Barca find their bearing

Barca find their bearing

After a tough season, the Spanish giants are on a revival path

After the first week of a complete schedule across Europe’s main leagues, the most heartwarming story is the old story.

It is the return to completeness for Lionel Messi, who is not simply dancing with the ball as only he can but demonstrably enjoying the game again.

He scored two goals in Barcelona’s easy 3-0 victory over Elche, a typical contribution, you might say, for Leo. Yet there were new dimensions at the Camp Nou in Barcelona. One of those was a boy called Munir El Haddadi, who stepped into the senior team as if were born to do it. Munir had scored a goal with a shot from his own half of the field in junior soccer against Benfica last spring. Last Sunday, the 18-year-old struck with that same left foot — a goal this time from just inside the opponent’s penalty area, but nevertheless a deft, almost casual flick off the outside of his shoe that it was, well, Messi-esque.

Munir, who was born on the outskirts of Madrid, is of Moroccan heritage. He signed with the Barcelona academy, La Masia, when he was 15 and is a week away from turning 19. His goal on Sunday, which came after he struck the crossbar with another shot, made him the third-youngest player to score for Barcelona in La Liga, behind Bojan Krkic and Messi. Bojan, also a product of Barcelona’s academy, recently joined Stoke City in the English Premier league as he searches for a new start to his career at age 24.

Barça is in its most comprehensive rebuilding phase in a decade. It has a new president and a new coach after Gerardo Martino was let go after last season. Martino had the job for only a year after replacing an ailing Tito Vilanova, who died last April of cancer at 45. All these traumas, plus court proceedings against the Messi and the Neymar families over money and taxes, compounded by the retirement of the club’s captain, Carles Puyol, and the slowing down of the aging assistant captain, Xavi Hernández. All those things — plus numerous injuries that hampered Messi — seemed to drain the zest out of the Camp Nou last season. And yes, the team finished without a trophy, an unacceptable second-place finish in the league behind Atlético Madrid.

Worse, after FIFA ruled that the Barça academy illegally recruited foreign talents too young and threatened to shut down all transfers of senior players for 14 months, there were many inside and outside of Spain who mocked the Catalan club’s slogan, “Més que un club” - more than a club.

 Barcelona’s new president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, the board and the club’s sporting director, the former goalkeeper Andoni Zubizaretta, quickly embarked on rebuilding the team before the transfer ban could kick in. They would centre their overhaul around Messi and Andrés Iniesta. 

To do that, they had no choice but to appeal the FIFA decision, a process that means it will finally be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.

If the club loses the ruling, it will be shut out of the next few transfer windows, so Barcelona went on a grand buying and selling spree this summer as it tried to squeeze three transfer windows into one.

“Messi stays, no matter what,” Bartomeu assured me back in April, when the playmaker, handicapped by injuries, looked a little dispirited by what was going on around him. “Whoever comes and goes,” Bartomeu had reasoned, “Messi is the identity of our club, our academy, our way of playing football. There is no price that could tempt us to sell him.”

Even before it let its old coach go, Barça knew then who its new one would be: Luis Enrique, a contemporary of the former captain and coach Pep Guardiola. Both had come up through the coaching ranks with Barcelona’s youth team, and Enrique would be the man tasked with rebuilding the club to the same success it enjoyed under Guardiola from 2008 to 2012.

Six senior players have arrived at a cost of nearly $240 million over the summer transfer window. Six other players, including Cesc Fàbregas, Alexis Sánchez and Bojan, have left at a combined cost of approximately half that.

The difference between the outlay and recoupment was the $124 million or so it took to buy out Luis Suárez’s contract from Liverpool. It will be a relief, for all of us, when the window shuts at midnight next Monday and we can get back to assessing performance and not finance. Last Sunday at the Camp Nou was an appetizer of that. Munir made the transition from the B team to the top team with the beautiful innocence of youth.

What Barcelona was lacking was defence and midfield solidarity.  Enrique is looking for just that. But still, on the evidence of the game against Elche, passing and moving are the essence of the team. They are the hallmark made in La Masia, more than a club.