Spanish Corner | Is FC Barcelona ready to face FIFA’s transfer ban in times of rebuilding?
Football Club Barcelona can not buy any players in the next two transfer windows due to the transfer ban imposed by FIFA on them for breaking rules on signing international players under-18. How will Luis Enrique’s rebuilding process get impacted by this? Indranath Mukherjee explores by looking at the future prospects.
FC Barcelona reached the pinnacle in terms of footballing excellence during the managerial stint of Pep Guardiola from 2008 to 2012 winning 14 championships including two UEFA Champions League. Following Pep’s departure, his natural successor Francesc “Tito” Vilanova took over and Barca hit the magic mark of 100 points in La Liga although Tito spent large part of the season in New York being treated for cancer. The following season due to Tito’s inability to continue, Barcelona appointed the Argentine Gerardo Daniel “Tata” Martino as their manager. Barca under Tata had started well but by the end of the season looked like a team very different from Pep’s all conquering side. Although it was a trophyless season, the lack of intensity in Barca’s football was a bigger concern for the passionate Barcelona fans. The dazzling football and the resulting success in the football pitch during the Pep-Tito era got a tad maligned with off the field incidents under President Alexandre “Sandro” Rosell.
Having got Luis Enrique Martínez back in Barcelona as the manager of the senior team, this season is somewhat the beginning of rebuilding of the new Barcelona. Luis Enrique is trying to bring the intensity back in Barca’s game that was missing post-Pep era. There are some key changes in the team as well. The talismanic leader in the defence Carles Puyol has retired. The presence of Éric Sylvain Abidal in the left-back was inspiring in more ways than one. There is no Victor Valdes and Xavier “Xavi” Hernández at 34 is clearly not the same player he was during the club’s golden years.
After seven rounds of matches in La Liga, Barcelona is sitting atop of the table with 6 wins and a draw. The only defeat so far this season has come in the UEFA Champions League away match against Paris Saint-Germain. In Spain they are yet to concede a goal. The only draw in the league came with an uninspiring display against Malaga followed by almost a classical Barcelona style football against Granada scoring half a dozen in front of their home crowd. Xavi played full time for the first time this season and his impact on the game was there for everyone to see but Xavi is not expected to play like this throughout the season. Lionel Messi’s first of the two goals against Granada at 61st minute came when he headed a cross from the right from Dani Alves. Dani got the super long ball from Xavi. Xavi’s vision, Dani’s presence and quick cross and Messi’s Midas touch almost made us feel that we were watching Pep‘s Barcelona.
Luis Enrique knows all about Barcelona thanks to his playing days and later as the manager of Barcelona B but the challenge that he faces is that he cannot buy any players in the next two transfer windows because of the ban imposed on them by FIFA for breaking rules on signing of international players under the age of 18. Along with the transfer ban, Barcelona were also fined 450,000 Swiss francs. Without going into the details of the ban and discussing what is right and what is not, let’s try and see if Barcelona is ready to perform with the intensity that made them the greatest team in the world while they cannot buy any footballers in the next two transfer windows.
Barcelona made reasonable use of the summer transfer window which they got thanks to the appeal that they had made after the initial ban imposed by FIFA. They got hold of some players who could prove to be the key members in shaping the future of the club.
Even after a great first half in La Liga last season, Barca could not hold on to their lead till the end. The injury of Valdes was one of the contributory factors for this. For a goalkeeper, 32 is actually the prime age but Valdes was not ready to sign a contract renewal which probably was also because of the fact that everything was not going well at the club. The ever-unreliable José Manuel Pinto was also not offered a contract extension. Oier Olazábal failed to make the cut and was sold to Granada. In the process of completely overhauling the goalkeeping position, Barcelona managed to get the 31-year-old Chilean custodian Claudio Bravo from Real Sociedad. In Marc-André Ter Stegen from Borussia Mönchengladbach, they have probably got their long-term plan sorted. The 22-year-old German keeper is very highly rated and should leave his mark in Spain. Jordi Masip has also been promoted from Barcelona B. Fabrice Ondoa, the 18-year-old Cameroonian goalkeeper at Barcelona B is another one for the future. Barcelona seems to be in a good shape with what they have in the goalkeeping division.
