“We inherited a club that was about to disappear,” Barcelona president Joan Laporta told coach Xavi Hernandez and various directors in a board meeting last summer. “About to disappear,” he repeats for emphasis. “But this is our reality. We were about to go totally bankrupt, especially with the super high salaries we have. Our main objective now is to get out of this crisis.”
Laporta’s speech was followed by a transfer window in which Barca sold off over €700 million worth of club assets to fund around €150m of investment in players, summing up the chaos and the bewilderment that has surrounded the club since 2020. Barca have been the most tumultuous team among Europe’s elite in recent years. Headlines have been written for the wrong reasons. Three coaches have been fired in the past two years, a president has resigned, a global pandemic hit the club hard financially, their greatest-ever player left and there have been various European humiliations.
The above Laporta speech is a scene from a new documentary which attempts to turn the turmoil into hope with the title: “Barca: A New Era.” It focuses largely on matters on the pitch, giving little context as to how the club came to the brink of bankruptcy, as mentioned by Laporta himself, but it is not completely cleansed and does provide some insight into life inside the Camp Nou soap opera.
Here is what we did (and didn’t) learn from the five-part docuseries.
📹 We present to you…
💙 𝐀 𝐍𝐞𝐰 𝐄𝐫𝐚 ❤️
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) December 5, 2022
One club, four coaches
The documentary covers roughly a 30-month period, from January 2020 until the middle of 2022. During that time, Barca had four coaches. The first episode, in fact, begins with the dismissal of Ernesto Valverde and a first approach to Xavi. Coaching in Qatar with Al Sadd at the time, Xavi says no, which leads to the appointment of Quique Setien.
Setien’s stay at Barca lasted just eight months but there are some interesting moments from his tenure covered. The former Real Betis appears overawed by a locker room of stars and egos as he gives a presentation speech to the players, saying it is “not easy” for him to take the job at such short notice when “just yesterday I was walking past the cows in my hometown.” He then seems almost apologetic as he informs the players he has scheduled a training session for the following afternoon, when they were supposed to be off. Tension with some of the heavyweights at the club is also hinted at as he scorns Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba for arriving late to training. They don’t seem overly concerned.
Ronald Koeman comes in and oversees some difficult times related to Messi’s future (more on that to come) and helps Barca win the Copa del Rey in 2021, their only trophy since the dismissal of Valverde, who had won back-to-back LaLiga titles and left with Barca top of the table. However, due to player turnover, financial problems, Messi’s exit and tactical limitations Koeman, who was never Laporta’s choice, is eventually dismissed too.
Celebrated former midfielder Xavi finally decides it is time to return. “Now is the moment,” he says in scenes filmed in Doha when the Barca hierarchy flew out to finalise the appointment.
Champions League torment
Very little is shown of Barca’s shock 8-2 defeat to Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinal in Lisbon in 2020. A few shots from the game and a postmatch interview from Pique saying the club have “hit rock bottom” quickly turn the page on one of the most cataclysmic defeats in the club’s history.
That perhaps should not come as a surprise, given Barca Studios were involved in the making of the documentary along with a third-party production company. But that did not stop devastating locker-room scenes after a Champions League semifinal defeat to Liverpool being aired in a previous Barca documentary produced by Rakuten. It’s those scenes, though, which led to more prudence this time around, sources told ESPN. Player representatives had voiced discontent about that footage from Anfield, where Barca relinquished their 3-0 first-leg advantage by losing 4-0.
Messi’s attempt to leave
Another unwanted chapter from the club’s recent history, Messi’s transfer request after that 8-2 loss, is also covered fleetingly. However, there is one engaging extract in which the recently appointed Koeman speaks about Messi’s desire to leave at restaurant La Venta over food with then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu and other board members.
“The only exception is Messi,” says Koeman, agreeing that other veterans can leave. “Let’s speak with him tomorrow if we can. Me and you [Bartomeu]. We tell him: ‘We want you to stay.’ I want him here, I want him to stay here being the best in the world.
“He has to know there will be changes, but don’t speak about names. ‘There are going to be changes, chances for youngsters.’ [Hopefully] he wants to continue with our ideas. If not, we respect it, but everyone must know it is his decision. We do want him to stay.”
Bartomeu, seemingly, disagreed with Koeman. He denied Messi the chance to leave, forcing him to see out the final year of his contract. “I needed a change, but the president did not fulfil his word,” Messi tells Koeman at the time. “I will stay and give 100%.”
