“Sorry mate, nothing personal but I’m not doing it this week,” the veteran club captain told me with a pleasant tone but a firm shake of the head, making it clear he was not speaking in jest and would not be changing his mind.
The ‘it’ in question was the captain’s message for the matchday programme, which I edited. We were talking outside the dressing room at the training ground, our regular meeting place to carve out his thoughts for publication. He was always perfectly cooperative, knowing precisely what he wanted to say to the fans and how he wanted to say it. Putting together those ideas into a coherent article in well-composed words within the desired word count – my job – was generally a straightforward task.
But not, it was becoming clear, this time. “A few of the boys have had a chat and we’re not doing stuff like that at the moment. Bo***cks to the club. You’ll have to make it up yourself.”
“Ahh come on, there must be something you can give me?” I ventured, starting to panic at the prospect of a blank page a few hours before the print deadline. “Some banter between the boys?”
“Banter?” the skipper scoffed. “There’s no f**king banter. He’s f**king killed it,” violently jerking his head in the direction of the manager’s office.
I returned to my desk and trotted out a few banalities about sticking together and working hard, hoping that nobody would guess they were the words of a backroom stooge rather than the club captain.
Two days later, the manager was fired. The following week’s programme notes from the captain were offered up with a willing smile, expressing regret at the old manager’s departure and a warm welcome for his replacement.
If he was to go, where would it be? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/DdKU4gm5yp— Sport360° (@Sport360) February 6, 2020
The short scene detailed above, which took place at a club in England a couple of decades ago, was the first time I became directly and acutely aware of the scale and complexities of political machinations within a football club.
The deeper you go, the more you find them. From the ticket office manager to the corporate suite sales guy and the ground staff to the kit man, everyone has their gripes and ambitions, their axes to grind and their favours to bestow. As with any large-scale organisation, and even more so within the competitive environment of professional sport, this endless jostling for position and thirst for influence is an unavoidably integral part of everyday life.
Naturally, this extends to the most powerful groups of them all: players, the coaching staff, and the boardroom. They also have their personal and collective agendas, their demands and desires, which are never left far from the surface.
And not in the ways you would entirely expect. Players, for example, are by no means only interested in obvious things like money or tactics. You won’t necessarily make a discontented dressing room happy simply by handing over a bigger win bonus and a new method of play. They are just as interested in questions such as how many complimentary tickets will they receive for friends and family? Where are those tickets located and do they give access to a lounge? What’s the quality and quantity of the food available at the training ground? When are they installing that new coffee machine we’ve been promised? How long is the grass on the training pitch? How are we travelling to the next away game?
On a day to day basis, these everyday trivialities can make more difference to the happiness of the players than the identity of the manager.
As a further complication, of course, there are forever shifting divisions and sub-divisions within the group. Every dressing room is filled with cliques and rivalries, jealousies and alliances. What one player wants isn’t what another player wants. The right-back may reserve the right to get grumpy if pasta isn’t available at the training ground canteen; the centre forward might prefer grilled chicken with potatoes. The discarded playmaker may want the manager sacked; the dogged workhorse midfielder may love him.
In the light of all this, we can move on to ask a question: who holds the power at a football club? Is it the president, the chief executive, the manager, the director of football or the players?
The answer is simple yet complex: all of them. All of them, all at the same time, to differing degrees and in a thousand different ways, with each group constantly feeling undermined and underrepresented, doing their best to take credit for successes and dodge responsibility for failures, whilst simultaneously playing the game of making it look like they are not attempting to take credit for successes or dodge responsibility for failures.
Don’t discount external influences, either. The media, agents and sponsors (whose tentacles are extending and strengthening at a frighteningly rapid rate) are also desperate to get a piece of the action, pushing in different directions and eagerly slivering out their slice of the pie.
It’s a minefield out there.
Lionel Messi hits out at Barcelona's Sporting Director and former team-mate Eric Abidal 👀 pic.twitter.com/8FCBU48YE5— B/R Football (@brfootball) February 4, 2020
Eric Abidal stated that some players have not been working hard enough and were unhappy with Ernesto Valverde before his firing; Lionel Messi angrily responded by asking for names to be named, and for the board to stick to their own duties.
That is a simple reading of the convulsions that shuddered through the Camp Nou this week and, on a surface level, there is more than an element of truth in that basic interpretation. But in the light of the Machiavellian schemery outlined in the previous few paragraphs, we can see that nothing is ever quite so simple – especially at a club with the size and consequent complexity of Barcelona.
The first question to consider as we peel through the deeper layers of the controversy is why Abidal was conducting an interview in the first place. After all, journalists from Diario Sport, the Barcelona-based paper which published the inflammatory comments, can’t simply turn up at Abidal’s office, wander inside and fire questions at him for 35 minutes.
Interviews of this scale and stature have to be requested, and usually these requests are automatically turned down, which means the impetus to stage the interview could well not even have originated from Sport, but from Abidal himself – or from someone else within the club, but let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.
Either way, once the interview was set up it would be prepared for. Thoroughly. A small army of twitchy communications specialists are employed by Barca (and by every other major sports club) to ensure that people like Abidal head into media engagements with the right ‘messaging’ in their minds. Lines of questioning will have been anticipated (or even pre-agreed); briefing documents will have been drawn up; bullet points will have been underlined in bold and emphasised until they were memorised. Room for spontaneity or surprise will have been minimised, and Abidal will have walked into the interview knowing exactly what he was going to be asked, and exactly how he would answer.
