Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, the man whose head was on the Christmas list of a considerable portion of Barcelona supporters, was relieved of his duties after four-and-a-half years of service to the club – or disservice if you are among his more extreme critics.
The timing of the dismissal comes as no surprise, just a day after Zubi’s not-so-subtle remarks regarding President Josep Maria Bartomeu’s parcel of responsibility in relation to the transfer ban imposed by FIFA, which was ratified by the Court of Arbitration for Sport [CAS] last week.
“Relieved of his duties” seems a particularly fitting expression given Zubizarreta’s predicament. The decision must come as a relief even to the former sporting director himself, a diligent and loyal servant who has silently endured a hostile work environment, becoming the scapegoat for all things gone wrong at Barcelona in the recent past.
In July 2013, he presented his resignation in response to former president Sandro Rosell’s intention to fire one of his assistants, Albert Valentin. His resignation was denied and Valentin’s job was saved, but ever since then it has not been uncommon to hear Zubizarreta publicly state that his post is “in the hands of the President”.
If he hasn’t been brilliant in his role as sporting director, the mild-mannered Zubi has deserved credit for his tactful handling of increasingly vicious post-match interviews, so it was surprising to hear him all but point the finger at his President when asked about his own responsibility in the matter of the transfer ban, moments after Barcelona’s 1-0 defeat at Real Sociedad on Sunday.
He seemed to dig his own grave by declaring, repeatedly, that “Bartomeu was the sporting vice-president at the time”, therefore, “he knew the situation and can explain it better than anyone else.”
And yet, these statements were only the last straw in a long line of poor decisions made by the former sporting director. While most of the blame for the negligent handling of Neymar’s signing can be attributed to former club President Sandro Rosell, Zubizarreta has firmly established a reputation for being incapable of delivering the goods when it comes to mending the team’s weak spots.
Most infamously, he has displayed an exasperating inability to strengthen Barcelona’s back line. After three years of searching for a centre-back worthy of wearing the Barcelona outfit, Zubizarreta finally settled for the injury-prone Thomas Vermaelen and the overpriced 31-year-old Jeremy Mathieu. It was enough of a gamble to sign Vermaelen despite the fact that he still carried an injury picked up during the World Cup, yet Zubizarreta inexplicably upped the ante by declaring that the defender would be “ready to perform immediately”.
Five months later, Vermaelen’s continued inactivity clearly exposes Zubi’s misjudgement, and while Barcelona’s medical department is also perhaps at fault, the warning signs were all there for Zubi who had no margin for error and should have known better than to take such a risk.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian and Spanish media are still bewildered by Zubizarreta’s decision to sign Douglas at right-back. This conundrum is compounded by the player’s exclusion from the roster on more than one occasion when Dani Alves was also unavailable to play.
The CAS ruling that ratified the FIFA ban last week casts an intolerable spotlight on the inadequacy of these two signings, leaving the club no alternative but to look to the masia for solutions until 2016.
Zubizarreta is also accused of snubbing Toni Kroos, who reportedly wished to play at Barcelona before signing for Real Madrid and would no doubt have injected some much needed quality and fresh air in the fading Barcelona midfield.
Coincidence or not, rounding out Zubi’s list of misfortunes is the apparent confrontation that has surfaced – on the very same day of his dismissal – between the club’s franchise player, Messi, and Luis Enrique, the authoritative Coach chosen by Zubizarreta to substitute Tata Martino, who had been appointed directly by former president Rosell.
Shortly after the announcement of Bartomeu’s decision to cease Zubizarreta’s employment, former Barcelona defender Carles Puyol announced his own decision to part with the club, after a three-and-a-half-month spell as assistant to Zubi.
He had already decided to leave his position several weeks ago, the Press has since claimed, but was asked to delay his announcement to avoid additional negative news in an already troubled end to the year. Zubi’s dismissal gave Puyol the go-ahead to make his decision public with a brief statement on his Facebook account.
Other accounts of the developments leading to Zubi’s dismissal point to the notion that President Bartomeu would be seeking to distance himself from the scandals in a desperate attempt to gain time and avoid being forced into summoning elections at the end of the season. However, while many will celebrate Bartomeu’s latest decision, the President may have inadvertently triggered the makings of his own downfall.
Those who applaud Zubi’s departure are now likely to demand further action against those accountable for the club’s endless succession of scandals. Watch out for Barcelona fans to be waving the white panuelos – handkerchiefs – at Camp Nou on Thursday, during the Copa del Rey fixture against Elche, demanding immediate elections.