One player who did not stay was Luis Suarez, Messi’s closest friend at the club. The documentary shows his tears as he says goodbye in a news conference after a phone call from Koeman told him he was not part of his plans. The striker left for Atletico Madrid, where he won LaLiga the following season.
“It was a sad day,” defender Jordi Alba says of Suarez’s departure retrospectively. “He deserved a better send off.”
Bartomeu resigns, Laporta returns
Bartomeu’s resignation — we are still in 2020 by the way — is also a footnote in the larger scheme of the documentary. The scenes following the re-election of Laporta, previously Barca president between 2003 and 2010, do reveal the differences between the two presidents, though.
Laporta is enigmatic, and the images of him and his campaign team popping champagne and chanting Barca songs in a portacabin outside Camp Nou after being elected do make you feel like anything is possible.
Just over 13 minutes is dedicated to what one local television report calls “the news of the decade:” Messi’s exit after more than 20 years at Barca comes due to what the club continue to put down to financial fair play problems with LaLiga.
Anyone hoping for revelations or new information about Messi’s departure and subsequent move to Paris Saint-Germain, teeing up 2022 World Cup triumph with Argentina, will be disappointed. Speaking long after Messi has left, Laporta insists it was not possible to keep him without mortgaging Barca’s future by accepting LaLiga’s deal to sell television rights to investment company CVC.
The section is largely made up of archival footage from Messi’s Barcelona career and images from the day he bid farewell. It does show his cold handshake with Laporta, a president he previously had such a warm relationship with, and his tears as he gave a speech to teammates, family and journalists at Camp Nou.
Comments from Barca players once again confirm they did not see anything coming.
“I was at home with my family and I saw the statement,” Alba says. “I did not believe it. Three days in shock. No one in the dressing room could believe it. I knew Leo wanted to say 100%.”
Ansu Fati adds: “He wrote a message to the group saying goodbye and that’s how we found out. It was tough.”
Life moves quickly, though, and so do things at Barcelona. Messi’s exit is followed by Ansu being handed the No.10 jersey. Behind-the-scenes footage shows the process behind him asking the club captains if they were happy with him taking Messi’s shirt number, as well as a chat with director of football Mateu Alemany in the Camp Nou locker room. “Look into my eyes, yes or no [do you want to stay at Barca]?” Alemany grills him in a slightly awkward exchange. Two months later, Ansu signed a new contract.
Preseason brings more youngsters, including Gavi, who is pictured on a golf day with the squad. “He is only just 17, he can’t drive,” Pique screams with a cheeky grin as he races a golf cart around. “Come on, someone get him a bicycle instead.”
There are also new signings, although things don’t work out for Sergio Aguero. The Argentine, who thought he was joining his old friend Messi in Spain, is shown in tears as he is forced to retire from football after a heart problem was detected.
Some of the best and most extensive behind-the-scenes footage involves Xavi, who replaced Koeman in November 2021, starting with the Barca hierarchy flying out to the Middle East to finalise the deal. “Your appointment was a unanimous decision, which is very rare in the world of football,” Alemany tells Xavi in Doha before they fly back to get started.
Club captain Sergio Busquets talks about Xavi’s surprise at the lack of rules and order in place at the club, with fines brought back in for players that don’t turn up an hour before training or eat with their teammates at the training ground after sessions, among other things. In addition to rules, Xavi also brings in what he calls “challenges,” in English, for each game.
“You have five days off for Christmas, but if we win today you can have one day more,” he says before his first match in charge against Espanyol. “You can go to Disney [laughs], rest with the family, lovers, whatever you have. And the second challenge: if we score twice before the 30th minute, I will pay for dinner wherever you want. Do you accept or not? Of course you do, you have nothing to lose.” Xavi’s enthusiasm soon turns to anger, though, as Barca are knocked out of the Champions League, losing 3-0 at Bayern Munich. The scale of the task at hand appeared to hit him hard. “When he gets angry, it’s bad,” Xavi’s brother and assistant, Oscar, says.
The coach himself adds: “That game was not worthy of Barcelona. [We hit] rock bottom. I was so disappointed. I was so angry. And not just as a coach, but as a Barca fan because the values I want to see were not there.”
That disappointment led to the massive investment Barca made last summer, selling stakes in their television rights and in-house production company to fund player signings. Footage shows Xavi in meetings with the board asking for Sevilla defender Jules Kounde, “already a great leader,” and several other signings. “If we get them all, we will have one hell of a team,” he adds.
