Mortal football teams loftily set their sights on one trophy at the end of a season. The best though set their sights on six. This modern-day feat has been set by two outrageous teams - FC Barcelona in 2009 and FC Bayern Munich securing the sextuple recently in early 2021.
Not all football empires are created equally, nor do they last forever. In fact, the rise of Bayern has come at a time of Barça’s dreadful fall. The climax in this ascending and descending battle arose on 15 August 2020, where Barcelona lost a game of football 8-2 to Bayern which was the team’s biggest defeat in Europe and heaviest loss since 1946.
What are some of the lessons to be learnt from these two separate and seismic revolutions in football? How might other teams think about following a similar path towards the Barça and Bayern success, and what are the perilous steps they must most certainly avoid?
Part I - A Motto - Mes que un club (more than a club) and Mia san Mia (we are who we are)
To start a revolution, a club needs a motto, a belief system and something that resonates with all those involved in a game of football including fans, coaches, players and more.
FC Barcelona is associated with, amongst many things, the rights and freedoms Catalans sought to express under the Franco dictatorship in Spain from 1939 to 1975 and more recently the 2017 Catalonia independence vote. It is not just a game of football the club espouses, it is infinitely more. It is identity, it is passion and it is a source of tremendous pride in good times and pain in those less fortunate. The 2009 team came to perfect what many referred to as the tiki-taka style, with short passing and huge percentage possession dominating all who came before them.
The recent meteoric rise of Bayern has given rise to the war cry of Mia san Mia. This zeitgeist is best explained by one of the club’s leading players Thomas Muller.
“Mia san Mia stands for the complete will to succeed. That’s how we manage to turn games round so often. There’s no middle ground, only wins. Mia san Mia stands for a hardcore winning mentality with a good dose of self-belief, but without any arrogance. Whoever wants to win has to work hard for it. It’s the same as for professional footballers.”
Source | Bundesliga
Not only does the club unify around this proud motto, but the motto itself has spawned 16 principles reflecting the club’s ethos.
For either team, the mottos aren’t just words. Of course, just having a motto doesn’t mean overnight sextuples, but you get the feeling that the players for these teams live and breathe by each other, by bigger principles and by the devotion they have for the club to succeed. In a day and age where players appear more often attracted to cash than the culture of a club, such devotion appears rarer and rarer by the minute (ahem, Neymar!).
Part II - A Meteorite (and Asteroids) - Messi | Xavi | Iniesta and Lewandowski | Neuer | Muller
A sextuple club needs a few players from outer space in order to reach the top of the top. Neither club lacked in this department.
Barça’s 2009 team had Lionel Messi, one of, if not the greatest player of all time, with his fellow asteroids including Xavi and Iniesta. These three were so good that they were the 2010 FIFA Ballon d’Or (World’s Best Player) finalists, at which point La Masia, the FC Barcelona academy, achieved a record-breaking honor in becoming the first youth academy ever to have all three finalists for the Ballon d’Or in the same year. It has become almost impossible to describe how good Messi was in 2009 and the years beyond, but iconic commentator Ray Hudson does as good as any other mere mortal appears to with lines such as: “They tell me that all men are equal in God’s eyes, this guy makes you seriously think about those words.” and “Absolutely astonishing from the man from Argentina, who is cleaner than Neutrogena with his finish.” It wasn’t just about goalscoring quality of the team, but also sportsmanship which Iniesta exemplified like few other footballers. For example, he is one of the very few players to have never been sent off. That’s right, 728 club games for Barcelona and not a single red card. Further to that, the images of Iniesta sitting alone on the Camp Nou pitch after his final game for Barcelona FC shows exactly how much the club meant to him. He didn’t just sit there for 5 minutes at the end of the game, he was there till 1am (kick-off was 8:45pm!).
Bayern’s 2021 team is not without its own meteorites. Nearly everyone expected Robert Lewandowski to win the 2020 Ballon d’Or but for the award’s unfortunate cancellation due to Covid-19 (he didn’t win the 2020 Ballon d’Or which was canceled but he did win the Best FIFA Men’s Player 2020). Lewandowski is an absolute machine. The goal-machine has scored 40 goals or more in the past 4 seasons, and netted 15 goals in the Champions League campaign which is second only to Ronaldo’s 2013-14, 2015-16 and 2017-18 campaigns.
