say Pep’s departure was the sole reason Barça is where it is right now.     

Surprisingly, Barça’s downfall begins on the night of “La Remontada” (The Comeback), one of the most glorious nights in the history of Barcelona. The Catalan side, who had lost the first leg of the Round of 16 matchup 4-0 against Paris Saint-Germain, returned to Camp Nou to perform one of the most impossible miracles in the history of football. Led by the Brazillian star Neymar Jr., Barcelona managed to beat the Parisians 6-1 and advanced to the quarter-finals with an aggregate score of 6-5. According to the reports, Paris Saint-Germain’s billionaire president Nasser Al-Khelaifi decided to sign Neymar Jr. at any cost after seeing his incredible display that night. This dream of Al-Khelaifi became reality during the summer transfer window of 2017 when Paris Saint-Germain paid €222 million euros to sign the Brazilian winger. This move not only cost Barça a star player but also it was the first time that the Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi expressed his distrust towards the Barcelona board.

Ironically enough, in the next two Champions League campaigns, Barcelona faced two humiliating comebacks themselves, losing 3-0 to Roma in 2018 (4-4 on aggregate, Roma wins by away goals rule) and 4-0 to Liverpool in 2019 (4-3 on aggregate). The ending of the 2020 Champions League campaign was even more humiliating, as the Catalans lost 8-2 to the eventual Champions League winners Bayern München. In the meantime, Barça only managed to win three domestic cups, which is definitely not in their standards. 

But what exactly went wrong? The simple answer would be that the board made terrible mistakes, the first being not replacing Guardiola properly. Pep was replaced by his assistant Tito Vilanova who sadly passed away after a year. He was then replaced by Gerardo Martino who yielded his place to Luis Enrique and the managers that followed Enrique were Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien and finally Ronald Koeman. After Pep, Barcelona never had an “alpha-manager” who could impact the game as much as Pep did. This was an intentional move. The underlying motive behind this was to maintain Lionel Messi’s status as the sole leader of the team. 

The board of Barça trusted Messi so much that they never dared to appoint a manager that would clash with the Argentinian’s ego. One way or another, this strategy worked as long as Barça was able to sign stars that would accompany Leo. However, the money of the club is finite and reports last year revealed that Barça is in a financial nightmare –– a financial disaster so bad that last summer the board had to let go two big stars of the team, Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez, for free just to get rid of the financial burden of their contracts. With things looking this bad, the summer transfer window of 2020 was full of talks about Messi leaving his boyhood club. Although the Argentinian announced that he will continue to play for Barça until his contract ends in 2021, partly due to his unpayable €700 million euros release clause, it is almost certain that the superstar will not finish his professional career where he started it. 

The future looks dark for the Catalans, at least in the near future. Their 2021 Champions League campaign will probably end in March with their second-leg matchup against Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid is leading with nine points with a game in hand in La Liga and their superstar who shaped the last decade of the club is set to leave in the summer. If Barcelona is to rise from its ashes there can only be one possible way: La Masia. The club’s youth academy is still one of the finest in the world and is capable of producing world-class young talents that can help Barça reach the top of the world one more time. La Masia’s role in the Guardiola era was inarguable, producing talents like Xavier Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Lionel Messi, etc. With a little patience, Barça can accomplish great things again, getting its power from the legendary La Masia. One way or another, it is sad to watch one of the greatest clubs in football history dissolve.