Sacking Zubizarreta a sign of Barcelona crisis

There are some very real problems at Barcelona, and the firing of the club’s sports director this week is the latest signal that the once almighty team has entered into meltdown.
Barcelonas coach Luis Enrique watches Lionel Messi on the ball. Picture: GettyBarcelonas coach Luis Enrique watches Lionel Messi on the ball. Picture: Getty
Barcelonas coach Luis Enrique watches Lionel Messi on the ball. Picture: Getty

Many neutrals have enjoyed watching Lionel Messi and his team-mates win again and again in recent years and there are plenty in Barcelona longing for the days when Pep Guardiola led the team to 14 of a possible 19 trophies in a four-year span.

Not to mention a good deal of envy for Real Madrid’s tenth European Cup victory last year and their Spanish record 22-match winning streak to end 2014.

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The sense of impending doom that has settled over Camp Nou since the firing of Andoni Zubizarreta on Monday had been festering for more than a year, and it finally came to a head last week when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Barcelona’s appeal against Fifa’s one-year transfer ban for violating rules regarding the registration of youth players.

Until then, the club had insisted – and many of their fans had believed – that they would win their case and the harsh penalty would never be applied. Now the reality of a season with no new players for an ageing squad is settling in.

Barcelona’s faithful will have their chance to express themselves at home matches against Elche in the Copa del Rey tonight before Sunday’s meeting with defending league champions, Atletico Madrid. Many disgruntled supporters will have their handkerchiefs handy in case the team loses.

With president Josep Bartomeu calling for early elections instead of seeing out his mandate until 2016, Barcelona greats Johan Cruyff and Hristo Stoichkov have lamented the state of their former club.

“I believe Barcelona is heading toward chaos,” Stoichkov said. “There are too many controversies. I don’t understand it.”

On the pitch, Barca have continued to churn out wins against lesser teams. That steady stream of lopsided scorelines and Messi goal records – this season he has broken both the Spanish and Champions League scoring marks – covers up the club’s biggest failure – their incapacity to keep top talent both on and off the field.

First, Guardiola left the club in 2012. President Sandro Rosell resigned last year and top players Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Cesc Fabregas have not been replaced. The most perplexing part of Barcelona’s decline is that most of the blows have been self-inflicted by the myriad of legal cases plaguing the club. Besides the Fifa ban that has damaged the reputation of their once-lauded football academy, Rosell left amid a lawsuit into the transfer of Neymar, while Messi is mired in a tax fraud case.

Messi, so far, is holding Barcelona together, but there has been a breakout of Messi-mania recently because of reports that the club’s all-time leading scorer is not happy with coach Luis 

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The arrival of Luis Enrique – the club’s fourth coach in as many seasons – was labelled as a return to the Guardiola model of a player coming home. But his erratic line-up choices, which included resting Messi and Neymar for the first half in Sunday’s 1-0 loss at Real Sociedad that cost Barcelona the provisional league lead, have erased any comparisons other than unfavourable ones with Guardiola.

Yesterday, Luis Enrique denied that his relationship with Messi had soured.

“I have the same relationship since the start of the season with all the players. Nothing has changed,” the coach said.

When pressed on whether he had argued with Messi, he said: “Things inside the changing room, on the field, stay there. I won’t confirm or deny them. That’s not my job.”

Now, the transfer ban until 2016 means that the club’s institutional crisis has finally spilled over to become a sporting 
disaster as well.

Zubizarreta’s latest batch of reinforcements from last year have not panned out. Even if Luis Suarez recovers his scoring prowess after one goal in nine league games, Barcelona have slipped in midfield and defence. Ivan Rakitic and Rafina are no Fabregas and Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen (still to make his debut because of injuries) are far from the second comings of Puyol and Abidal. Mainstays Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are showing their age at 34 and 30, respectively. Gerard Pique is not the dominant defender he was and Dani Alves’ contract is up at the end of the season, pointing to his exit.

As Sergio Busquets has said, “football evolves.”

“It’s impossible for things to stay the same,” the Spain midfielder said in November. “We won’t see the best Barca again.”