As Barcelona contemplate a year without transfers, we look at what it might mean for the Catalan club.
Another day, another slap in the face for Barcelona from the authorities. Hot on the heels of the their failed attempts to overturn Luis Suarez's latest ban for toothy enthusiasm comes word from FIFA that their two-window transfer ban, originally imposed in April and then placed on hold by their appeal, will be imposed after all. As of January 2015, and pending a further appeal, Barcelona won't be buying anybody.
Delightful news for Real Madrid, of course, who will have a free run at whoever amounts to flavor of the month next summer. For Barcelona, assuming they don't do any more business this summer, then they will effectively be operating with their current squad for the next one-and-a-half seasons, all of 2014/15 and the first part of 2015/16. For a club that tends to like its summers busy, that's a radical shift in circumstances, and rumors have already begun to circulate of elaborate and expensive buy-then-loan-back deals.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that this summer has been a busy one. But it's been busy in both directions; almost every acquisition has had an equal and opposite departure. In came the big splashy signing of Luis Suárez up front, but out went Alexis Sánchez. In came Ivan Rakitic to the midfield; out went Cesc Fàbregas. In goal, they've added young German prospect Marc-André ter Stegen and the experienced Chilean Claudio Bravo, but they are replacements for the outgoing Víctor Valdés and perennial back-up José Manuel Pinto.
Indeed, it's only really in central defense where the squad has deepened. Carles Puyol, though he has earned near-legendary status over his time with the club, didn't play much last season, and the incoming Thomas Vermaelen and Jérémy Mathieu represent a genuine expansion of options. Though whether either is good enough is a question for another time.
In short, Barcelona will doubtless feel confident that they have improved their first-team. But they certainly haven't been stockpiling against the possibility that some or all of their purchases might turn out to be duds, or their current squad might decline over the coming season to the point of needing replacement. There is always La Masia, that sainted farmhouse that churns world-class footballers like so many blaugrana sausages. Rafinha, one La Masia graduate, has returned from a loan spell at Celta Vigo, while another, Munir El Haddadi, has been making waves in preseason.
La Masia itself is at the heart of this matter. The allegations against Barcelona relate to the acquisition of players aged under 18 who do not fall into one of three categories: those who live within 100 miles of the club; those who live within the European Union; and those whose parents are moving to within the club's catchment area for non-footballing reasons. When the ban was first announced, the Guardian reported that the players in question came from South Korea and Cameroon; recently the Press Association stated that ten players were involved.
Obviously we don't know the specifics of each individual allegation. Nor do we know precisely how Barcelona will seek to argue against these allegations. But we do have their public statement, released yesterday, which read as follows:
Following the resolution announced today by the FIFA Appeals Committee on violations of regulations regarding the transfer and registration of children aged under 18 years, FC Barcelona announces that it shall continue defending its interests before the highest sporting authority, in this case the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
FC Barcelona may not in any way share a resolution that is an affront to the spirit of our Masia, a world renowned example of academic, human and sporting education.
This is ... well, it's a quite remarkable thing to say. At worst it's weirdly colonialist, a kind of implication that Barcelona will not be stopped from harvesting the youth of the world. At best, and being generous, it's staggeringly self-absorbed. We, the mighty Barcelona, should not be bound by the same rules as others, because we are brilliant. Look at how brilliant we are. Here is a video of Leo Messi. We did that. Take your trifling human laws away from our magnificent school. One hopes that this isn't the thrust of their arguments to CAS. That sort of thing didn't really work out for Raskolnikov.
It would be tempting to draw a line from that statement back to Barcelona's famous slogan, Més que un club, and suggest that this sort of thing is the natural conclusion of an entity's unending belief in its own moral superiority. Tempting, and perhaps a little trite. What we can say, though, is that this slogan -- "more than a club" -- has taken a serious battering over the past few seasons. It may have begun life as a statement of Catalan identity, but the transformation of Barcelona into a modern superclub has seen the slogan repurposed for a global audience. It stands now as an aspect of the club's branding, a statement of inherent betterness, one that occupies the same status in the stadium seating as Nike's giant tick.
It wasn't too long ago that then-President Joan Laporta was able to sneer at Real Madrid: "We create Ballon d'Ors; others buy them." Since then, we've seen the introduction to the unspoiled shirt of not one but two sponsors, as this season Qatar Airways will be joined by Beko; we should note, incidentally, that the former have not just purchased shirt space but also "a place in the museum." We've seen two pure galáctico purchases: this year's acquisition of social justice warrior Luis Suárez, and last year's signing of Neymar for definitely less than Bale we don't spend money like that what do you mean you'd like to see the books what do you mean we have to go to court?
Responding to the initial verdict over this latest incident, team President Josep Bartomeu said, "Minors must be protected and safeguarded against being used as commodities by unscrupulous people who are not concerned about what is best for their future, and only want to make financial gains. But that is not the case with Barça." Fine, unequivocal words.
Yet he also said "the Masia is not to be touched ... it is a model that made us world leaders in football for the last ten years." There is a tension between those two statements, a tension that might just have landed Barcelona in serious trouble. After all, let us not pretend that Barcelona are in the business of educating young footballers for the edification of global youth. Somebody has to grow up, and grow up good enough, to wear all those swooshes in front of the television cameras. It's demanded by the business plan, even while it's forbidden by rules.
If Barcelona do have to hand over their credit cards for a while, then it's not going to herald the collapse of the club. Superclubs are virtually unsinkable, and a front line of Suárez-Messi-Neymar is not one that's going to be declining any time soon. Indeed, it might even do their battered reputation some good. There's an odd little irony here: their punishment forces them to reject galáctico business, even for a summer, and fall back on the same farmhouse that's got them in all this trouble in the first place. Barcelona, by FIFA edict, might have to start behaving like Barcelona again.