From tiki-taka to total turmoil – how it’s all gone wrong for Barcelona

None of the club’s recent expensive signings, including Ferran Torres, Jules Koundé, Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha, have excelled

In early February, Barça played Granada in La Liga at the Olympic Stadium in Montjuïc, Barça’s temporary home. Granada will be relegated this season. Barça were lucky to draw 3-3, as Granada missed a chance late on to win the match. As the game drew to a close, several Barça fans began shouting in the face of Barça president Joan Laporta: “Resign Laporta!” “You’re a disgrace!”

The abuse went on for five or six minutes. Laporta sat impassively, the rage building up inside him. When he got up from his seat and entered the stadium’s VIP section, he hurled trays of canapés onto the floor in front of him.

Since returning as president of Barça three years ago, with the exception of a league title last season, not much has gone right for Laporta. Barça’s finances are a shambles. The club, according to Víctor Font, Laporta’s rival in the 2021 presidential campaign, is “financially in the ICU”. The vital signs are worrying: €1.2 billion in debt; losses of more than €1 billion over the last three years; mired in a €1.5 billion stadium rebuild; haemorrhaging close to €90 million a season in matchday income while exiled from the Camp Nou stadium.

The Covid pandemic – which banjaxed its revenue streams – exposed Barça’s reckless salary-to-income ratio. Frenkie de Jong, for example, is still on a fat contract that dates back to 2019-20. His salary is reportedly €37.5 million a season, twice as much as İlkay Gündoğan – last year’s captain of Manchester City’s treble-winning team – has ever earned during his career.


Barça are operating in a war economy. They were the lowest spender of the 32 teams in this year’s Champions League group stages. The decision to speculate wildly in the summer of 2022 on transfers – by selling off assets, including €667 million for 25 per cent of their La Liga TV income over the next 25 years – hasn’t paid dividends. None of the club’s recent expensive signings, including Ferran Torres, Jules Koundé, Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha, have excelled.

After a blistering start at Barça in the 2022-23 season, Lewandowski’s productivity – dating back to the break he took for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – has dwindled. There was a time during his club career when the Polish striker, 35, scored a goal a game year in, year out. Now his yield is a goal every three games. Age has caught up with him.

There’s scrutiny in the Spanish press about Laporta’s iffy transfer decisions and the money that goes to various brokers to make those deals happen. On the presidential election trail in 2021, Laporta argued it’s good to have close ties with football’s super agents. Last summer, Barça’s coach Xavi Hernández had verbal agreements to recruit Man City’s Bernardo Silva and Real Sociedad’s holding midfielder Martín Zubimendi. Neither move happened. Instead, Xavi had João Cancelo and João Felix foisted upon him. Both players are represented by Jorge Mendes, a close associate of Laporta’s.

In January, Barça accelerated the transfer of Vitor Roque, a teenage striker from Brazil, a deal which reportedly cost €61 million including add-ons. Roque didn’t feature in Barça’s four Champions League knockout games, suggesting he’ll end up as another flop manufactured in the Brazilian dream factory.

Gündoğan and Andreas Christensen were signed by Barça on free transfers, canny deals that have proven successful, organised by the club’s former sporting director Mateu Alemany, an experienced football executive. Alemany was told he was being kicked out of the club while watching Barça at a training session. He was removed to make way for Deco, a former star Portuguese midfielder for Barça during the Ronaldinho era who pushed for the Cancelo and Felix signings.

More than 20 executives – including the club’s CEO, who has never been replaced – have left the club since Laporta was made president in 2021. Of course, no one is missed more than Lionel Messi, who left in the summer of 2021. Messi papered over the cracks. For 13 seasons, he scored more than 30 goals. To put that in context, Samuel Eto’o, one of the club’s greatest-ever centre forwards, only once scored more than 30 goals during five seasons at Barça.

Now Xavi, another iconic figure at Barça, is leaving too. He’s burnt out, puffy around the jowls, irritable and unrecognisable in the dugout compared to his days as a serene presence marshalling Barça and Spain’s midfields. Last Tuesday while Barça were being pummelled 1-4 by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, Xavi picked up his third red card this season; in a 21-year playing career he was only sent off twice.

Last January, after a chaotic 3-5 defeat to Villarreal, the first time Barça leaked five goals at home in La Liga since the 1960s – Xavi told Laporta he would step down at the end of the season. He was jumping before being pushed. Directors at the club were moving against him. The pressure on head coaches in Barcelona is unbearable. According to Pep Guardiola, Xavi’s old teammate and coach, managing Barça is “a thousand times” more stressful than managing a club in England.

There is no Plan B. Barça don’t have money to hire an elite coach. They must sell players in the summer to meet financial fair play regulations. The club will likely give the job to its reserve team coach, Rafa Márquez, a central defender during Barça’s Champions League-winning campaigns in 2006 and 2009. Márquez has no experience managing a first team, but he’s cheap and aligned with the Laporta/Deco camp. The new coach will inherit a cohort of exceptionally talented home-grown players, including Gavi, Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsí.

Before Tuesday night’s Champions League tie against PSG, Barça fans accidentally stoned their own team bus. It told us something about the confusion that reigns at the club. On Sunday night at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, Xavi’s team will take on a Real Madrid team buoyed by victory over Manchester City during the week. Only a win for Barça – who trail Real Madrid by eight points with seven games to play – will keep alive their slim hopes in the title race. Real Madrid will be smelling blood.

Pearls from La Masia, Barça’s Academy

Xavi Hernández has relied heavily on graduates from La Masia, Barça’s famed youth academy, including the team’s best centre half Ronald Araújo; Gavi (missing most of the season due to a cruciate knee ligament injury); Alejandro Balde and Fermín López, a tyro in midfield. None, however, have surprised as much as the precocious talents of Pau Cubarsí and Lamine Yamal, who Xavi has been fearless in blooding on the biggest stages.

Cubarsí grew up in Estanyol, a tiny village in northern Catalonia without a school or a football club. He can play on either side of central defence, and was only 16 when given his debut earlier this season. He was capped by Spain during the international break at Easter. Xavi says his pulse rate never rises when he sees Cubarsí on the ball – it’s his greatest strength. Cubarsí also tackles like a previous club legend, “Tarzan” Migueli, and sprays 40-yard passes like Ronald Koeman.

In the history of the clásico rivalry, only three Barça players have received standing ovations at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid. Diego Maradona in 1983; Ronaldinho in 2005; and Andrés Iniesta in 2015. Last March, while playing for Spain against Brazil, Lamine Yamal was accorded the same honour. He’s already in august company, and he’s only 16 years old.

Xavi gave Lamine Yamal his debut last season, aged 15. He still lives as a boarder at La Masia. Barring injury, he will be Spain’s star player at this summer’s European Championship. He plays on the right wing like Messi. He’s the best dribbler in La Liga this season. He can do everything, including score from outside the box, but perhaps his greatest virtue – for a player so young – is his decision-making. He’s clever, as well as having celestial talents.