Currently on display in the Tate Liverpool art gallery is an imposing piece of work by one of Barack Obama’s favourite creatives, the conceptual artist Glenn Ligon.
“Untitled 2006” dominates the room, a large neon sculpture of the word “AMERICA” with its lights covered almost entirely by black paint. Its power supply is intentionally left visible below, attached by loosely hanging cables, with only a few chinks of light visible through cracks and imperfections in the paint.
“There is this sense,” Ligon has explained about the meaning behind his work, “that America, for all its dark deeds, is still this shining light”.
Seen in this way, an art-loving football fan may well feel that Ligon could have written something very different: FC Barcelona.
In 2011, Barcelona were at their peak. They were the undisputed champions of Spain and Europe, Lionel Messi still had the scruffy long hair of an 11-year-old, and even the shirt, still bearing its first-ever sponsor in Unicef, was as Barça as it comes.
From the top of a mountain, though, you can only move in one direction. The decline of Barcelona which has become so evident in this tumultuous transfer window has been a long, inexorable one of dizzying highs and new, unthinkable lows.
Far from coincidentally, 2011 also marked a year since Sandro Rosell was appointed president of the club, replacing the popular Joan Laporta. Laporta had ushered in an unprecedented era of success by appointing the rookie Pep Guardiola as manager in 2008, investing in the famed La Masia youth academy and charming the sporting world in the process.
Rosell was not such a romantic. The Barcelona-born businessman decided financial muscle was the only way to retain their seat at the top table of world football, and set about cementing the club’s status as an economic powerhouse.
2011-12 saw Barça come second in La Liga and bow out in the semi-finals of the Champions League, but they confirmed themselves as champions of the world with a Club World Cup win – and they did so not with the traditional blank shirt, nor with the Unicef emblem, but with ‘Qatar Foundation’ emblazoned across their kits.
This was the first time in the club’s history that the club had sold a space on its shirt to a sponsor and, though the organisation was a non-profit, it paved the way to later be replaced by Qatar Airways. These were ominous signs for those fans believed in the ‘Més Que un Club’ motto, and the club as a force for Catalan identity and sporting triumph rather than financial gain.
2011 saw these two concepts go hand-in-hand as, unknown to the world, the club won the race for Brazilian teen sensation Neymar as a secret deal was made with the player. €10 million was to be paid to Neymar up front, with a further €30 million to be paid upon his joining the club.
Santos were unaware, and Barcelona hid the deal on the 178th page of their financial accounts, with minimal details. When an accord was finally reached with the Brazilian club, Rosell was delighted with the modest fee of €17 million that was agreed for a player for whom Real Madrid and Chelsea had been willing to break the bank.
It was only when club member Jordi Cases, a pharmacist, pressured Rosell to disclose these financial details and was subsequently threatened with legal action that the club began to come under pressure.
After a legal tussle, Rosell quit as president and was replaced by Bartomeu who, in a bid to prove transparency, disclosed further details of the Neymar deal. €17.1 million had been paid to Santos, €40 million to Neymar with bonuses, a further €500,000/year to Neymar as a club ambassador in Brazil, and €400,000/year to his father to scout three young Santos players. The disclosed total of €86.2 million greatly exceeded a previously quoted sum of €57.1 million.
Despite this effort from Bartomeu, his friend Rosell was charged with “crimes against the public treasury” and “dishonest” management, as 25% of Neymar’s €40 million should have been paid as income tax. Rosell’s links to the remaining club hierarchy left them open to much criticism and public scrutiny – the club’s power supply was exposed, and within a few years, Rosell was in prison.
Bartomeu’s financial dealings have continued despite constant criticism from the club’s fans. Qatar Airways were next, and in 2016 a huge commercial deal was signed with controversial Japanese company Rakuten, previously named as the world’s largest online retailer of ivory and whale meat. In footballing terms, these deals were signed with the view to completing a project that came into fruition in 2014 with the final piece of the puzzle, prized from Merseyside for around €80 million.
For all their goals, assists, trophies and expressions of football at its most perfect, a lot was sacrificed for the MSN.
With the huge fees needed to put together and maintain one of the most terrifying front lines in the history of football, the rest of the team was sacrificed. Players like Thiago Alcântara and Dani Alves have been lost for little or nothing and never properly replaced.
