Barcelona are reeling and they need their community to heal the gaping wounds; now is the time for ‘Mes Que Un Club’ to regain its meaning. After years of activity in the boardrooms at Camp Nou turning the words sprawled across one of its stands from a motto once followed like a religion to a vehicle for mockery, the long road to recovery has been set in motion.
It was the most traumatic of summers, which saw debt confirmed at over £1bn and wages accounting for 100% of the club’s income, and there is no clear route back. For Barcelona, it has become about life and death; even Lionel Messi, their greatest ever footballer, became collateral damage. Suddenly, success stopped being measured in trophies and superstar signings, a currency they have enjoyed and taken for granted since the early 21st century and even before, but rather amassing a squad to compete in La Liga and the Champions League this season.
Messi went and, on transfer deadline day, Antoine Griezmann followed by returning to Atletico Madrid, only to be replaced by Sevilla’s former Newcastle United striker Luuk de Jong. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that he could be joined in attack by ex-Middlesbrough man Martin Braithwaite, once the latter recovers from surgery; football fans in the north east of England could be forgiven for thinking they have stepped into an alternative dimension.
When Gerard Pique offered to take a pay-cut, there was evidence that those who grew up at Barcelona are going to be there to look after it. Joan Laporta is the captain of a ship under constant threat of capsizing, but he has navigated through calmer times in the past and earned god-like status among some socios for building foundations in the image of Johan Cruyff, instilling a style of play based on possession and making the youth academy the driving force, resulting in a dynasty.
While he was away, having resigned from his first term as president in 2010 and returned earlier this year, Cruyff, La Masia and what became known as ‘tiki taka’ became less significant as the management of the club spiralled, spending money they did not have on overpriced and underperforming players. Gradually, the generation which made Barcelona one of the best club sides ever has dissipated; Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and now Messi, who was expected to be the last man standing, have left. Only Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba remain, as age begins to rob them of their peak abilities.
The only place to start again is at the bottom. Of course, Barcelona are never likely to fall down the leagues and away from relevance completely, but they have very little momentum, or money to generate any; they are ripping up and starting again. Messi’s exit, whether in a positive sense or not, has broken a deep-rooted reliance. Perhaps it is better that they have been shocked into a future without him, because for too long, he has papered over so many cracks, keeping the image of the glory years alive and masking some of the immense failings of the board. Laporta is not the main culprit and his predecessor Josep Maria Bartomeu must front up to most of the blame, but now there is nowhere to hide. Only doing things right, rather than easily, will give the club a fighting chance again.
Messi’s number 10 shirt has loomed large in its absence over the past month, but there was no way it would not be filled. It is a shirt made iconic by its evolution, not by a single player. This is not AC Milan’s number 6, retired in honour of Franco Baresi. Laporta bestowed the honour of becoming the club’s talisman on Messi in 2008, when Ronaldinho’s partying ways caught up with him and the Brazilian’s love affair with Barça came to an abrupt halt. Back then, it was a natural progression; he was 21 and ready, mentored by Ronaldinho himself, on the verge of exploding.
The next incumbent was always going to be more difficult to find, and even now it has been confirmed that Ansu Fati will take the reigns, there are things that need to be clarified. In an ideal world, Ansu, and the other precociously talented teenager in the team, Pedri, would develop under Messi’s wing, but now they’ll have to pick up some of the slack themselves, especially since Griezmann has also gone. He was rightly criticised for failing to justify Barça’s hefty outlay in 2019, but he also represented an experienced, proven player who could have grown into the spotlight without Messi, keeping it warm for the young pretenders as they readied themselves. Ansu will now be the man in focus because he has the number on his back.
Arguments can sometimes be too simplistic. Suggesting Ansu Fati could be swallowed up by the pressure because of his age alone could fall into that category. But renewing that number doesn’t just signal moving on from Messi – it is the best way to represent a change in expectation at Barcelona. At 18, Ansu will not run games like Messi in his early 20s and he is unlikely to match his goal tally of the high 30s, which he registered in Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning debut season, his first wearing that iconic, expectant shirt. That isn’t just simply down to Ansu’s readiness — he has everything needed to become world class very soon — but rather the state of Barcelona as a club.
In some ways it could be the best decision they could have made but in others, it is dangerous. Which way will it go? That depends. If Ansu becomes the face of a new collective-inspired side, able to be viewed simply as a cog in a machine that needs time to grow, improve and impress, then this can work perfectly. If the new number is taken too literally and he becomes crushed under the weight of unfair Messi comparisons, this way trouble awaits.
In short, this is a real test of whether Barcelona can become the club they need to be to climb out of their version of hell.