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FC Barcelona 2020 – Annus Horribilis

Photo montage of some key events for FC Barcelona in 2020. (Source: @barzaboy, twitter.com)

As the curtain closes on 2020, FC Barcelona, like much of mankind, will attest to the darkness this year has brought. The Catalan club end the year 6th in the league’s standings, without a president, crippled by debt, and uncertain of what the future holds. The question that had been on many’s minds over the last few years has been unerringly emphasized to all by 2020: Is there a path for Barça back to the top of the pile of behemoth European clubs?

While statistics rarely ever paint a complete picture on their own, they at least provide a canvas. There are many underlying statistics to properly display the decline of Barça – a decline which started over 3 years ago and has led to 2020. However, perhaps the shallowest stats tell the best story: FC Barcelona has not won a single trophy in 2020, a first since 2008. FC Barcelona have ended 2020 as sixth in La Liga’s standings, their lowest finish going into a new year in well over a decade. This piece won’t reflect in-depth stats such as win percentages, goals scored & conceded, chances created & conceded, intensity & continuity of pressing, among other things, but diving into them further solidifies 2020 as comfortably the club’s worst year of the decade. 

Key Events

Barça entered 2020 as league leaders and into the round of 16 of the Champions League as group leaders, albeit reaching those positions unconvincingly. In January, the club competed in the  Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia. The semi-final loss against Atletico Madrid, whom Barcelona largely dominated, led to unrest in the Barça board room. It was publicly revealed the next day that the club was negotiating with Xavi to take over immediately as coach while Ernesto Valverde was still at the helm. Barcelona then proceeded to relieve the Basque manager of his duties, a decision celebrated by large parts of the fanbase and one that had been frankly a long-time coming. There was an issue nevertheless: there wasn’t a replacement lined up. As Bartomeu’s board scrambled to find a replacement, they were rebuffed by Xavi, Pochettino, and Koeman, ultimately settling for fourth choice Quique Setién.

The Quique Setien era started as it ended: shakily. There were signs of a new system being cultivated, a 3-5-2 with two high flying wingbacks to provide the team with width. The experiment was abandoned at the first hurdle though, after a 2-0 loss away to Valencia. News started to be leaked from within the dressing room of the players’ discomfort with the system, thus prompting a change back to the asymmetrical 4-3-3 in the middle of February.

Around that time, tensions were rising between the club’s executives and the players. Eric Abidal, then sporting director gave an interview to Spanish news outlet SPORT accusing the dressing room’s leaders of wanting Valverde to be replaced. This prompted an uncharacteristic response from club captain Lionel Messi on his personal Instagram page, requesting that no false claims be made and that everyone in the club should take responsibility for their decisions. Then came the i3 Ventures scandal. Then-president Bartomeu and his board were accused of paying over a million euros to fake accounts on major social media platforms to discredit and disrespect current & former icons of Barça, like Xavi, Pep Guardiola, Gerard Piqué, and Lionel Messi. While this was quelled in following months by a PwC audit, it clearly left a bad taste in the mouths of Messi & Piqué, who both commented on it. 

In March, Barça lost 2-0 away in El Clásico. The performance was certainly below par, but what caught the media’s eyes more was the boisterous attitude of assistant manager Eder Sarabia in the dugout, insistently insulting and criticizing the players. Definitely an unusual occurrence, Piqué played it off, defending Sarabia by taking the attention away from the situation. In the last game before the lockdown due to the pandemic, Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 1-0 through a penalty converted by Messi. The team was jeered and whistled on many occasions in the match, indicating the dissatisfaction of the public with the Catalan team’s inability to create or take control of the match. 

Due to the repercussions of the pandemic, clubs throughout Europe had to reduce wages, and Barcelona were no different. However, news started to surface near the end of March that the players were refusing a wage decrease. This was again met by disdain from Leo Messi. In an official announcement on behalf of the players, he expressed disappointment in the fact that the club had been leaking false information to the press to pressure the players, and said that the players are accepting a 70 percent wage cut in order to allow the club to pay the rest of the staff 100 percent of their wages.

When football returned in June, the performances & results remained lacklustre, with several of the players seemingly unmotivated and/or physically unprepared. Barça, who had gone into lockdown on top of the league, ended the season in second place, four points behind winners Real Madrid.

