Monday, December 05, 2022

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Barcelona- Mes Que Un Resurgence, Or Unheeded Warning

Joan Laporta (via FC Barcelona.com

They say you never forget your first, and the new- or should that be not so new- Barcelona have been giving your correspondent cause to look back, all misty-eyed, at the sort of chance most of us who follow the enthralling and at times downright unforgiving mistress that is football crave- a visit to the Nou Camp. As a fresh- faced (well, at least fresher than nowadays) eighteen year old young buck, the morning of February 17, 2005 brought with it a surprise possibly even greater than the fact I was old enough to both drink and vote now- my parents had actually listened to the sort of wittering about the beautiful game that I could have sworn had driven them to distraction and we were off to Catalonia's great other cathedral besides the Sagrada Familia.

 

 

Having built it, why wouldn't you want to fill the team playing in it with a good few of the world's best players at the time just to show off? Having won the presidential election in 2003 it was time for Joan Laporta to deliver, and he did. Ronaldinho's arrival from Paris Saint Germain the same year is most likely the best remembered of those who came in thanks to some quite frankly outrageous flashes of skill. But lest we forget Frank Rijkaard could also call on the likes of Deco and the home-grown young Catalan spine of Xavi- now managing the club in his own right- Andres Iniesta & Carles Puyol in the then unlikely event they found themselves in a pickle.

 

Little wonder then that myself and other football tourists were so keen. But like all good such stories, the build-up is in retrospect more prosaic. Coming off the back of Barca's centenary in 1999, a failure to keep pace with Real Madrid in terms of European success was enough to see then- president Josep Lluis Nunez & manager Louis Van Gaal fall on their swords despite a decent domestic campaign ending in a La Liga and Copa Del Rey double for the Blaugrana.

 

It's tempting to suggest, following his return to office in March of last year, that a similar issue may have been the catalyst for predecessor Josep Maria Bartomeu announcing his resignation on October 27, 2020. With Ronald Koeman unable to build on his success as a player in Catalonia's most famous dugout and following him out of the exit door almost exactly a year later.

 

Enter the returning Laporta and Xavi, tempted back home from a spell in Qatar with Al- Sadd to lead from the front. On the surface, and in any other circumstances, it may have seemed that all was peachy. As ever where finance is involved, though, the reality was anything but! With the club's debt standing at 1.35 billion Euros and Lionel Messi's, well, messy departure to PSG leaving something of a bad taste in the mouth, it seemed a good stemming of the cash flow was in order.

 

Yet in recent weeks it seems they've managed to rub a bit of the green after all, splashing the cash on Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich after eight trophy- laden years in the Bundesliga, and Raphinha from Leeds. It’s the latter signing which proves the president's philosophy hasn't changed all that much. Build your team around a smiling Brazilian assassin & reap the rewards, runs the theory. Worked well enough with Ronaldo at the attacking helm during his one season in the famous old shirt, as well.

 

But as we've seen ironically enough with Real Madrid, such splurging has consequences, as Barcelona themselves should know! Rightly enough given their previously reported dire straits, the spotlight has rightly turned on just how they're able to do so, as it did with Real, and sales of comparative flop signings of the calibre of Philipe Countinho, himself recruited from Liverpool for a mind- blowing fee, tell only half the story.

 

The other is firmly rooted off the pitch- deals to sell 25 per cent of future television rights and 49 per cent of the club's merchandising operation. These alone were expected to rake in between 510-595 million Euros.

 

It could be said that in spending at least some of that cash on sanctioning the Lewandowski and Raphinha moves he's already gone against one of his own key pledges, to invest in the famed La Masia academy and by extension the players it produces-

 

"What can guarantee the club's future is La Masia: we'll present a project with a new methodology to make La Masia a centre of excellence central to our focus."

 

Which in itself is potentially a costly mistake to risk making, as Real Madrid and their own head honcho Florentino Perez have shown in the past, a Zidanes y Pavons policy slowly eroding to make way for more Zidanes and squeeze the Pavons out!

 

Surely, though, this would not be allowed to pass at the Nou Camp, Xavi himself having come through the system at the same time as another of his predecessors as manager and indeed a former team mate in his playing days. Pep Guardiola arguably currently doing a better job of spreading a style of play rooted in the Barcelona- honed teachings of Johan Cruyff with Manchester City than those charged with playing on his old stomping ground. A memory no doubt as fresh in the minds of those who witnessed it as the end result of Laporta's heady promises in the early days of his first tilt at the highest office in the Nou Camp.

 

The one thing they surely can't afford to lose, untouchable by even money, is their own identity, of which tiki- taka was a key plank. Some may feel that their identity is compromised enough by taking on paying front of shirt sponsors over the last decade, the recently inked deal with Spotify the latest after first Qatar Airways and then Rakuten helped themselves to a little reflected glory after years of no such thing even being remotely entertained by the Barca hierarchy...

 

What price the soul of a club though- surely the very thing that first drew in followers such as myself, Catalan or otherwise? While Raphinha may prove himself every bit as good as the two Ronnies who came before him, after taking a little of the stardust and indeed pressure that comes with that off Kalvin Phillips in West Yorkshire. His goal against Brentford on the last day of last season helped save Leeds from relegation, not a bad last act before exiting Elland Road stage left. Meanwhile, “Lewy” will no doubt relish testing himself against La Liga's defences and probably carry on hitting the back of the onion bag with staggering regularity. There's every chance it may feel a little hollow to some- and if that comes to pass it'll prove a crying shame should the same mistakes which so nearly took Barca to the brink of the wall be repeated, Laporta is not exactly a man known for his patience!

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