What’s Wrong With Barcelona?

I followed Rihanna on Twitter recently, but no-one suggested I’d soon be moving in with her. Yet Lionel Messi follows Chelsea on Instagram and Barcelona are in chaos.

And maybe they are. Despite hammering Elche 5-0 last night in the Copa del Rey, their off-field problems were epitomised in the stands with their lowest attendance of the season of just 27,099. So, what’s happened? While their rivals, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, have strengthened in recent seasons, there are several internal factors behind the Catalan club’s current malaise.

Messi Situation

Barcelona’s talisman has sometimes cut a desolate figure this season, with his apparent social media courting of Chelsea the latest in a long line of hints that his future may rest away from the Nou Camp.

The Argentine was close to Cesc Fabregas and Jose Pinto, two summer departures, and 2014 was his least successful year in a decade. However, despite the cliché that “no man is bigger than the club”, Messi is the exception to the rule. It’s more likely his influence will lead to the departure of others at the club, with president Josep Maria Bartomeu under increasing pressure.

Replacing Pep

Sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, and his assistants, have already lost their jobs this week, while club legend Carlos Puyol has also left his embryonic backroom role.

The club’s replacements for Pep Guardiola have been unfortunate, in both senses of the word. The late Tita Villanova lasted only a year at the helm due to health issues, and was adored at the club. Indeed, it’s been suggested this week that Messi only remains due to a deathbed promise to Vilanova.

The reign of his replacement, Gerardo Martino, proved disastrous with the club finishing last season without a major trophy for the first time in six years. Should Enrique also fall on his sword, as seems likely, it is essential Barca choose a replacement who’ll return to the ideals that Guardiola carefully cultivated and get the best out of players who seem to be on auto-pilot and living off past glories.

Transfer Ban

It’s not churlish to suggest that FIFA’s transfer ban on the club mightn’t be a bad thing, based on their recent activity in the market. Luis Suarez couldn’t stop scoring twelve months ago, now he can’t start.

Zubizarreta, conscious of the looming sanctions, also oversaw the summer arrivals of Thomas Vermaelen, yet to play for the club, the out-of-his-depth Jeremy Mathieu, and Douglas – who’s made just one appearance this season.

Allied to the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, arguably the two best performers in the Premier League this season, it’s no surprise Zubizarreta was shown the door.

However, the club are unable to strengthen until next January and are reliant on promoting players from La Masia to bolster their squad. However, their famed academy hasn’t been producing the standard of player it once did and Barcelona B are currently languishing in 18th place in the Segunda Division. It’s clear that the club will have to rely on their current, under-performing first-team squad for the next twelve months.

The Board

There also seems to be turmoil at board level with Bartomeu’s role under threat from Joan Laporta, who’s hinted he’d embrace a presidential return.

Laporta oversaw Barcelona’s successful period from 2003 to 2011, promoted Guardiola to first-team coach and pulled off several transfer coups.

Bartomeu, meanwhile, has presided over an apparent on-field decline, the commercialistion of the club epitomised by their first shirt sponsors, a transfer ban, the controversial Neymar saga and the crude pursuit of Suarez.

Barcelona’s image, once that of many people’s second favourite club, has taken a battering in the past couple of years and it will take much work to undo. Presidential campaigns have often hinged on candidates’ promises regarding high-profile signings. This time, it may be based on who is more likely to retain Messi at the club.