Perhaps the most noteworthy moment of the final stretch of the league season came in the penultimate match: a home game against Osasuna. This fixture is one that Barcelona has historically steamrolled, particularly in recent history. Much to everyone’s shock, Barça lost 2-1 to an Osasuna team that ended the game with 10 men. Lionel Messi gave an enraged recount after the match, calling the team “weak and inconsistent”, and lambasting the fact that Barça “can be beaten with enough intensity and enthusiasm,” a scathing indictment of the Barcelona of Quique Setien. 

August rolled around, and Barcelona easily got past Napoli in the return leg of the round of 16. What came next can only be described as Barça’s worst result in over 50 years. A frail, apathetic Barcelona team was methodically dismantled by Bayern München in Lisbon – 8-2 the score. A disgrace to everyone involved. The worst career loss for the majority, if not the entirety, of the players. A margin of goals which Barcelona has gotten accustomed to being on the victorious side of, has etched August 14, 2020 as the darkest day Barcelona experienced in the 21st century.

That game proved to be the last in Blaugrana colours for Quique Setién & his team, as well as Luis Suárez, Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitić and Nélson Semedo, and the era of Ronald Koeman as Barça coach began. That game also started to pile the pressure on club president Josep Bartomeu.

The real pressure, however, was put by a piece of paper, a burofax. Rumours had been flying immediately after the game that Messi wanted to leave Barça, but it was made official 11 days after the nightmare in Lisbon. A vote of no confidence was initiated by Jordi Farré, fans rushed the Camp Nou’s gates in a bid to keep Messi in the club, Bartomeu was threatened by fans, and the online response was beyond anyone’s expectations. Lionel Messi was the number one trending topic in the world, and a story that started as the perfect marriage seemed to be barreling toward a bitter divorce with irreconcilable differences. After official exchanges between the club and Messi’s representatives, and the interference of LaLiga, Lionel Messi was forced to stay. He gave an interview at the start of September however that effectively marked the end of Bartomeu’s era. Blasting the lack of a project, labeling the transfer policy of the club as “filling holes”,  and pushing back against doubts to his commitment to the shirt he’d proudly worn for 16 years, Messi made sure his anger was heard by everyone

Soon after, the vote of no confidence reached a whopping 20,687 signatures, the highest number in the club’s history. In October, before a referendum could be held regarding Bartomeu’s fate, the president and his entire board resigned, leaving the club in the hands of an interim management board, headed by Carles Tusquets. In November, the management board announced that elections would be held on the January 24, 2021.

In December, Lionel Messi gave an interview to La Sexta, again condemning Bartomeu, but for the first time addressing his future, wherein he insisted he is committed to Barça until the end of the season, confirmed that he wouldn’t negotiate with any clubs, and that he himself does not know where his future lies.

Financial Ruin

For a couple of years now, numerous sources have voiced the valid concern that the club’s financial situation was unsustainable, with the wage bill being disproportionately high and in excess of the caps recommended by UEFA and by LaLiga. This was exacerbated by COVID-19, and FC Barcelona ended the 2019/20 season with 97 million euros in losses. To make matters worse, the club’s debt has risen to 488 million euros, with a possible 1.2 billion euro Goldman Sachs loan on the horizon as well. The seeds for this dire financial situation were planted in years prior, but 2020 is where matters reached a boiling point. 

Despite the wage reductions in March, Barça’s wage bill was still more than what they can afford by the end of 2019/20. To ease this burden, players like Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal, and Rafinha were allowed to leave for minuscule fees, but even that didn’t alleviate the issues. Even with the agreement of the majority of the squad to defer a substantial portion of their wages to later seasons in December, a money problem remains looming over the Camp Nou, so much so that it has been publicly stated several times by a multitude of figures in the club’s hierarchy that Barça can’t afford to pay fees for the services of players like Memphis Depay and Eric Garcia, who would not cost much money since their contracts run out at the end of the season. That is perhaps an example of the twisted irony of fate: a club which has spent over 100 million euros on a single player on three separate occasions in the last 3 years cannot afford around 30 million euros combined on two players, a measly figure in comparison. 

