Countless articles have been penned reflecting on Real Madrid’s glorious 2019-20 La Liga victory, but none have quite captured how everything came together at the Bernabeu.
More has been written about what went wrong with Messi’s team. Barcelona was widely expected to cruise to a third consecutive title. I could not resist adding some more web columns to the pile; though I will add a personal story, too; a tale that goes back to my trip to Spain in the autumn of last year.
I spent time in both Madrid as well as in Barcelona. And visiting the iconic Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and the Camp Nou was of course at the top of my priority list. While the stadium tours made me ecstatic, something occurred that took me completely by surprise.
Real Madrid and Barcelona – At Opposite Ends of the Spectrum
I had grown up for much of the 2000s admiring F.C. Barcelona’s football philosophy. The club seemed in every way to justify the tag of “Mes Que Un Club”, or “more than a club.” Real Madrid used to buy big. They would break the transfer records each summer and hoard the world’s top footballers. Barcelona had its share of world-class imports; but it also had that local identity, promoting talent from its famed La Masia academy. Lionel Messi, who would go on to become the world’s best footballer, is an Argentine but had been part of the La Masia academy since his teens.
Besides Messi, Barcelona’s La Masia has been a breeding ground for other iconic footballers of the generation like Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Victor Valdes, Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodriguez and more. Real Madrid fans would boo their own players after only a few bad games. The club stood as the pet club of the dictatorial Franco regime. Barcelona was the rebel, exemplified by the buck-toothed Ronaldinho. This was the image I retained about the two clubs while I traversed the Iberian nation. Much to my surprise, the visits to the club stadiums proved the complete opposite of my expectations. And this inverted image may in some way reflect how the clubs are presently being run.
Watch: Real Madrid and Barcelona – A History
Problems Brewing at Camp Nou
The Read Madrid stadium tour was classy. It involved football and history. The trophy cabinet was seemingly never-ending. The visitors were, for the most part, people who cared for and knew about football. At the Camp Nou, it was a carnival atmosphere, with a typical touristy crowd there for the selfies and the beverages at the counter. The pricing, too, was significantly higher in Barcelona. And perhaps this culture had rubbed off among the players; and the administration which for quite a while has seemed dysfunctional. Messi has, almost single-handedly, been carrying the club to trophies for the last few seasons.
I had predicted something similar to a Manchester United post-Ferguson style collapse at Barcelona, but it happened even earlier. Barcelona for the last few years has been buying players and throwing money left, right and centre, much like peak Galactico era at Real Madrid in the early 2000s. The Neymar sale was something of a windfall, but the club did not have a proper plan to use the money. The Catalans chased Philippe Coutinho all of summer 2017, after Neymar left for Paris St. Germain. Since Coutinho did not budge, over-the-top money was paid, as a last resort, for youngster Ousmane Dembele. The latter has since spent a lot of time on the treatment table, rather than on the football pitch.
Barcelona, for the last few years, has been buying players and throwing money left, right and centre, much like peak Galactico era at Real Madrid.
Coutinho arrived in January, meaning that Barcelona had to cough up big money twice. Then, in the summer of 2019, they again spent top-dollar on Antoine Griezmann, having failed in a prior bid to lure him twelve months earlier. They also spent a lot on Frenkie de Jong, admittedly as a longer-term signing. They were even linked with a move to bring back Neymar. The club also doesn’t know what to do with the Portuguese right back- Nelson Semedo – ironically among the few unqualified transfer success stories of the last few seasons. The latest batch from La Masia doesn’t inspire much either.
But Santiago Bernabeu Seems to be on the Right Path
Real Madrid did spend a lot in the summer of 2019, including top-dollar on superstar Eden Hazard. But for the most part, over the last few years, Real has invested in youth. The likes of Marco Asensio, Federico Valverdi, Martin Odegaard, Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, Rodrygo, Alphonse Areola, Achraf Hakimi, Vinicius Junior, Mariano and Brahim Diaz have all been introduced to the first team. Some are already thriving. Some out-of-favour dinosaurs still remain, such as James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale. Luka Jovic hasn’t had much of a good start to life here. So things are not ideal; but under the leadership of club legend Zinedine Zidane, the club is surely on the right path.
Truth be told, Barcelona hasn’t lost much yet. One title loss doesn’t make too much of a difference. The club could still go on to capture the pending UEFA Champions’ League this season. But, crucially, Barcelona needs to put long-term plans in place. Even before the summer of 2017, Barcelona were spending big on Luis Suarez and Neymar himself. But now, spending money and the brilliance of Messi seem to be the only assets that the club is managing to find at its disposal currently. This needs to change.
Messi won’t be here forever. He is already 33. The club needs to settle into a right formation with a settled squad that is equally potent without the iconic Argentinian at helm. Deadwood needs to be cleared, while youth needs to be given a chance. Bizarre signings, like Patrick Braithwaite, suggest that the transfer strategy clearly needs to be rethought. Instead, youngsters from other Spanish clubs could be more useful in such a scenario. And of course, the board needs to be sorted. If that is done, then surely the tagline “Mes Que Un Club”, would be closer to reality once again.