To say that things in Barcelona were bad in January 2015 would be an understatement. It’s a club that — historically anyway — has a habit of making mountains out of molehills and getting into all kinds of internal troubles that end up jeopardizing the team’s displays on the field, but three months ago it was more than a harmless soap-opera-esque storyline. After the smooth-sailing of the Pep Guardiola era, Barcelona had come to a point where some of its own fans wished they would lose the decisive match against Atlético Madrid, all because they had lost to Real Sociedad a week earlier and the majority of the fanbase wanted someone out — Luis Enrique, Josep Maria Bartomeu, anyone.
Luis Enrique had reportedly fallen out with Messi, which didn’t go down well at the Camp Nou stands. Two days after the loss to Real Socieadad, Catalan newspaper Sport ran a poll asking the readers about the situation: 93% of 2,000 voters sided with Messi over Luis Enrique and 70% thought that the Argentine wasn’t being treated fairly by the manager. Nobody really knew what had gone on inside the dressing room, but they didn’t have to know: the decision between the club’s arguably best-ever player and a newly appointed coach was seemingly easy.
The decision for the Barcelona board seemed easy, too: not one political figure in a football club would ever publicly side against the institution’s greatest star.
The board lead by Bartomeu, however, didn’t show Enrique the door. The pressure was building up and in the days after the defeat at Anoeta, the power struggle inside the club became one between not only Messi and Luis Enrique, but also Messi, his team mates and the board. Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked as sporting director and rumors circulated that several members of Bartomeu’s board were pressuring him into calling early elections. Internal stability — or whatever was left of it — was all lost and on January 7th, Bartomeu held a press conference where he announced that presidential elections would be held in the summer of 2015, a year earlier than they were supposed to take place.
The moment Bartomeu called elections, something changed. Uncertainty arose, but at the same time, it was like walking on a field of dewy grass on a sunny morning: the storm had passed and taken the tension with it.
Nobody really knows what happened in the Barcelona dressing room that evening. No one knows how each player reacted as they watched the empire come tumbling down. Lord knows what Luis Enrique was thinking: Bartomeu was the man who signed him and surely early elections meant that his future at the club would be in doubt in the summer at latest. No one has really talked about it and if you ask a player about it, he will say — as vaguely as players usually do when it comes to club politics — that nothing really, concretely changed after that one fateful defeat.
It is hard to completely buy that, though, when you look at the change not only in results but also performances. The day after the elections were called, Barcelona beat Elche at home by five goals to nil, and on the following weekend, Atlético Madrid traveled to the Camp Nou just to suffer a 3-1 defeat in the hands of the Catalans. The watermark of that win over the reigning champions is the image of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez celebrating together after the third goal, all smiling from ear to ear. Such sight seemed a million miles away just a week earlier.
It might well be that the sudden improvement had nothing to do with the happenings of the previous week: perhaps the return of the bright-faced Barcelona coinciding with a massive political announcement was just that — a coincidence. Or maybe it wasn’t.
It’s an open secret that there are several Barcelona players who aren’t happy with the way things have been handled in the previous years. The way Eric Abidal’s case was dealt with left many shocked and discontented, while many were upset that Victor Valdés refused to sign a renewal — for whatever the reason might have been — and left the club. “I want new challenges”, he said, but it never felt like the whole truth coming from the mouth of a man who had spent his entire life vowing his love to the club. Dani Alves might be on the verge of suffering a similar fate: he enters the last months of his contract and hasn’t been offered a renewal or been contacted by the club. While letting the Brazilian go might make sense if it wasn’t for Barcelona’s transfer ban, there’s a feeling that the right back — who at this point is certainly a club legend — deserves better, and certainly has earned a bit more respect.
Then there is Lionel Messi, who should never have to fear for his future in the club, but who has reportedly felt uncomfortable after his latest renewal talks, during which a member of Bartomeu’s board refused to name him and referred to him as “ese señor” [that man] in a radio interview, and the Catalan papers painted a picture of him as a man who demanded more money to stay, as if years and years of service weren’t enough to prove his commitment.
A case could be made that the key members of the squad haven’t been made feel safe, protected and comfortable by the current management. Who knows who will be the next to be thrown out of the door to make way for newer, shinier things? Who knows how much grudge some of the senior players bear for the board that has shipped or forced their long-time friends out? Who says that a player is immune to the doubts and fears that appear in the mind of your average fan when the club does things so badly that it’s banned from signing players, which directly harms the team’s future?
While the call for elections made Barcelona’s short-term future uncertain on an institutional level, it might have provided some well-needed clarity for the players. “These people won’t be here next season.” Is it a coincidence that all tension between Luis Enrique and the squad seemed to ease when elections were called? Bartomeu hasn’t lost the presidential elections yet, but he’s far from winning them. If the people side with the players over Bartomeu the way the sided with Messi over Luis Enrique, the president’s days could well be counted.
Knowing this, the players are fighting for three titles, hopeful that things will change at the end of the season. Hopeful that the men in the boardroom will be called out for their wrongdoings; hopeful that the institution will be managed like a sports club again.
To say that the drastic improvement is all down to politics would be unfair: Luis Enrique deserves credit for how he has made the team peak physically, Juan Carlos Unzue deserves credit for how solid the team is in set-pieces, and so on. But the importance of what goes on inside a player’s head can’t be downplayed either. This is a team that — due to tragic circumstances — broke mentally last year. We can talk about tactics and formations forever, but a team scarred by loss, heartache and uncertainty rarely — if ever — lifts trophies. A team building itself back up in hopes of better, whose energy is all focused on what happens on the pitch, can go far. A team like that turns close matches around in second halves and has the ball bounce its way every now and again. That’s what Barcelona is at the moment, and not least due to the winds of change blowing through the stadium. Will the team lift trophies? Who knows. But at the very least, it is now strong enough mentally to do so.