Barcelona's incompetence should be celebrated at a time of stark inequality

Barcelona’s incompetence should be celebrated at a time of stark inequality

The winner of the 2022 Football Book of the Year award is Simon Kuper’s Barca, who was originally set to explain how Barcelona became the most revered football club in the world.

During Kuper’s research, however, the situation changed.

Barcelona were no longer the most revered club in the world. On the contrary, they were downright mocked for their misfortune at the board level.

The book was published just before Lionel Messi left on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain last summer, which came about because the club were in such a ridiculous state that they couldn’t register it in as a player, although he wants to keep Messi and Messi wants to stay.

His final chapter is simply titled ‘The Messi Club’, and although it was written before he left, you almost feel the inevitable reading it. And so the book’s subtitle became ‘The rise and fall of the club that built modern football’, a bit more negative than an earlier version, ‘The inside story of the greatest football club in the world “.

But this negative spin, ultimately, is not negative for football. We’re supposed to be appalled by Barcelona’s incompetent management, but modern football desperately needs tales of doom like this to retain any level of competitive balance.

At the start of this century, there was a wonderful time in Spanish football when Barcelona and Real Madrid were obviously the two biggest clubs, but both were run terribly. There were squabbles in boardrooms, bad managerial appointments and a star striker obsession with consistent football.

Barcelona appointed coaches who couldn’t control the dressing room and Real ignored the concept of defence.

It meant Valencia and Deportivo La Coruña could win the title, and Real Sociedad and Villarreal could challenge. It was a competitive league, but still very strong – Spain had, according to UEFA coefficients, the best league by far.

Messi swapped one superclub for another last summer as he wanted to stay at Barcelona (Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Some two decades later, the defining theme of modern football is the level of inequality itself. This, clearly, stems from financial inequality.

At the turn of the century, the highest wage bill in the Premier League was around three and a half times higher than the lowest. In 2020-2021, it was about eight times more, and the consequence is that the gap between big and small clubs on the pitch is also huge, and the seasons are more predictable than ever.

This has all come to be seen as completely consistent with the story, which it simply isn’t.

Bayern Munich have been the biggest club in German football for ages, but until a decade ago they had never won more than three league titles in a row. Now they have won 10 on the rebound.

The “problem” with Bayern isn’t just their financial advantage, it’s that they (and most German clubs, for that matter) are fundamentally well run.

Bayern’s finances are healthy. Their salary expenses are relatively under control. They resist unnecessary splurges on big players they don’t need. They generally make good managerial appointments. They recruit promising good players from domestic rivals, which simultaneously strengthens them and weakens potential challengers.

The upshot of all this, of course, is that Bayern’s financial advantage translates directly into home advantage, and the Bundesliga becomes the most uncompetitive major league in football history.

If Barcelona were so well managed, maybe there would be a comparable situation in Spain.

Probably not quite to the same extent, because there’s been this ‘big two’ in La Liga for a long time, which Atletico Madrid did excellently to turn into a ‘big three’.

But had Barcelona been handled well over the past decade, they would have been just as relentless.

They generated the highest revenue of any sports club in the world. They could have signed all the best players, they would get over 90 points every season and they probably would have won 90% of the league titles. Instead, they’ve ‘only’ won five of the last 10 (and none of the last three), while Real Madrid have won three and Atletico the other two.

This relative balance has been achieved thanks to Real’s excellent team, Atletico’s excellent manager and various other factors, but it also depends on Barcelona’s incompetence.

And while the extent of the mismanagement at Barcelona is truly astonishing and is brilliantly explained in Kuper’s book, they managed to finish as (distant) runners-up last season, even though they adapted to the life after longtime talisman Messi and have dealt with a mid-season manager change. They destroyed title-bound Real 4-0 at the Bernabeu in March.

The betting markets, meanwhile, imply that they have around a 35% chance of winning La Liga in the coming season. In terms of modern football they are considered to be in crisis, but in terms of historical football they are just going through something quite normal: going from the best team in their country to – shock, horror – second or maybe – be the third best team in their nation. .

At this point, it’s worth drawing a line between Europe’s ‘superclubs’ and everyone else – a line that’s depressingly easy to draw.

Apart from superclubs, badly run football clubs are disastrous and their owners should face tougher penalties.

The (until recently) very real prospect of Derby County, two-time English champions in the 1970s, going bankrupt would have been dire for the city and for domestic football. The recent disappearances of Bury and Macclesfield Town demonstrate that it is still possible for well-supported clubs to fall back – and it is always the long-suffering fans who are forced to pick up the pieces.

But modern superclubs are now probably too big to fail, and in the grand scheme of things Barcelona fans aren’t really ‘suffering’, let alone ‘long-suffering’. The consequence of mismanagement basically means that they haven’t been able to sign as many top players as they would like, or hire an established manager.

Instead, they were forced to build around youngsters such as Gavi and Pedri, with relative novice and former Barcelona star Xavi Hernandez as coach; which actually feels like the stuff of another great era, and something more meaningful and typical of the club’s philosophy than if their team was built around, to use random examples, Paul Pogba and Leon Goretzka with, say , Antonio Conte in the canoe.

Either way, they’ll be fine. And in the long run, fans tend to appreciate the misery a bit anyway.

Manchester City fans of a certain vintage speak nostalgically of the club’s nadir, a 2-1 loss to now non-League York City in December 1998 in the third tier of English play, using that memory as a badge of honor. honor to show that they are true fans. Barcelona fans will one day boast of being there all season when Luuk de Jong played for them; it’s not quite the same thing, but in superclub terms it’s the nadir.

Of course, if we need the biggest clubs in the world to go through an astonishing existential crisis just to experience the horrors of finishing second or third for a few seasons, football has serious problems.

But that’s apparently their worst-case scenario, so we really shouldn’t be ranting about rank incompetence in super club boardrooms – football desperately needs more.

(Top image: Sam Richardson for The Athletic)


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