Barcelona's problems continue as Lionel Messi's frustration grows
January 6, 2015 4:40:23 AM PST
By Graham Hunter

For FC Barcelona, the prolonged ineptitude and football vandalism, which has been visible since 2010, has now erupted into a full crisis -- of the sporting variety at least.

Last week in this space, I wrote that Andoni Zubizarreta's continued inability to do his job properly would "in due course, cost the Football Director his position."

Monday's sacking of a man whose poor and inadequately planned decisions have consistently outweighed his limited successes proved that to be accurate and timely.

This alone would not have merited the word "crisis" to describe the Camp Nou climate. In fact it was the right decision, simply taken far, far too late.

No, the crisis climate has been catalysed by what should be considered a Lionel Messi power play following the remarkable events before and after Barcelona's defeat at Real Sociedad on Sunday.

For Luis Enrique to offer Messi and Neymar extra Christmas vacation -- incredibly, in lieu of the fact that they'll have another shortened summer due to participation in the Copa America -- is entirely within the remit of the Barcelona coach. It is his squad, his responsibility, his decision. His future on the line. A manager must be allowed to manage.

But to fail to warn them both -- and Messi in particular -- that it was very likely to cost him a start at the Anoeta was either basic mismanagement of a complex character, who has often shown even Pep Guardiola and the late Tito Vilanova that dropping or resting him comes with consequences, or it was needless provocation; an "I'll show you who's boss" sort of thing.

There was a moment after Jordi Alba's own goal put Barcelona 1-0 down within the first two minutes that saw Neymar lean towards Messi on the bench to indicate he should start warming up immediately.

It was mischievous, but Messi's reaction suggested he loved it: he grinned his only grin that night -- or since, I'll bet.

By Monday Messi reported to the club that gastroenteritis would not only prevent him from training on what's likely to be the club's only public session of the year but also prevent him from joining the annual visit of the squad to local children's hospitals.

I like and I respect Messi, but I read this as a direct power play.

A warning to the coach that he feels mishandled.

My personal opinion, based on years of experience, based on what I'm assured, by people who know, is Messi's growing dislike of Luis Enrique's manner, based on what was offered to explain his absence -- gastroenteritis has long been Spanish football's "I'm not coming to work today" phrase of choice -- is that Messi and his people want to bring the situation to a head.

I'm assured that a sharp exchange of words, which took place last Friday between superstar player and coach at training, perfectly indicates the current temperature. Messi is not alone in disliking Barcelona's current brand of football, disliking the constant team rotation or in disliking Luis Enrique's interpersonal skills.

Not all the players feel identically, but Messi is not alone in his gripe. Not for the first time "Lucho" Enrique stands accused of being brusque, stubborn and capable of demonstrating the difference between being "too clever by half" and intelligent.

In brief, given the team's loss of identity, the likelihood that they will not be competitive for the two big prizes -- La Liga and the Champions League -- this season, the certainty that the transfer market cannot now help their situation until 2016 and his lack of feeling/trust in the club's current coach and board, Messi would be well within his rights to consider leaving.

Not to leave, that would be precipitate. But to survey the landscape.

As for Barcelona's broader problems? Well, when a crime is committed, it's very often the case that the culprit, the villain of the piece, is missing.

In 2010, Sandro Rosell won a historic mandate but, palpably, the people were wrong when they voted him into power.

From the outset, indeed from long before he even stood for president, his philosophy was tainted by a virulent dislike of everything for which Johan Cruyff (and by association his predecessor Joan Laporta) stood.

Despite inheriting a philosophy, a process, a structure and a team which had produced what has commonly held to be some of the best, most attractive and most successful football in the sport's history, Rosell thought that almost everything should be done differently.

In summary, recent years have seen Barcelona divorce themselves from their spiritual leader, Cruyff; cause Pep Guardiola to feel alienated then leave his post as manager; lose their elected president Rosell over the way Neymar was recruited to the club; misjudge the consecutive coaching appointments of Gerardo Martino and Luis Enrique; disgracefully mishandle Eric Abidal's contractual situation; sack Antoni Rossich, their director general; receive from FIFA a ban from the transfer market and lose at the Court for Arbitration for Sport a hopeless appeal, which was formulated simply to suspend the ban so that the club could restock the squad last summer; haemorrhage football credibility and competitiveness; alienate their best ever goalkeeper; sack their director of football and, finally, mishandle Messi so comprehensively that there is a real danger he opts to leave.

It is a heinous list and one which is condensed; not even the full roll of dishonour.

With Rosell gone, his successor Josep Maria Bartomeu has, I think, three options if he is to successfully run for another term as president in next year's elections.

First, he can accept his part in all this and walk away completely.

Second, he can grasp the nettle and accept that Luis Enrique is a failing, disliked coach, remove him now and appoint, for example, Frank De Boer, with the aim of winning titles this season and calling elections a year early in 2015.

Thirdly, he can tough it out with Luis Enrique until the scheduled elections in 2016.

Elche visit the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, an occasion that will bring, I'm sure, a belligerent, vocal and potentially white-handkerchief-waving crowd.

Defeat to Atletico Madrid at home on Sunday would spark the kind of ill feeling which brings boards to their knees.

Meanwhile Cruyff and Laporta stand back and watch, gleefully in the latter's case I suspect, while we neutrals can only lament that something so spectacular, enjoyable and exceptional has been desecrated.

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