Kounde signs, as do Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and others, which leads to Xavi telling the players ahead of the 2022-23 season: “With this squad, the league cannot escape us. We have to blow this league away, blow it away. Every game is a f—ing war, we have to give everything. We are privileged to be at Barca. We have to die on the pitch. With this squad, we have to win trophies, above all the league… are you ready to be a family?”
Clasico joy a false dawn
Fixtures with Real Madrid also receive special attention, especially the 4-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in March 2022. Shutting down Vinicius Junior on the left by playing Ronald Araujo at right-back was one of the foundations on which the win was built. “Without [the injured Karim] Benzema, the danger was Vinicius,” Xavi says. “We knew 90% of their attack would pass through him.”
The win is interspersed with highlights from the 3-2 Supercopa defeat to Madrid earlier in the same year. Curiously, both fixtures ended on a positive note for Barcelona. Despite losing in Supercopa match in Saudi Arabia, locker-room footage shows Laporta telling the players how proud he was of them for their performance a month on from that Bayern defeat. Footage following the Bernabeu win was much more raucous. Xavi is even involved in the chants as the players revel in a four-goal win, which gave them a very feint chance of muscling back into the title race.
There was to be no such thing, though, as Barca’s season fizzled out after another European humiliation, this time both on the pitch and in the stands against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League. Around 30,000 German fans found their way into Camp Nou to create a sea of white as the Bundesliga side won 3-2 to progress to the semifinal.
“I think there were many, many supporters from the opponent,” goalkeeper Andre ter Stegen says. “Plus, against Frankfurt it’s the game of the year for them. This is probably why the energy was also different in the stadium.”
Xavi adds: “The problem was we were considered favourites going into it. I don’t think we fully believed that we were playing in that competition. It is hard to compete in a tournament that a lot of Barca fans and people, in general, don’t care much about.”
Dembele and De Jong
“The challenge was to do 50 press-ups,” Lewandowski smiles after one of his first training sessions during the preseason tour of the United States. “Ansu did around 40 and [Araujo] 42 or something. I did 50. So of course I won this challenge… but we can do another challenge next time, maybe 60?!”
Lewandowski is one of the new signings Barca’s new era is being built around. He has been an instant hit and his leadership and goals are already paying off. Around him, he has a cast of talented youngsters who are covered throughout the documentary, including Pedri, Gavi and Ansu.
Dembele was banished from the squad in January as the club struggled to reach an agreement with his agent to extend his contract. “This is not an easy situation — for me either — but the club are standing their ground,” Xavi tells the players. “They feel his agent is taking the Mickey. Either he renews or looks for a solution elsewhere. That’s the club’s decision.”
Dembele eventually signed a new contract, which Xavi says is “largely thanks to me,” and the Barca coach makes no effort to hide his love of the France forward. “He can be a world-class player,” Xavi says. “I always tell Ousmane: ‘If I am a full-back, I am bricking myself playing against you.’ It’s as if he has two pistols for feet. In 25 years at this club, in terms of pure wingers, I have never seen anything like him at that level.”
Another player who in another timeline could have left the club is De Jong. The Netherlands midfielder, though, once again takes the opportunity to stress that he does not want to leave despite Manchester United‘s long-running interest.
“I see myself playing here for a long time,” he says. “I don’t really care if there are rumours about if I go to another team or if I stay. We didn’t speak about this, no one from the club told me anything about it. I don’t see it happening to be honest. Of course, when it happens [eventually leaving Barca one day], it will disappoint me.”
Some of the things that have made Barca so chaotic over the past two years are either ignored or scarcely mentioned. The reasons for Bartomeu’s resignation are glossed over, no depth is added to Messi’s exit, the financial problems which led them to the brink of bankruptcy are not explained, pleas for players to drop or defer wages are not addressed and their financial acrobatics from last summer — which led to a scramble to register all their new signings — are given little air time.
Sources told ESPN this is because the main focus was always meant to be on the pitch, even if it is impossible not to cover other issues at a club of Barca’s magnitude.
Stability has been found with Xavi since, although European shortcomings remain a problem. They will once again be in the Europa League in the New Year, albeit with a mouthwatering tie to come against Manchester United in February.
Money remains a problem, too. Selling assets last summer was always going to be a quick fix and cutbacks and revenue boosts are needed in the long term. A source told ESPN that Barca are around €30m over their threshold to be within the LaLiga-imposed financial fair play limit. The drama at Camp Nou is far from over.