Barcelona: Could they get back to their best?
FC Barcelona are one of the most famous and successful clubs in world football, but by their own hefty standards, the last five years have been anything but. In partnership with Media City Qatar.
FC Barcelona are one of the most famous and successful clubs in world football, but by their own hefty standards, the last five years have been anything but.
At the beginning of the 2018/19 season, the club’s greatest ever player and newly appointed club captain, Lionel Messi, made a promise to over 90,000 Barcelona fans in the Camp Nou ahead of a pre-season friendly.
He was referring to Barcelona’s exit from the Champions League in difficult circumstances in April 2018. They had surrendered a 4-1 lead against Roma to be knocked out in the quarter-finals, much earlier than expected. Much like their fierce Spanish rivals Real Madrid, winning La Liga is seen as the bare minimum. The Champions League campaign is truly how success is measured.
Fast forward to May 2019, and Barcelona looked set to make the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semi-final. Messi scored a beautiful free-kick to reach 600 goals scored for Barça, and they looked good on delivering his promise from the beginning of the season. They secured back-to-back La Liga titles a few days later, and the club looked on course to secure a historic double.
But then, the second leg of the semi-final in England was a very different story. Liverpool clawed back the aggregate score to 3-3 after 55 minutes, before scoring a winner late on and snatching the spot in the final away from Barcelona. Messi’s men had collapsed when it mattered again.
Their Champions League exits in consecutive seasons are important because it was the beginning of the end for a squad of players who had achieved so much and been denied so little. They had to try and pick themselves up again, but a year later further turmoil struck. When the world entered a state of emergency as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Barça were one of the clubs hit the hardest by football being taken off the schedule for fans. The mismanagement of their wage bill and transfer fees paid were already causing them issues, but suddenly their fans not being allowed into the Camp Nou to watch games was a further financial constraint that they had not been able to foresee. 90,000 weekly fans worth of ticket revenue had dissipated almost overnight.
When football resumed, Barça were on the end of another Champions League disaster. As well as being denied three La Liga titles in a row by Real Madrid, they were beaten again in the quarter-finals, this time by Bayern Munich, and this time by an 8-2 scoreline; a record defeat in Europe for the club.
It sparked big conversations about the direction that the club was heading in, and in October 2020 the club’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, resigned after a board of directors vote of no confidence in his leadership. The move came after months of criticism over the club's financial mismanagement, including the decision to pay €120 million for Antoine Griezmann in 2019, a transfer that has not been deemed successful.
As of March 2021, FC Barcelona's total debt was reported to be around €1.2 billion, with around €730 million of that being short-term debt. The club has been trying to reduce its wage bill by renegotiating contracts and offloading players, and in the summer 2021 they had to make what they felt was the ultimate sacrifice: allowing Lionel Messi, the club’s greatest ever player, to leave Barcelona. He was snapped up by French champions PSG, possibly the only club in world football who could afford to pay his wages.
To further address the financial crisis, the new president Joan Laporta looked for ways to increase the club's revenue, including renegotiating the TV rights deal and finding new sponsors. The club sold the naming rights to the Camp Nou stadium and explored the possibility of creating a digital membership platform to increase revenue.
But the main idea was having a key involvement in the birth of the Super League concept, a new elite European competition that would be self-regulated by clubs, without UEFA’s involvement, and would allow them to keep bigger slices of the revenues generated. This idea was greeted with disdain in England and other parts of Europe, but to this day, Barcelona and Real Madrid still have ambition to keep the project alive.
All of this drama behind the scenes has led to further failings on the pitch. For the first time in over 25 years, Barcelona were knocked out of the group stage of the Champions League in the 2021/22 season, and again in 2022/23. This, again, is a disaster for the club who are desperate for the extra revenue that reaching the later stage of the Champions League brings.
2023, however, seems to be the year that Barça have turned a corner. With music giants Spotify now owning the naming rights to the Camp Nou, and several big earners off the payroll, the dark clouds appear to be clearing. The next generation of young talents are emerging, mainly in young midfield duo Pedri and Gavi, who at 20 and 18 years old respectively, have already made nearly 250 appearances between them for the club.
What will really take the pressure off is the return of the La Liga title. For the first time in four years, it looks set to be won by Barcelona again. Not only does this give the fans something to cheer after quite a few difficult years, it symbolises that the club are finally getting their house in order. To win a league title is no easy achievement, and running the club smoothly off the pitch is a massive contributing factor. With the financial problems seemingly under control for now, the club will be eyeing up further glory, such as Champions League success and possibly even the return of Lionel Messi, whose contract expires at PSG this summer.
The homecoming of their hero would be the true ‘trophy’ that every Barça fan wants to see.
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