So why did Abidal, prepared as he must have been, say what he said? Why did he let slip a couple of thinly veiled criticisms which, especially as a former player, he knew would upset the dressing room?
Perhaps it was just a mistake. This was a long interview, and it’s not easy to stick to the script without a few words of deviation for 35 minutes. Perhaps, though, he was expressing a personal frustration felt by Abidal and Abidal alone. Perhaps, on the other hand, he was reflecting the wider opinions of the hierarchy – or some of them, at least – that senior players should take more responsibility for their recent poor performances. Perhaps he was even passing on the frustration of a smaller group of players who had confided in him, feeling their voice carries little weight within the dressing room. Perhaps, for whatever reason, he was deliberately provoking a confrontation in the hope of sparking a response, in the way we have seen from Jose Mourinho on countless occasions.
Bartomeu: "Messi ? Barca is club of his dreams. We want to renew his contract so he can retire here. He has a lot of football left." pic.twitter.com/hQwl5SFpt1— Barca Galaxy (@barcagalaxy) February 6, 2020
All of these theories are plausible, and it’s also quite possible that Abidal’s comments were motivated by a subtle combination of three or four of them – conflicting sentiments, all jostling for their place in the debate, in a microcosm of the competing factions forever at play behind closed doors at sports clubs.
Then there is the connected lingering question of who initiated the interview, and why? Especially at a time like this – in the wake of a change in manager, a disappointing transfer window, injury problems and immediately before two exceptionally testing and potentially title-destroying away games – a potentially incendiary interview can only have been granted with a mission in mind.
Was it entirely Abidal’s idea, with an honest and open intention to state the truth as he sees it and keep the fans informed while protecting his own position in the wake of a poor transfer window? Or, more likely, was he pushed into the process and instructed to learn his lines from above, by his boss and the club’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu?
We may never know exactly how, but Bartomeu – in the foreground of the background – inevitably has to be involved in the latest controversy to have shaken Barca, as he is with every major decision in the club. It was not solely Abidal’s decision, after all, to fire Valverde. It was not solely Abidal’s decision (or, reading through the lines, even his preference) to appoint Quique Setien. It was not solely Abidal’s decision not to sign a centre forward. And it was also almost certainly not solely Abidal’s decision to discuss all these issues in a high-profile interview with one of the club’s closest (although not the closest, which is another point to ponder) media partners.
All things considered, it’s unlikely that Abidal consented to the interview and said what he said without the prior approval, or even encouragement, of his boss. People in positions of power like Abidal do not just happen to give long sit-down interviews and let their tongue slip. Far more likely is that a point was being made, and that its expression was instigated by a group of people whose lineage must surely lead back to Bartomeu.
That doesn’t mean Abidal agrees with his boss, or that everything he said in the interview was pre-approved. Or that Lionel Messi’s teammates took the same offence to them as the Argentine. Or that any other ‘conclusion’ we can draw from the saga is true. This might be frustrating and inconvenient if you want simple answers and a straightforward explanation of what is going on at Barcelona, but there are no simple answers. There isn’t ‘the truth’. If you find one version unpalatable, you can always discover a different kind of truth. It just depends who you ask, and when you ask them.
Lionel Messi hits back at Eric Abidal after he implied that some players weren't performing under Ernesto Valverde 😳— Goal (@goal) February 4, 2020
🗣 Messi: "I honestly don't like to do this kind of thing but I think everyone has to be responsible for their job and take responsibility for their decisions." pic.twitter.com/ilG7htQK1J
All of this paints a bleak picture, suggesting Barcelona is a dysfunctional mess composed of disparate warring factions whose primary aim is protecting their own interests ahead of the club as a whole.
And that is the case. But it is also the case, to a greater or lesser extent, at Real Madrid. At Manchester United. At Liverpool. At Kansas City Chiefs. At every sizeable sports club, everywhere. The same tensions, ambitions and jealousies can be found wherever you look, but it just might not always look that way because of one key element that keeps them more or less hidden or exposed, more or less bubbling under the surface or out in the open: results.
When you work at a professional sports club, results are the holy grail, the magic elixir, the alchemists’ gold: they solve everything, and soothe everything. If results are good, everything else can be tolerated and excused. If one faction or another is suspected of being excessively favoured or downtrodden but the team is winning, everyone is if not happy then at least appeased.
All clubs inevitably have to be built upon and constantly live with this awkward tension because they are walking the perilous tightrope between personal advancement and collective success. Just because you can’t see those tensions when results are good, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared – they are just being subdued by regular three-point hauls.
This also doesn’t mean that noble qualities such as team spirit, selflessness and collective responsibility are meaningless. Forging a genuine sense of ‘everyone pulling in the same direction’ is a necessary ingredient of success, but those team-based attitudes are forever forced to share an uncomfortable coexistence with more selfish ambitions, and it can’t be any other way.
In January 2015, Barcelona fired their sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta after some questionable transfers, in the wake of some poor results and at a time when Lionel Messi’s future was in doubt after behind the scenes bust-ups. Sounds familiar, does it not.
Five months later, Barca won the treble and all those troubles had evaporated as everyone embraced on the pitch at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, where the Champions League trophy had been clinched in a final victory over Juventus.
But those troubles hadn’t really disappeared. These tensions never simply vanish. They had just been bottled up, dampened down by an outbreak of the cherished anti-virus, good results, which allows harmony to reign and ushers in light to banish the darkness…until, at least, the next onset of darkness.
At the moment, Barca are submerged in darkness. But the dawn may soon be upon them. It just depends on whether they start winning.
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