Barcelona feel pain of post-Figo discontent

Nou Camp fans disenchanted as big-money signings disappoint and Catalan club suffers cruel existence in shadow of Real Madrid
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Barcelona players of the pedigree of Rivaldo and Kluivert suddenly find themselves not only suffering the indignity of having to play in Europe's version of the Worthington Cup, but when they win their fans boo them off the pitch.

Barcelona players of the pedigree of Rivaldo and Kluivert suddenly find themselves not only suffering the indignity of having to play in Europe's version of the Worthington Cup, but when they win their fans boo them off the pitch.

It was the 1-1 draw with Bruges in the Uefa Cup last Thursday that did it. A perfectly respectable result, on the face of it, Barcelona having won the first leg 2-0 away. Besides, there was a league game three days later and it made sense for the players not to waste too much valuable energy. The Spanish championship is, after all, the biggest prize that remains available to them this season.

But no. The players walked off the Nou Camp turf to a chorus of shrill, jet-engine jeers. No less remarkably, during the game itself a sector of the fans singled out Sergi, the Barça left-back, for specially derogatory treatment. Sergi, of all people. Sergi who happens not only to be, by any objective measure, one of the most exciting left-backs in Europe, but who is also a Catalan, born and bred, and one of the club's longest-serving, most doggedly loyal players. Imagine the Old Trafford faithful heckling Denis Irwin: that is what we are talking about here.

We are not, on the other hand, describing anything new. Behaviour that would be considered pathological in English fans (and, actually, the vast majority of Spanish fans) is the norm at Barcelona. Bobby Robson, whose heroic status in Newcastle will have been undiminished by last weekend's 5-0 thrashing at Arsenal, will go to his grave shaking his head in recollection at the day, four years ago, when his Barça were booed off the pitch after winning a league match at home 6-0. Robson's successor, Louis Van Gaal, won two league titles in three years but the fans rejoiced when he announced his resignation at the end of last season and for a while, for a few weeks, they enjoyed what one might call a Barça Spring.

The new coach, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, was a grave Catalan-speaking Mallorcan who would put to an end the brutish regime of the man they called the Dutch squarehead. With all those Dutch players in the squad (eight at one point) Barcelona fans felt as if they had spent three years living under an army of occupation. Suddenly there was a general feeling of liberation. No one paused rationally to consider why but the mood was such, as a Catalan columnist wrote, that people seemed to imagine "flowers would sprout from the stands of the Nou Camp, people would start indiscriminately hugging each other like in the hippy musicals of the Sixties".

And then the hammer blow. Luis Figo, the player the fans most loved, went to Real Madrid. Joan Gaspart, the maniacal new club president, performed a passable imitation of King Lear on the heath, threatening terrible revenge in the shape of he did not know exactly what. Then he started buying new players. What women in New York call retail therapy. It worked, for a while. Gaspart felt better. The fans felt better.

The trouble, as is often the case with retail therapy, was that the purchases did not turn out to serve a useful long-term purpose. They only satisfied immediate emotional needs.

Take the case of Ivan de la Peña. A product of the Barça youth squad, he was billed as the rising star of the era when Johan Cruyff was coach. He and Real Madrid's Raul were the two hottest properties in Spanish football. In Barcelona they were convinced that De la Peña was better. Then Robson took over from Cruyff and promptly dropped the bald, Gazza-shaped player they called "the Little Buddha". Robson reinstated him eventually but when Van Gaal became coach almost his first move was to sell De la Peña to Lazio. Where he made no impact. Whereupon he left for Marseilles, and again failed to live up to his youthful promise. But the Barça fans (who, incidentally, insist on attributing Jordi Cruyff's failure at Manchester United purely to injury) kept the faith. In a feel-good move that did serve to soothe the pain of Figo's treachery, Gaspart re-signed the idol, who has proceeded to watch most of the season's games from, first, the bench, and, more recently, the stands.

The other two psychotherapeutic purchases were Gerard, another product of the Barça youth squad, but one who surprised the Catalans after they let him go by succeeding big time at Valencia; and Alfonso, the twinkle-toed ex-Real Madrid striker. Gerard has started in less than a third of Barça's games this season, Serra Ferrer being apparently unable to decide how best to deploy him; Alfonso's balletic grace does not compensate for his chronic inability to score goals, so he too now kicks his heels (on a good day) among the substitutes.

The intelligent, the rational purchases were Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit. Or so it was thought at the time. Now that Barça are out of the European Cup at the first stage and, while lying in fifth place, have lost more points in the league than they have won, the penny is dropping that Arsenal pulled off the deal of the century selling them for a combined value of £30m.

Which is not to say that people think they are bad players. Just that, as Gaspart and company somehow failed to notice before signing the cheque, Overmars is one of those injury-prone players who cannot be relied upon to play more than half the games in a season. And as for Petit, a glut of midfielders has obliged Serra Ferrer to play the French international in central defence, where he does not play very well, as a consequence of which he too finds himself relegated to the bench and - as everything in his body language indicates - ruing the day he left Highbury.

The catharsis of beating Real Madrid seven weeks ago proved, like everything else, to be shortlived. The pain - the post-Figo traumatic stress syndrome - endures, made all the worse this week by Fifa, football's world governing body, declaring Real Madrid to be "the team of the century". Which obviously they are. Which no one in Barcelona can seriously doubt.

The madness, the pathology, underlying Barcelona's almost continual state of depression derives from the fact that a wide gap exists between the club's sentimental view of itself as the world's best and the reality that they have won no more European Cups than Nottingham Forest or Steaua Bucharest. Which is to say, eight times fewer European Cups than Real Madrid. Hence, in an attempt to catch up that is as frantic as it is hopeless, every season they spend big money on big players. Cruyff, Maradona, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Figo have played for Barcelona. Which accounts, more than anything, more than the magnificent stadium, for the club's vast international prestige. Yet the prestige falls sadly short of the success achieved on the field of play. In the past three seasons Barcelona have made it beyond the first stage of the Champions' League once; Real Madrid, with a weaker team man to man, have gone on and won it twice. And so it seems to go, for ever and ever. The club, like a mighty tragic hero, seems prone to a relentlessly cruel destiny. Or to what one might call the De la Peña principle: to think you are better than you really are, or that your talent deserves a better reward than life has so far dished out. More vanity, in other words, than success. Which sooner or later, in individuals as in football clubs, breeds unhappiness. Hence the diseased minds of the Barça faithful; hence the eternal disenchantment.