Barcelona's season of calamities began with the defection of their best attacker, Luis Figo, to Real Madrid and is ending with a Fifa ban of one year on their best defender, Frank de Boer, for taking an illegal drug. Tonight they face, worst of all, the catastrophic prospect of failure to qualify for the Champions' League.
Football's greatest under-achievers (replete with world stars even without Figo) meet Valencia, arguably the greatest over-achievers, in the very last fixture of the Spanish league tonight to decide who takes the fourth and final place allotted to Spain in Europe's most coveted competition. Real Madrid, Deportivo la Coruña and Mallorca are already through. To join them, Barcelona, playing at home, must beat Valencia, for whom a draw will suffice.
Whatever happens tonight, one can already state that it will go down as the most dramatic encounter of the Spanish season. Because so much more turns on the outcome than in any other single game played in the 2000-01 Liga; because disappointment would be so crushing for two clubs withsuch vast expectations, such recent grudges between them.
No one at Barcelona forgets the contemptuous ease with which Valencia defeated them in the semi-finals of last season's European Cup. For most of this season the Barcelona board have been plotting to poach Hector Cúper, Valencia's remarkably successful Argentinian coach. There was talk of a pre-contract having been signed at the end of last year, though it now seems that merely a verbal agreement had been reached.
The not-so-secret deal fell apart around the time of the European Cup final. Cúper was enraged when a Barcelona director blabbed, on the night before Valencia's game against Bayern Munich, that the Argentinian was taking over at the Catalan club next season. Then, after Valencia lost on penalties to Bayern, a sector of the Barcelona board suddenly judged that Cúper lacked the credentials for the job.
Cúper, concluding as everybody else in Spanish football already had that Barcelona were run by a bunch of capricious incompetents, decided he would opt rather to coach Internazionale in Milan next season. But his hunger to win or draw tonight will be as great as if he were remaining at Valencia. First, because he is a man with a fanatical sense of professional duty; second, because he would love to stick it to the Barça board of directors.
And what a board of directors. Until the club's president, Joan Gaspart, finally announced a clear-out last week, it had consisted of 85 directors. Why so many? It was Gaspart's reward to those who had mobilised support on his behalf to win the Barcelona presidential election last summer. It proved to be a good electoral gambit, but a disastrous one when it came to running the club. Especially with a president whose nervous antics recall the histrionic police chief in Peter Sellers' Pink Panther films.
There has not been an abundance of cool, rational decision-making at Barça this season. A glut of expensive and ill-judged (with the exception of Marc Overmars) summer signings was followed, after failure at the first hurdle of the Champions' League, by a midwinter sequence of embarrassing on-off transfers involving young Argentinian stars; then by the highly publicised failure to sign either Fabio Capello or Arsène Wenger or Cúper. Finally, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer was fired as coach and replaced by Carles "Charly" Rexach.
Rexach has not proved to be Catalunya's answer to Sven Goran Eriksson. He has had numerous titles chief scout, assistant coach, head of sporting affairs during his three decades as general dogsbody at the club, but no one ever imagined he possessed the personality or the nous to step into the boots of the likes of Johan Cruyff, Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal. No one, that is, except Gaspart, who last week astonishingly confirmed "Charly" as club coach for the next two years.
As if to make certain that Rexach has absolutely no chance of success, Gaspart and his merry men have reached pre-agreements in the last month to sign six new players, all but one of them a forward. Which is perplexing, to say the least, given that Rivaldo, Kluivert and Overmars are clearly not the problem in a season when Barcelona scored 77 goals and conceded a massive 53.
The class of Barcelona's goalscorers may yet impose itself tonight, especially as Valencia still look demoralised following their cruel second successive defeat in a Champions' League final last month. But even if Rivaldo and Co do manage the dubious distinction of coming fourth in the Spanish league, the general feeling is that while the current regime remains in place the Barcelona brand name, as mighty as any in world football, is doomed to lose its lustre.Reuse content