Presidential Elections

Barcelona sail into 2021 as a ship without a captain after the infamous resignation of Bartomeu and his board. The presidential election will be held 24 days after New Year’s Eve, and its importance cannot be overstated. Arguably the most important election of the last 20 years, there are a few popular figures in the running, such as former president Joan Laporta, Xavi-endorsed Victor Font, and Jordi Farré who initiated the vote of no confidence against Bartomeu. Toni Freixa, Xavi Vilajoana, Emili Rousaud, Lluis Fernandez Ala, and Agusti Benedito are also in the race to lead Barcelona into its new era. 

While no official approval polls have been posted yet, there is a growing feeling that it will come down to Joan Laporta, who led Barça from 2003 to 2010 by facilitating a seamless transition to the club’s most successful generation ever, and his Estimem el Barça project versus Victor Font, who has been preparing his candidacy for 7 years, garnering a lot of popularity and receiving the endorsement of Xavi Hernandez along the way, and his Sí al Futur project. With debates coming up at the start of 2021, what is sure is that there should be optimism among the fanbase as both candidates are intent on adopting Cruyff’s model to lead the club back to the top of Europe sportingly and institutionally. 

Shining Lights

It cannot be denied that for all Barça fans, the sooner 2020 is forgotten, the better. Nevertheless, this year leaves us with some excitement amid all the chaos. This stems from the youth that are rising to the occasion and have finally started receiving some recognition.

Ansu Fati, who made his debut in late 2019, has cemented his name in 2020 as the Crown Prince of FC Barcelona. Making his official debut for Spain, being Barça’s top scorer until his injury, scoring in El Clasico, and finishing second to Erling Haaland in the Golden Boy award are just some of the milestones Fati has achieved this year. If 2019 was when the world heard of his name as a promising youth, 2020 is the start of his career as a full-fledged professional, a cornerstone in the biggest club in the world. 

Pedri is the biggest gem the club has mined in recent times. His technical quality is remarkable, but that does not cut it at Barça. What’s most gripping about the young man from Las Palmas is his tactical maturity despite his age and his physical intensity despite his diminutive figure. Combining these traits leads to an ethereal footballer, a fate Pedri is hopefully set for.

Riqui Puig has been on the cusp of playing for Barcelona’s first team since 2018, but the stars never seemed to align for him, not until June 2020 at least. He started receiving minutes in the final stretch of the league, and was a beacon of hope whenever he touched the ball. His intelligence and knack for chance creation coupled with his tireless pressing made him Barça’s brightest ray of sunshine going into the 2020/21 season. Unfortunately, he’s not had as many minutes this season, but surely he will be part of the club’s future going into the new year and beyond.

Ronald Araujo, Óscar Mingueza, and Sergiño Dest have also shown enough quality to make Barça fans dream. While they may not shine as bright as Riqui Puig, Pedri, and Ansu Fati, they have shown excellent potential and great character so far. Admittedly, they have committed errors, and these errors have been highlighted more than their midfield or attacker counterparts because of the natures of their roles, but their progress has been pleasing to witness. 

Adding Frenkie de Jong and Ousmane Dembélé to that mix, whilst knowing that talents like Jandro Orellana, Álex Collado, Konrad de la Fuente, Alejandro Balde and Arnau Tenas are approaching their incorporation to first team football should give Barça fans hope that the road to the top is not impossible, but it needs faith, patience and strength.

Final Thoughts

2020 has been a brutal lesson to all future Barça generations of the possible repercussions of poor management. The club has experienced sporting, financial, and institutional failure like no other. 2021 promises to be a difficult year, and the result of the elections will mark the beginning of a new road for Barça, a road to salvation. The new president has to handle the restoration of the club’s finances, the revamping of the squad, the renewal of Messi, Espai Barça, and several other pressing issues, so they will need all the luck and skill in the world to succeed in that task, but if they do, they will have a guaranteed spot in the annals of FC Barcelona history.

As for the current season, it seems unlikely that the club will be able to compete for the league, and the Champions League remains difficult of course, with a tie against last season’s runners up awaiting. Barça also have two other trophies to compete for – the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup – and while they are never the peak of a Barça fan’s hopes, they could be a good starting point for the new generation coming in. The returns of Fati, Piqué, and Sergi Roberto will definitely bolster the squad, enhancing Barça’s odds of domestic trophies and European success. 

Here’s hoping that 2021 is better, both for the world and for FC Barcelona! 

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