Barcelona passed through an arch Sunday as it walked out of a catastrophic offseason and onto the Camp Nou pitch, into the new La Liga season. It was branded by a sponsor. “Believe in the future,” it read. That felt a little on the nose, given the ongoing crisis at the club. What was there to believe in, amid all the raging fires?
Before the game, the club put out a video intended to rally the club’s fans around the cause. “We did it and we will” was the message. It showed a few flashes of Barca going through tough times and then some triumphant ones, featuring Lionel Messi prominently, and ending with new manager Ronald Koeman’s famous Champions League-winning free kick in 1992, back when he starred for the club as a goal-scoring defender.
The subtext was unmistakable. Things are difficult, but they will get better.
It seemed not even Barca itself expected things to go well this season. But then it brashly took a 4-0 lead over Villarreal before halftime in its belated league opener on Sunday, cruising to a win by the same score.
Yet things have been difficult indeed. Following last season’s failure to win a single trophy for the first time since the 2007-08 season, blighted by the 8-2 elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals, Barca fired manager Quique Setien and technical director Eric Abidal. That set in motion a chain of events that only seemed to make things worse.
To illustrate just what a mess things have been, it looked like Koeman wouldn’t be able to manage Barca against Villarreal because the club had bungled Setien’s dismissal somehow, causing the latter to sue. Koeman’s paperwork with the federation could not be processed until the matter was resolved.
Meanwhile, the club’s members have forced a vote of no-confidence in president Josep Bartomeu, who has already committed to accelerated elections in early 2021, rather than the summer. But the disquiet is such that the club wants him out immediately. It seems like Messi certainly does.
Messi marks his 20th year with the club by riding in open rebellion against it, disgusted by its decline and myriad failures, frustrated by the refusal to let him leave over the summer, but backing down from a legal fight over a clause in his contract that he argued released him from the final season. Messi will likely leave next summer instead.
The once-all-powerful Messi, being held against his will, has already clashed with Koeman, who took something of a scorched-earth approach to the job he worked toward all his coaching career. He began by telling Messi he would no longer be the recipient of special privileges. Then he informed academy prodigy Riqui Puig, the rare La Masia product to break through these days, that he wouldn’t be playing much this season and ought to go out on loan. Stranger still, Philippe Coutinho, the club’s most expensive player ever but a bust who spent the last two seasons on loan with Bayern Munich, was brought back, whereupon Koeman stuck him straight into the starting lineup on Sunday.
The club dumped veterans Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Luis Suarez in recent weeks for practically nothing. The departures of Suarez and Vidal, both close friends of Messi’s, have rankled the superstar captain further.
There is more turmoil to come. A new president could well dump Koeman at the earliest opportunity, as it’s common for Spanish club presidents to install their own coaches and superstars. One of the leading candidates for the presidency — for which Bartomeu is no longer eligible — wants to bring club icon Xavi back as manager, in a move reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s appointment in 2008.
For all that difficulty, for all of the drama, Barca sank the Yellow Submarine, as Villarreal is nicknamed, in short order. Academy product Ansu Fati struck twice in the opening 20 minutes. And when he was brought down in the Villarreal box, Messi converted the penalty. An own goal before halftime killed off what little life remained in the game, making for a lifeless second half.
Barca’s performance did not transcend. It wasn’t driven on by some individual excellence. Fati’s finishes were clean. Messi went quiet for long stretches of the game. It wasn’t a vintage display of the club’s virtues. Rather, Koeman’s side was relentlessly competent. It was effective, taking a commanding lead through quick transitions, and then it locked up the remainder of the contest. It was less a statement than a blueprint.
But then it was also a statement. A statement that in the midst of all these overlapping emergencies, Barca might also just still be a good soccer team.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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