Cast your mind back to the summer of 2011. FC Barcelona had just won their fourth European Cup at Wembley, a ground sacred in the history of Barça. They overcame Manchester United in a result that led Sir Alex Ferguson to admit they were the best side he ever faced. An astonishing feat made only sweeter by the fact that seven of the eleven players who started the game where La Masia graduates.
Barcelona were clinical, technically brilliant and played with a philosophy so intertwined with the club it became the blueprint for success. Clubs all over the world realised that football is not just played with the feet, but also the head as well.
Then there was Éric Abidal. After being diagnosed with cancer two months earlier, he overcame the illness and played the full ninety minutes. In a gesture so befitting of how this is no ordinary club, club captain Carles Puyol strapped the armband round his defence teammate and informed him he would be the one to collect the trophy. Més Que un Club.
The first signs of a change actually came a year before the Wembley triumph. Sandro Rosell had just became the club president, succeeding Joan Laporta, when he announced his decision to strip club legend Johan Cruyff of his "honorary president" title. Cruyff is seen as the farther of La Masia and had been awarded this presidential title just a year earlier by Laporta. It was no secret that Rosell and Cruyff didn't have the best of friendships which often put then-manager Pep Guardiola in-between a rock and a hard place.
Unsurprisingly this caused tension between a selection of fans and Rosell. The club president only stoked the fire further when he announced a £125 million deal with Qatar Foundation to be displayed on the front of the team's shirt. Barcelona's long standing rule of not displaying any commercial sponsorship on their shirt was ended by this deal and understandably, this was not to every fan's taste with Rosell being placed directly in the firing line.
The brand first made it's appearance on the 2011/12 shirts with the existing partner, Unicef, being moved to the back of the shirt. Board members and fans alike had suspected Rosell was not being completely transparent with the full nature of this deal. Furthermore the club's statutes state that "the competences of the General Assembly are to authorize the Board of Directors to agree to contracts involving the inclusion of advertising on the official playing shirts of the football first team". Essentially what this means is the board members had the right to vote whether the deal was completed on not, but they were only allowed this right eleven months after the deal had been completed.
Fortunately, they did agree to the deal but Rosell was risking having to try and break out of a £125 million contract if they didn't choose his side. This act which seemingly goes against the club's rules, is strange given that Rosell used the statutes so adamantly when stripping Cruyff of his title.
The season ended with Barcelona losing the league title to Real Madrid and Guardiola announcing his decision to leave. Citing burnout as his reason, despite the pressure from Rosell, Guardiola left the club and asked for "peace" from the place he was leaving behind. Guardiola's ex-assistant Tito Vilanova took over the reigns and it wasn't long before Guardiola was back in the news.
Vilanova's terrible suffering from cancer caused him to take time out of being Barça boss to seek medical treatment in New York, the destination Guardiola had chosen to take his year long sabbatical from football. After Pep joined German champions Bayern Munich, he used almost his first press conference to hit back at some of the comments made by Rosell.
"I told them [the president and his directors] I was going 6,000km away and asked them to leave me in peace, but they haven't kept their word,"
"I did my time [at Barcelona] then decided to leave."
"Too many things have happened that have crossed the line,"
"I will never forget that they used Tito's illness to cause me damage, because it's a lie that I never saw him in New York."
"I saw him once, and the reason I didn't see him more often was because it wasn't possible, and that wasn't my fault. To say that I don't wish the best of someone who was my colleague for so many years is very bad taste, and I didn't expect that."
Yet further mudding of Barcelona's reputation and it came from the man who had brought the club to the pinnacle of world football. Rosell and his board had begun to isolate popular club figures in the form of Cruyff and Guardiola and turn them against the club's hierarchy.
Popular figures such as these carry so much fan influence so it seemed as though the majority of fans were having to choose sides. Those on the side of Guardiola and Cruyff, those on Rosell's side and those who prefer to focus on the football. For those who prefer football they had seen their side regain the league title but be thumped 7-0 over two legs by Bayern in the Champions League.
Even this thumping was arguably less hurtful then the press conference in May 2013. Éric Abidal, the man who beat cancer to lift the European Cup for Barcelona at Wembley, who had just fought cancer for the second time and won, a man who symbolises the family side of Barça and who united the players, wasn't being offered another contract. In his press conference, his thinly veiled comments confirmed that it wasn't his choice to leave and the club were kicking him out.
The choice seemed neither compassionate or logical, the club were desperately short on defensive cover and the players had seen Abidal as an example of overcoming the hardest of situations. But Abidal left for Monaco in the summer of 2013. In the same summer came the defining point of Rosell's presidency. Brazilian prodigy Neymar had finally announced his plans for the future. Years of rumours, speculation had finally cumulated in Barcelona getting the biggest young talent in the world.
What was supposed to be the crowning jewel in Rosell's presidency eventually turned into the blow that would overthrow his presidency. Club member, Jordi Cases raised question with the exact details of the details and the Spanish courts agreed he had a case. Rosell protested his and the club's innocence but on the 23rd of January 2014 he resigned and his vice-president Josep Maria Bartomeu stepped up and filled his boots.
The outgoing president cited threats to him and his family as his reason but fans and media alike were 100% sure. Lack of transparency was the key weapon used by Rosell against Laporta in his successful campaign run. But now Rosell was facing accusations of not being transparent. In the coming months, Barcelona revealed the cost of Neymar's transfer plus his salary to be €130.2 million with a large chunk given to Neymar's father.
As the dust seemingly settled with Barcelona paying the tax office a further £11.2 million, the attention again turned back to the football. Barcelona were heading into an important summer. Competing in all three major competitions while Both Victor Valdés and Carles Puyol announced their decision to leave come the end of the season so it was shaping up to be a summer of spending for the Catalan giants. Then came the ban.
FIFA announced on the 2nd of April that Barcelona had been given a 14-month transfer ban for breaking rules on signing international players under 18. The FIFA report found that Barcelona and the Spanish Football Federation were guilty of a "serious" infringement of the rules in relation to 10 players.
La Masia has always been the pride of Barça. So for FIFA to attack it in this way will hurt some of the club's defining principles. Teach the kids how to be people before footballers, ethics before football.
Barcelona revealed their decision to appeal the ban the same day but the club heads into a summer of uncertainty and are being held in a very different light to that of summer 2011.
There is no doubt, FC Barcelona remains more than a club to the people of Catalonia and the fans across the world as they recognise that a club founded over 114 years ago will take more then a few years of bad press to change completely. But, whether it be with presidential elections or having faith in the current hierarchy, the club needs to return to the days when they were looked upon as the club that everyone should aspire to. And fast.
- FC Barcelona News: 3 April 2014: Barcelona Appeal Transfer Ban, Real Madrid Defeat Borussia Dortmund
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- FC Barcelona News: 2 April 2014: FIFA Place Barcelona Under Transfer Ban
- FC Barcelona Handed Transfer Ban