Although Barcelona only conceded goals against PSG this season, the problem with their defence is far from gone. For the last couple of seasons, they are trying to sign centre-backs but ending up getting defensive midfielders and trying to make them makeshift centre-backs. After rounds of rumours of signing the likes of Marquinhos failed, they finally signed Jérémy Mathieu, the 30-year-old French defender from Valencia; Thomas Vermaelen, the 28-year-old Belgian from Arsenal and Douglas Pereira dos Santos, the 24-year-old Brazilian from São Paulo. Mathieu is essentially a left-back who can also play in the middle and that is where Enrique has been playing him so far. He seems to be a hardworking fellow who has limited capability. Vermaelen is still not match-fit and the Brazilian right-back Douglas looked clueless in the match against Malaga. Javier Mascherano showed how brilliant he can be as a defensive midfielder in the World Cup in Brazil but he will still be playing as a centre-back at Barcelona but he is never as reliable in that position as he is in the midfield. Gerard Piqué looks suspect every time he comes to the pitch. The 20-year-old centre back from Senegal, Diawandou Diagne, now playing at Barcelona B may get a nod to play in the senior team next season. At La Masia, Rodrigo Tarin, the 18-year-old Spaniard is touted to be the most promising centre-back at La Masia since Puyol. He should be an exciting prospect for sure. If Pique gets his act together and Vermaelen comes good then along with the talented Marc Bartra and hardworking duo of Mascherano and Mathieu, the centre-back position looks stronger than the right side of the defence where Martín Montoya is far from ready to replace Dani Alves. Sergio Juste Marín, the 22-year-old right-back and captain of Barcelona B has been out injured for almost a year now. While the right-back position is extremely vulnerable, the option of Jordi Alba, Adriano Correia and if needed then Mathieu make the left-back position seems to be the most secured one for Barcelona. The left-back at Barcelona B, Alex Grimaldo has returned from his knee injury and could be promoted in the senior team next season.
With Xavi not getting any younger and Thiago Alcântara moving to Bayern Munich, Barcelona have been struggling to find the right partner for Andrés Iniesta to create music in the midfield. Also Cesc Fàbregas probably did not feature in Enrique’s scheme of things. While Cesc has gone back to England to get his ‘unfinished business in EPL’ done, Barcelona signed Ivan Rakitić from Sevilla. The 26-year-old super Croatian has been a perfect fit in the side playing box to box bringing in the immense intensity that the new manager is striving for. Rakitić has adjusted in the side in no time and his impact is going to be crucial in how Barcelona performs in the coming days. There is a plethora of talents in the midfield in the Barcelona B and Juvenil. Argentine Maxi Rolón, Croatian Alen Halilović and the bunch of Spanish kids Bicho, Sergi Samper, Gerard Deulofeu, Carles Alena and Adama Traoré; all these could be household names in the next few years. The 18-year-old Cameroonian Wilfrid Kaptoum is being touted as the Xavi of the next generation.
Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior this season seems to be settling down at Barcelona and playing well with Messi. He scored his first hat-trick against Granada but his fitness is still a matter of concern. The 19-year-old sensation Munir El Haddadi Mohamed has got a direct call in the senior team form Barcelona Juvenil A and will surely mature soon playing with the likes of Iniesta, Messi and Neymar. Rafinha Alcântara is back after his loan stint at Celta Vigo and has shown that he can be effective in the wing. Pedro Rodríguez looks rather disappointing while the 19-year-old Sandro Ramírez is showing his potential of being a good poacher. Adama Traoré, now 18, could be another bright prospect in wing for the future. Last but not the least, the transfer of the temperamental Uruguayan Luis Suarez from Liverpool means the lethal combination of Messi-Neymar and Suarez at the front will be ready for the season’s first El Clásico. How the trio will work in tandem remains to be seen but the prospect indeed is mouth-watering.
The transfer ban may prove to be the blessing in disguise for Barcelona. Luis Enrique has been trying to instil a strong work ethics in the side and with his background at the club he is not shy to call up players from the youth teams. Historically Barcelona’s scouting network for players in the age group of 18 to 22 has not been great. So relying on La Masia and youth teams can actually prove to be more effective and may help Enrique to build a squad which could win it all, again. The biggest concern is still their defence, which is aged, slow and very injury prone. Their midfield still lacks a genuine playmaker. Barcelona could have potentially tied down with the likes of Marco Reus in the summer and offered them back to their parent clubs for next 12 months since there is no prohibition to bring back loaned out players in transfer ban. But they missed the opportunity. Let’s wait and watch how they manage their rebuilding phase without being active in the next couple of transfer windows.