The winner of the 2022 Football Book of the Year award is Barca by Simon Kuper, which was originally intended to be about how Barcelona became the world’s most revered football club.
During Kuper’s research, however, the situation changed.
Barcelona were no longer the world’s most revered club. Rather, they were being roundly mocked for their happiness at board level.
The book was published just before the departure of Lionel Messi on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain last summer, which occurred because the club were in such a ridiculous state they weren’t able to register him as a player, despite them wanting to keep Messi and Messi wanting to stay.
Its final chapter is simply entitled “Messi’s club”, and while it was written before he left, you can almost sense the inevitable when reading it. And therefore the book’s subtitle became “The rise and fall of the club that built modern football”, somewhat more negative than an earlier version, “The inside story of the world’s greatest football club.”
But this negative spin, ultimately, is not negative for football. We are supposed to be appalled at the incompetent running of Barcelona, but modern football desperately needs such of a woe as this to retain any level of competitive balance.
At the start of this century, there was a wonderful era in Spanish football when Barcelona and Real Madrid were obviously the two biggest clubs, but both were run terribly. There were boardroom squabbles, bad managerial appointments and an obsession with star attackers over cohesive football.
Barcelona appointed coaches who couldn’t control the dressing room and Real determinedly ignored the concept of defending.
It meant Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna could win the title, and Real Sociedad and Villarreal could challenge. It was a competitive league, but still a very strong one — Spain had, according to UEFA’s coefficients, the best league around by a distance.
Roughly two decades on, the defining theme of modern football is the sheer level of inequality. This clearly stems from financial inequality.
At the turn of the century, the Premier League’s biggest wage bill was around three and a half times the size of its lowest one. By 2020-21, it was around eight times more, and the consequence is that the gap between big and small clubs on the pitch is also enormous, and seasons are more predictable than ever.
All this has come to be regarded as entirely in keeping with history, which is simply not the case.
Bayern Munich have been the biggest club in German football for an eternity, but until a decade ago they’d never won more than three straight league titles. Now, they’ve won 10 on the bounce.
The “problem” with Bayern isn’t simply their financial advantage, it’s that they (and most German clubs, for that matter) are basically well-run.
Bayern’s finances are sound. Their wage spending is relatively controlled. They resist unnecessary splurges on big-name players they don’t need. They generally make good managerial appointments. They sign good up-and-coming players from domestic rivals, which simultaneously strengthens them and weakens potential challengers.
The result of all that, of course, is that Bayern’s financial advantage translates directly into an on-pitch advantage, and the Bundesliga gets turned into the least competitive major league in the history of football.
If Barcelona were similarly well-run, perhaps there would be a comparable situation in Spain.
Probably not quite to the same extent, as there’s long been that “big two” in La Liga, which Atletico Madrid have done excellently to turn into a “big three”.
But if Barcelona had been well-run over the past decade or so, they would have been similarly relentless.
They were generating the highest revenues of any sports club in the world. They could have signed every top player going, they would be achieving 90-plus points every season and they would probably have won 90 per cent of league titles. Instead, they’ve “only” won five of the past 10 (and none of the most recent three), while Real Madrid have won three and Atletico the other two.
That relative balance has been achieved thanks to Real’s excellent squad, Atletico’s excellent manager and various other factors, but it’s also been reliant upon Barcelona’s incompetence.
And while the scale of mismanagement at Barcelona really is astonishing, and gets explained brilliantly in Kuper’s book, they did manage to finish as (distant) runners-up last season, even as they adjusted to life after long-time talisman Messi and dealt with a mid-season change of manager. They destroyed title-bound Real 4-0, at the Bernabeu, in March.
The betting markets, meanwhile, imply they have a roughly 35 per cent chance of winning the upcoming season’s La Liga. In modern football terms, they are considered to be in crisis, but in historic football terms, they’re simply experiencing something entirely normal: drifting from being their nation’s best side to — shock, horror — their nation’s second or maybe third-best side .
At this point, it is worth drawing a line between Europe’s “superclubs” and everyone else — a line it’s depressingly easy to place.
Outside of the superclubs, badly-run football clubs are disastrous and their owners should face more severe punishments.
The (until recently) very real prospect of Derby County, champions of England twice in the 1970s, going out of business would have been terrible for the city and for domestic football. The recent demises of Bury and Macclesfield Town demonstrate that it’s still possible for well-supported clubs to fold — and it is always long-suffering fans who are forced to pick up the pieces.
But modern superclubs are probably now too big to fail, and in the grand scheme of things, Barcelona supporters aren’t genuinely “suffering”, let alone “long-suffering”. The consequence of the mismanagement basically means they’ve been unable to sign as many top-class players as they’d like to, or hire an established manager.
They’ve instead been forced to build around youngsters such as Gavi and Pedri, with relative novice and former Barcelona star Xavi Hernandez as coach; which actually feels like the makings of another great era, and something more meaningful and typical of the club’s philosophy than if their side was built around, to use random examples, Paul Pogba and Leon Goretzka with, say, Antonio Conte in the dugout.
Either way, they’ll be fine. And in the long run, fans tend to appreciate a bit of misery anyway.
Manchester City supporters of a certain vintage talk wistfully about the club’s nadir, a 2-1 loss away to now non-League York City in December 1998 in the third tier of the English game, using that memory as a badge of honor to show them are true fans. Barcelona fans will one day boast they were there through the season when Luuk de Jong played up front for them; which isn’t quite the same, but in superclub terms, it’s the nadir.
Of course, if we need the world’s biggest clubs to go through an astonishing existential crisis simply to experience the horrors of finishing second or third for a couple of seasons, football has serious problems.
But that is apparently their worst-case scenario, so we really shouldn’t decry rank incompetence in the boardrooms of super clubs — football desperately needs more of it.
(Top image: Sam Richardson for The Athletic)