The overall quality of the squad has declined as the likes of André Gomes, Paco Alcácer, and Arda Turan have been brought in, paid a king’s ransom, and failed to produce on the pitch; a point underscored with a paintbrush by the odd, apparently politically motivated signing of Paulinho.
But what has really hammered home the demise of Barcelona in this transfer window is not the odd signings they have made, not having their greatest hope plucked from their grasp by the upstart Parisians, but the way in which they have conducted their business. Simply put, it has been unpleasant.
Barça have been attempting to prise Marco Verratti away from PSG for months, in an unsettling move which reportedly led to a ‘light rebellion’ in training for the Italian. Philippe Coutinho has been convinced to demand a transfer away from Liverpool, just as Jürgen Klopp’s master plan appears to be coming to fruition and he is needed most. Only a firm stance from Borussia Dortmund meant that Ousmane Dembélé, on strike at the club that took him from a relative unknown to the top level of club football, eventually moved for an eye-watering nine-figure fee.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the greatest sign that the Barcelona of old still lives, the earth-shattering 6-1 victory over PSG last year, shouldn’t really have happened. As poor as the visitors were, a competent officiating team would have seen at least one, possibly two of their goals ruled out for simulation.
Their third came from Neymar throwing himself over the already prone body of young defender Thomas Meunier, and the fifth from Suárez going down under little pressure, wailing and hollering as a brush of shirts caused his legs to buckle underneath him like a poached giraffe. Hardly the stuff of magic.
Not only unpleasant, Barça’s transfer activity has at times bordered on embarrassing. A desperate scramble to land Coutinho, a playmaker who has registered six, seven, and nine assists in all competitions in his last three seasons for an absurd sum left the Catalans with even more egg on their faces when it was revealed that they had cheaply attempted to bolster the figures with unrealistic bonus payments.
Jean Michaël Seri, a Xavi-like player who began interesting the club when fans mentioned his name on social media, had an easily attainable release clause in his contract – but Barcelona acted too slowly and the clause expired, leaving his club Nice with all the power.
The arrival of Dembélé is a significant boost and one which offsets some of the malaise over losing Neymar, but it has been a transfer window of little dignity from the former guardians of the beautiful game.
And yet, it has somewhat proved Glenn Ligon’s point. For all the bashing the club have taken on social media, for all the talk of the death knell of the Barcelona Golden Age, for all the worrisome scrambling to please, dear lord, get Lionel Messi to extend his contract, they clearly remain a shining light of sorts.
Coutinho was willing to sacrifice a proper crack at the Champions League with Liverpool and Klopp in an exciting, expansive team for the chance to try and fill Neymar’s shoes at the Camp Nou. Dembélé was eager to do the same.
Barcelona must capitalise on this while they still can. Andrés Iniesta is 33 and Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué and Luis Suárez all 30, and there is a lot of rebuilding already to be done. While Real Madrid are ruling the world and future-proofing their squad with sublime youngsters such as Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos, Barça are being left behind.
The Milan clubs are evidence enough that a champion’s lustre does not last forever, and one way or another, Barcelona need a Messi contingency plan.
That plan had been Neymar, and for the time being it seems that Dembélé may now have the unenviable task of replacing the greatest ever. It is a risk which Bartomeu above all others needs to pay off.
Ligon cites inspiration for his work from the opening line of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“After trying to think of a piece using the Dickens text, I realized, actually, Dickens is talking about a moment that society is in where everything is happening and nothing is happening; everything is booming and everyone is poor,” Ligon said in an interview with NPR. “The dichotomies between rich and poor, progress and going backwards seemed to be where we were at in America.”
This does seem to strengthen the Barcelona link. Barça are, at the present moment, a club of juxtapositions.
Losing arguably the most exciting player in the world but replacing him with a similar, younger player at close to half the price.
Exacting perhaps the greatest comeback in Champions League history but doing it, to quote The Damned United, ‘by bloody cheating’.
Being in the middle of the club’s most pressing crisis in a decade, but still being all-but guaranteed a top-three finish, title challenge, and a European run.
It is not obvious what must be done to remedy these issues, or how Barça can regain their status as the world’s finest football club. For football’s sake, though, a return to the glory years would be most welcome – back to when FC Barcelona turned football into art in a far more beautiful way.
By Sam France.
Header image credit goes fully to der sportmanager.