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José Mourinho thought the job was his. He was, in the eyes of many observers and most crucially the board, the frontrunner to become the next manager of Barcelona. Everything was set up for the Portuguese to return to the Camp Nou as the boss, having been the club’s translator a decade previously. The other candidate for the job, however, was Pep Guardiola.
In the choice between Guardiola and Mourinho 12 years ago, Barcelona were faced with a question of their own identity. The fact they picked the former, an unproven disciple of club icon Johan Cruyff, over the latter, a hardened win-at-all-costs champion, underlined why Barca are different.
Or were different.
Barcelona’s identity is no longer so clear. While they were once an extension of the famed La Masia youth academy, where the principles of dynamic, expansive soccer are instilled in children as young as 8, the Catalans aren’t anymore.
They are something closer to Real Madrid, eternal rivals who did hire Mourinho two years after Barca turned him away. At the time, it highlighted the stark philosophical contrast between the capital club and Barcelona. Mourinho was a proven winner and marketable brand in his own right. He was the perfect “Galáctico” manager.
Real Madrid, traditionally, are not so concerned with ideology. Just winning. As 13-time European Champions and 33-time Spanish champions, they’re pretty good at it. But while this put them at odds with Barcelona for decades, there is now more to connect the rivals than divide them, at least from a sporting perspective.
The two clubs have become two sides of the same coin, and Barcelona have thrown more coins at players than most other clubs in recent seasons. This is a team that has spent more than $1 billion in the transfer market over the last four years. In the same time period, Real Madrid splurged around $650 million - a significant sum, but not enough to justify the capital club’s traditional status as La Liga’s biggest spenders.
It’s not just the amount of money spent by Barcelona that has blurred the lines of their historic identity, but the way they have spent it. There is difference between being a great player and a great Barca player. The Camp Nou is a stage that demands something different of its performers. There is a different set of standards.
These are standards that Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé, signed for a combined $310 million, have fallen short of. Barcelona had no real plan for either player’s integration. That saw little more than the name on the back of their shirt, something Barca used to deride Real Madrid for when assembling talents like Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham.
Barcelona have become the very thing they previously rallied against. Their mixed performances this season have reflected it, while the hasty firing of Ernesto Valverde and equally hasty hiring of Quique Setién signify the club’s belief it needs to revert back to old ways, without any real idea of how to do that.
Right now, Real Madrid might have a clearer vision of what they are and what they want to be. Yes, this is a club that paid $100 million for a 28-year-old Eden Hazard this summer, but it’s also a club that has prioritized the signing of the best young talent from South America, most notably Brazil — see Reinier Jesus, Rodrygo and Vinícius Júnior.
On top of this trio, there’s Fede Valverde, the young Uruguayan midfielder whose emergence this season has seemingly ended Real Madrid’s interest in Paul Pogba. Defender Éder Militão was signed from Porto last summer, with attacking midfielder Marco Asensio still considered a future face of the club despite some recent injury troubles.
Factor in Martin Odegaard, the on-loan Norwegian who has shone for Real Sociedad this season, and Achraf Hakimi, another on-loan prospect who has established himself as one of the game’s best young fullbacks at Borussia Dortmund, and Real Madrid boast a squad that could sustain them for the next decade.
In many ways, it has been easier for Real Madrid to transition into a new generation. It always will be. While Barcelona have been raised by the ideas and methods of Cruyff, it is also a burden on the club. Real Madrid don’t have that burden.
As the La Liga season resumes this week, which club will stand tallest is yet to be determined. In past years, the Spanish title race has been a sprint to the finish. This season, the winning runner will simply be the one that has stayed on their feet without falling flat on their face the longest.
Barcelona, of course, have Lionel Messi, and that in itself might give them an edge. But even he looks increasingly unsure of himself. Whether as a consequence of a rumored injury he’s carried for months or his unease at the toxic boardroom politicking that has taken hold at the Camp Nou, Messi has dragged Barca behind him this season through pure obligation. His body language has been without joy for some time.
These are two clubs that set the zeitgeist for an entire era of the game, but from different ends of the spectrum. Now, the problems Barcelona and Real Madrid are currently facing are similar. Separated by just a single point at the top of La Liga, they aren’t just close in the table, but in many other ways too.
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