By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 25, 2012) US Soccer Players — Remember last season when our friends in the English media entertained themselves by asking what Pep Guardiola really had left to prove at Barcelona and speculating on whether or not he would choose to stay with the club following their Champions League final win over Manchester United? It seemed silly then, and even more so now. Guardiola is the coach of one of the best club football teams in memory, a collection of players and tactics that draws in neutral supporters and makes very good teams look very average. Until of course it doesn’t. Blame it on circumstance at Liga and Champions League levels, but Barcelona won’t have its Chicago Bulls moment.
You might remember it was Guardiola himself who made that comparison earlier this season. Barcelona, a soccer team, as the heir apparent to a National Basketball Association dynasty. That team was interrupted by their best player temporarily quitting the sport, not results on the court. Barcelona simply lost games they had to win to continue their run as champions. Chicago’s run ended when almost all of their significant contributors and the coach left the team after winning yet another NBA title.
I lived in Chicago back then, and was driving home when the Bulls won their last championship. It was easy enough to figure out what had happened. People were running around in the street celebrating. Coming off the interstate, it took a lot longer than it should have to get 14 blocks. Chicago’s fans had been there before, and it made no difference. Championships would be celebrated accordingly, in public and with everyone involved. Things weren’t expected to change.
The Bulls comparison becomes a bit uncomfortable from a Barcelona perspective for another reason. What broke up the Bulls was ageing talent, high salaries, and a front office that faced endangering the team’s long-term future by focusing on another NBA title.
Barcelona was once held up as different from other giants of European soccer. They developed players rather than buying them from other clubs. There was a Barcelona way that started at youth level and worked through the first team. Only Barcelona spent as much or more than any of their competitors to create the team we know. Yes, several significant contributors and the star on a team of stars came through the Barcelona system. But the difference in that team and the one Barcelona actually puts on the field carries a significant price tag. Barcelona make a ton of money, but they spend even more.
The pressures are already in place for change. Internally, the club’s administration have talked publicly about the need to constrain costs. Externally, UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations could force them into the same economic considerations as what the Chicago Bulls faced in the late 1990’s. Barcelona implemented a wage cap similar to what Real Madrid did in their Galacticos era. Just like with Real, that’s accepted when a team is designed to win the European title. During their era of dominance, Chicago also had elite players taking less money than they’d get on the open market to keep the team together. The economic hit on direct salary was lessened by individual sponsorship deals. Player patience for that sort of setup tends to be short when the team is no longer winning.
Right now, Barcelona is a team that is no longer winning. At this level, a break in a streak of trophies could be critical. Does that mean we’ll see a transition from one of the best squads in the world to the equivalent of the 1998-99 Bulls roster of unfamiliar faces? No, but it does require a transition. Guardiola has already said that could mean a different head coach, but even if that happens it won’t echo Phil Jackson leaving the Chicago Bulls. The expectations and ability to spend simply won’t allow it.
Barcelona might commit to keeping the players they have in place, but that probably won’t be enough to satisfy their own fans. Changes have to be made, and as always those changes are expected to be for the better. Yet Barcelona faces the same scenario as their fellow elite clubs. It’s a small pool of players that could step into the Barcelona squad and improve it. None of them will be cheap.
This is the real challenge for Guardiola and Barcelona’s management. They’ve created something wonderful, transitioning one version of a club of superstars to another that was even better. As importantly, they won. Now that they haven’t, we get a different version of the English media’s question. What comes next for Guardiola and Barcelona?
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
More from J Hutcherson: