The rise and fall of FC Barcelona

By Alan Feehely, l @azulfeehely

Football is a cyclical game. No club or league can sustain complete dominance forever. The sport will always adapt and evolve, move in tides as unique as waves crashing on a beach. No matter the financial resources or the size of the organisation, maintaining an elite team is almost as hard as constructing one.

Barcelona embody this. At the dawn of the previous decade they were a behemoth. Pep Guardiola was in his second season in charge of his boyhood club – Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were at the peak of their powers. They had won the Champions League the previous season and would win it again the next, beating Manchester United both times in a manner that served as a warning shot to the rest of Europe.

The first game, 2009 in Rome, had been tight. United were a winning machine led by the indefatigable Sir Alex Ferguson and the firepower of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Barça, by contrast, had shedded their superstars, instead adopting a more homespun philosophy in line with their illustrious history. The Catalans won 2-0. Samuel Eto’o opened the scoring before Messi confirmed the victory.

The second game, two years later in Wembley, was different. Barça knew exactly how good they were and the 3-1 scoreline flattered a cowed United. This time, Pedro struck first before Rooney got the English side back on level terms. Then, Barça pulled away. Messi regained the advantage before David Villa killed the bull. “In my time as manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve ever faced,” Sir Alex Ferguson admitted after the game. “No one has given us a hiding like that. Great teams do go in cycles and they’re at the peak of the cycle they’re in at the moment.”

Guardiola spent one more year there before moving on. The club shifted its approach, with the coach becoming of secondary importance to the players. Neymar was brought in from Santos in the summer of 2013, followed by Luis Suárez and Ivan Rakitic the next year. Messi, Suárez and Neymar became one of the most fearsome frontlines European football has ever seen, supported by a rotating quartet in midfield of Ivan Rakitić, Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. It was a combination that was breath-taking in full flight, and in 2015, led by Luis Enrique, they won the Champions League for the fourth time in a decade, beating Juventus 3-1 in the final in Berlin.

The story since then, however, has not been so smooth. Barça’s transfer strategy became scattergun, recruiting players who failed to meet the standard that the great teams of 2009, 2011 and 2015 set, and botching a transition plan that would have phased out the older hands and maintained momentum, even losing Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2017. They still succeeded domestically, winning the league in 2016, 2018 and 2019, but began to falter on the European stage. They were beaten in the quarter-final of the Champions League in three consecutive years, losing to Atlético Madrid in 2016, Juventus in 2017 and Roma in 2018. Then came the nadir – Barça blew a 3-0 lead against Liverpool in the 2019 semi-final to lose 4-3 on aggregate before succumbing to an 8-2 battering at the hands of Bayern Munich in the 2020 quarter-final.

The chastening defeat by Bayern will go down as one of the worst results in their history. Leading the destruction was Thiago Alcântara, the man who should have been the successor to Xavi and Iniesta in the Barcelona midfield. The club’s failure to manage him – he left for a cut-price fee in the summer of 2013 because a clause in his contract stipulating minimum playing time wasn’t met – is emblematic of a wider structural incompetence. Adding salt into the wounds was Philippe Coutinho, a supposed marquee signing from 2018 who, on loan at Bayern from Barça, scored two goals against his parent club. The defeat was compounded by the fact that Barça would be going without silverware altogether – they had blown a mid-season lead in La Liga to their great rivals, Real Madrid. Check out the football betting tips at 888sport for this season’s Spanish football, and much more besides.

The Barcelona board had sacked Ernesto Valverde in January – when they were top of the table – and replaced him with Quique Setién. The idea was to install a Cryuffian disciple at the helm of the club to try and regain a lost style at the expense of Valverde’s more functional football. It did not work. Setién could not control a dressing room perhaps more loaded with player power than any in history and failed to impose his authority. After all, Setién’s career trophy haul – as a player and a coach – is a single Supercopa de España. How could he tell players who have won European Cups, European Championships and World Cups what to do? One expensive signing, Ousmane Dembélé, was injured for the crucial run-in, while another, Antoine Griezmann, did not seem capable of fitting into the Barcelona system.

Madrid returned from last season’s break a team possessed, winning ten-in-a-row to wrestle the title from their Catalan rivals. Barcelona, by comparison, won just five of the ten games crucial to their title challenge, with Messi caught on camera blatantly ignoring Setién’s assistant, Eder Sarabia, during a water break, and launching into an emotive tirade after losing against Osasuna to confirm Madrid’s victory.

“This game represents the entire year,” a visibly angry Messi told LaLigaTV. “We have been an erratic and weak team. I said some time ago that playing like this we had no chance of winning the Champions League, and it turns out we didn’t even have enough to win La Liga. We need to take a breather, let some air in, and clean our minds of all that has happened since December. Playing like this we will lose against Napoli; we have to start from zero in the Champions League.”

As we now know, they could not manage that – they stuttered past Napoli before the shellacking at the hands of Bayern. The following close-season offered their beleaguered supporters no respite either, with Messi sending a now-infamous burofax announcing his intention to leave the club immediately before being backed into a contractual corner and forced to stay in Catalonia for another season.

This has created a situation where the greatest player in Barcelona’s history is being kept at the club against his will, in open rebellion against his embattled president, Josep Maria Bartomeu. Coming into this mess is Ronald Koeman, a club legend with a mixed managerial record and a combative personality. Barcelona are paying for a series of ill-thought, short-term decisions, in an era of football where considered strategy is king. Where they go from here, nobody knows. But it is going to be fascinating.