Barcelona was in “TOTAL CRISIS.” That’s how Diario SPORT summed up the situation at the start of January. MARCA said the team was falling apart, and in the land of the Spanish press, where hyperbole both rules and sells, there were few who didn’t agree with the premise: The walls were coming down at Camp Nou.
You never knew if the club was still going to be there when you woke up the next morning. Apparently, it was that serious. It was a crisis, a total one, remember? You would have certainly been ridiculed if you’d suggested Barça would win the league at the Vicente Calderón with a week to spare, exactly one year after ceding the title to Atlético Madrid in its own back yard.
Back in January, Luis Enrique had just had a playground bust up with Lionel Messi and left his best player on the bench for the trip north to take on Real Sociedad. Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué and Neymar joined Messi in the dugout, a blanket over their legs keeping them warm in the Basque winter. At a time when Real Madrid was just coming off its 22-match losing streak, Barcelona slumped to defeat.
After that, the dominos continued to fall. Messi didn’t turn up for an open training session the following Monday, disappointing the thousands of children (and adults) who had turned up at the Mini Estadi to catch a glimpse of the Argentine’s ever-expanding array of tattoos. Barça stuck up for its employee, claiming he had “gastroenteritis,” but Xavi Hernández also awkwardly labeled that as an excuse that gets used when something else is going on.
On after, sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked, with Carles Puyol, his deputy, walking out hours later. President Josep Maria Bartomeu called summer elections because he wanted to “relieve the tension” around the club, stopping short of saying it could be cut with a knife.
As all that happened, Elche came to town for a Copa del Rey game, one where supporters voted with their voices. While Messi’s name was belted out at any given opportunity, Luis Enrique was given a frosty reception. The message to the Barça boss was clear: You play with Messi, you’ll get burnt.
It was all part of a week of turmoil where Barça was (and is, depending on the criteria) in danger of becoming Less Than a Club. The signing of Neymar could still see former president Sandro Rosell and Bartomeu end up in prison for fiddling taxes; the club is still under a FIFA-imposed transfer ban; and Messi is one of a sea of players who is being hunted by the Spanish tax office. But even amid all this uncertainty, January gave us a week of peak paranoia.
Nobody likes to gossip more than soccer journalists, so come Jan. 11, when defending champion Atlético turned up at the Nou Camp, Luis Enrique was being portrayed as a dead man walking. Atlético had avoided defeat to Gerardo Martino’s non-crisis Barça in all six meetings last season, knocking them out of the Champions League and having the audacity to win the league at Camp Nou in the process. Diego Simeone was now here to put Lucho out of his misery.
But then, in spite of that crisis that was supposed to undermine the entire season, Barcelona won. And how. Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar all scored, peeling away together after one of the goals, arm in arm, provoking one of the photos of the season (right). From that point on, the three South Americans have led Barça’s campaign to have the word ‘crisis’ removed from soccer lexicon.
“Playing like this, there is no crisis,” SPORT screamed as happily as it could. Messi appeared on Barça TV to ask the press to “stop throwing shit” at the club, referring to the reports of his fallout with the boss. He probably didn’t count on cumbersome central defender Jeremy Mathieu giving the game away a couple of weeks later, confirming all to a French broadcaster. Still, even with the truth out, Barça has gone from strength to strength to super-strength since that season-defining week in January.
Catalan journalist Javier Miguel, who is known to have a good relationship with Xavi, revealed last week that the U-turn’s origins lie in a group WhatsApp chat the players have.
“If we continue like this it is clear that we will not win anything this season,” Miguel claims was the first message sent by a Barça player as they contemplated another campaign without gold. “We can’t go through another season without winning anything,” shuddered another player at the thought.
Voilà. With the rallying call of a few WhatsApp messages and the confidence of at last bettering Atlético, Barça put aside their differences. Fast forward to Monday morning, and they woke up with a hangover (Piqué admitted as much himself on Instagram), dreaming of becoming the first ever club to win two trebles.
Since that day in January when Luis Enrique steered Barça to success with a gun to his head against Atlético, the team has beaten the Rojiblanco three more times, twice on route to the Copa del Rey final. It is also in the Champions League final, with its latest success against Simeone’s side securing La Liga’s title on Sunday evening.
From total crisis to total domination: Barcelona is champion of Spain, and it could soon be champion of Europe. Since the crisis-triggering defeat to Real Sociedad, it has won 29 of 32 games, losing only two, one of which, against Bayern last week, didn’t really matter (Barcelona had already secured a huge lead in the first leg of the teams’ Champions League semifinal). The team has now won a staggering 48 matches this season, and it still has three games to play — two of which are those finals, against Athletic Club (Copa del Rey) and Juventus (Champions League).
Of course, that domination has been about the Argentine, the Brazilian, the Uruguayan and their 115 goals, but it’s not just been about them. It is also about Ivan Rakitić and Sergio Busquets in midfield; about defense featuring a rejuvenated Dani Alves and a newly-focused Piqué; and about goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who has conceded just 19 league goals this season, 10 less than any other side.
It’s also been about unity — look at the way they celebrated each and every goal in the maulings of Getafe and Cordoba recently — and, yes, it’s also about Luis Enrique. He’s been able to keep his squad fresh through rotating his lineups for his first 29 matches in charge and making everyone think he was crazy. And maybe he is, but he’s also improved the defense significantly; improved almost every player, in terms of their last season, at least, physically and mentally; and improved set plays at both ends. It helps that he’s been able to chuck a splash of Messi Dust into the mix, but he’s come a long way from the dead man walking he was became in early January.
And so we find ourselves in an existential crisis, wondering if the word ‘crisis’ actually has any relevance in soccer. If Barcelona is able to win the league — and maybe even the treble — despite being called a catastrophe club just four months ago, should we maybe tone down the drama when things go wrong in the future? Does everything have to be black or white? Barça or Real Madrid?
Luis Enrique has the answer to that one. He was asked after the first win against Atlético in January if he thought the crisis had gone: “No, next time we lose it will be back.”