Similar to Messi though, he is by no means alone. His fellow asteroids include Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller. Neuer developed a dominance so great as a goalkeeper that any game without him between the posts became unthinkable. As the team captain he literally holds the team together, and in the meantime is regarded as the greatest goalkeeper of the decade 2011-2020. Another asteroid is Thomas Müller who was born in the south of Bavaria, joined Bayern at the age of 10 and has remained there ever since. His willpower to turn a game is legendary, as is his unusual role of the Raumdeuter which is largely without comparison. Some call him the most under-appreciated player in world football, but Germans know that you don’t deliver five goals in respective World Cup campaigns without some serious pedigree.
Part III - A Mind - Mindful Coaches and Mindless Executive
Some see the mind of a team as the coach. Barça had Pep and Bayern has Hans-Dieter, although star football managers don’t improve teams as much as star players do according to The Economist’s recent analysis. Much has been said of Pep during his glory years, but the Hans-Dieter story is also fascinating. What is also interesting about these two great coaches is that both played for the club (and their national teams). They didn’t fly in from a world away and try to understand the club’s (and national) culture, it was inherent to them as they both had not only played for the club they coached but also for their country.
Others see the mind of the club as the Executive and Management of the organization, and their impact in recruiting both star players and star coaches. Sometimes it is useful to consider what to do, whilst other times it can be useful to see what not to do in destroying an empire. A significant positive from the Barcelona 2009 team was their investment and faith in their La Masia youth system. The academy provided them with not only some of the abovementioned stars (Messi, Xavi and Iniesta) but also other supremely talented players including Pedro, Puyol and Valdes.
Barça’s antics since 2009 though have left much to be desired, particularly in comparison to many wise moves from Bayern. Some of them provide an almost humorous smörgåsbord of ridiculous activities. Providing below 10 Executive Commandments for all of those eager to avoid the mistakes of Barcelona FC’s Executive and Management:
- Do not irritate a Meteorite so much he only stays because he didn’t want to end up in court.
- Do not set an Asteroid buyout clause at €222M which can be triggered by Qatar’s ruler.
- Do not hire a President who believes football is a “sport for ordinary people.”
- Do not go to jail for misappropriating funds.
- Do not manage the Board like a game of musical chairs.
- Do not manage coaches like a second game of musical chairs.
- Do not spend eighty cents of every dollar brought into the club on players' salaries.
- Do not engage a social media company to denigrate your own team.
- Do not receive a transfer ban for breaching rules on minors.
- Do not continue to blow the budget.
To provide all but one example of Bayern’s Executive strength over the last 10 years in building up towards this current sextuple winning team, not only do the Germans have far fewer people involved at the board level compared to their Spanish counterparts, but the number of people who have left their posts has been 0. In fact, the only board level movement since the 2016/17 season has been the addition of two legends of the Bayern club - Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidžić. If anything, the engine was purring beautifully prior to Kahn and Salihamidžić joining the board, with their additions providing even more horsepower. Similar to Guardiola and Flick, those with an earlier and deep relationship with the club as players appear to have profoundly positive impacts on the club when they join the organization’s administration at a later stage in life.
For football lovers globally, seeing the empires of FC Barcelona 2009 and FC Bayern München 2021 has provided nothing but scintillating pleasure. A strong or declining empire is far much more than a one-person party, and at their peak both of these organizations benefited from so many footballing pieces coming together in the right way, at the right time with the perfect dose of luck. Specifically, they each had A Motto - A Meteorite - A Mind. As we’ve seen with FC Barcelona, falls from grace can be far from pretty but there is much to learn from that melee.
The beautiful thing about the world’s most beautiful game is that everything is temporary, that empires will continue to come and go in the future and that for the rest of us who can barely kick a ball straight we can continue to critique from the couch (with popcorn in-hand)!
Barça and Bayern, a sincere thank you for the memories. Grazie mille.