Alexis Sánchez is undoubtedly a great player. He gave FC Barcelona fans some unforgettable moments, most notably the spectacular chip to win the first La Liga Clásico of 2013-14. For much of last season, the Chilean seemed to be the only Barça player making the most of his ability. His showings at the 2014 World Cup underscored the fact that this was a special forward playing at the peak of his powers. Ultimately, however, Alexis was a bad fit at the Camp Nou.
His irrepressible talent made him occasionally breathtaking, but his stylistic incompatibility with his teammates meant that he was equally exasperating. As good as he was last season, he was often Barça’s worst player in the two that preceded it. With 2013-14 ending as the side’s worst campaign in six years, it was obvious that things had stagnated. Drastic change was needed as well as fresh impetus. The Guardiola era will always remain the club’s greatest, but its ideas and its heroes had overstayed their welcome.
By letting Alexis go to a new club in another league – one where he can play his natural game and succeed – and by making a profit on him in the process, the FC Barcelona board did the right thing. They cleared a space for a forward who can better integrate with the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Andrés Iniesta and gave themselves the resources to buy anyone they wanted. So far, so good.
They undid all of that good work by choosing an utterly reprehensible replacement. As much sense as signing Luis Suárez makes from a footballing perspective, it makes a mockery of every value that FC Barcelona apparently stands for.
The Barça board’s primary objective is obvious: to succeed on the field. Their aim is to build a new side around the best and most important players at the club. To do this, they have put all other concerns to one side. They have made a conscious effort to forget and even break with the traditions of the past. After all, it is almost impossible to move forward if you spend all of your time looking back.
That said, signing Suárez is not an acceptable way forward. He should never even have been considered.
Golden ages have only one drawback: that in the years of decline that inevitably follow them, they are held up as the minimum acceptable standard. When special players and teams are at their peak, fans know that they are witnessing something exceptional. When said players and teams return to their normal standard, supporters take it badly.
We can all think of examples of clubs that punched above their weight for a while and whose fans spent years afterwards failing to realise that this was what they had done. It is undeniably difficult to accept the transition from extraordinary back to ordinary. Now supporters of FC Barcelona must prepare to do exactly that in more than one sense.
With Carles Puyol, Victor Valdés and Cesc Fàbregas gone and Xavi Hernández almost certainly following them, the spine of the team has been removed. There have still been no new centre-backs signed and only Ivan Rakitić has arrived to bolster the rather empty-looking midfield. Barça will find it very hard to sustain challenges on domestic and continental fronts unless these concerns are addressed.
Of course, in Messi, Neymar and, yes, Suárez, Barça have an incredibly skilful, mobile and potent front three that could conceivably play together for four or five years. They will score the goals that ensure that the club stays at the top end of the table regardless of all other problems. They will not rule the world as they did under Guardiola but they will not become a laughing stock.
Off the pitch, however, is another story. The more significant dropoff – the fall that will remain as a permanent stain on Barça’s reputation even when the good times do return – has been the club’s moral decline.
In choosing Luis Suárez to wear the number nine shirt instead of Alexis, the board has succeeded in strengthening the first eleven but in the process they have compromised FC Barcelona’s values, its historic identity and its perception around the globe.
Rightly or wrongly, there has always been a certain romance that has coloured the way neutrals have viewed the club. The oft-repeated histories of democratic fan ownership, of providing clandestine assistance to the Catalan independence movement and of Barça players signing up to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War have led to the view that the club is synonymous with positive social change.
This is the reason that sponsors remained absent from the shirt until 2006 and that the first sponsor was UNICEF, at Barça’s expense. While naysayers decried the club’s stance as self-aggrandising or holier-than-thou, it was noble – and as important as success on the field when it came to sustaining Barça’s global popularity.
FC Barcelona was the superpower with a humanitarian heart: it was més que un club. Those days are now long gone.
It was one thing for Sandro Rosell to sign global marketing icon and potentially great footballer Neymar in the laughably corrupt manner that he did, dragging the club’s name through the mud and torpedoing his own career, but the Suárez deal is on another level altogether.
Everyone is familiar with the facts but they bear repeating. When Suárez was 16 years old, he pushed and then headbutted a referee during a match. He has bitten people on the field of play three times. Worst of all, he racially abused an opponent and he has still not apologised for doing so. The ban Suárez is currently serving means that he has been suspended for 48 matches since 2010 without receiving a red card in that time. He will be unavailable for selection until October.
None of this seems to matter. Sandro Rosell, Josep Maria Bartomeu, Andoni Zubizarreta and the rest of FC Barcelona's management have made it clear that on-field success is the only thing that matters. They have sullied the blaugrana with Qatar Sports Investments’ logos in exchange for the incredible sums of money required to keep the team competitive on the pitch. They have broken any number of laws in order to ensure that the world’s hottest transfer prospect did not sign for Real Madrid. Now they have spent a reported figure of €94.5m on football’s most infamous, inexcusable and intolerable player.
The next few years could well be the toughest of many culés lives. Sure, the trophies will continue to come. Not in the unprecedented number or manner that they did under Pep Guardiola, but regularly enough to ensure that his golden age will not be entirely missed. But the fact remains that FC Barcelona is no longer més que un club.
It is now just a club, like any other – in fact, more like Real Madrid than any other. That is a wound that could take decades to heal.