Barcelona start new La Liga season under cloud of uncertainty
AUG 22, 2014 12:08p ET
Spain's league season begins Saturday, still tying up its loose ends in a hurry. Less than 19 hours after the scheduled finish of the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, an event that celebrates the achievers of the previous campaign, champions Atletico Madrid and Spanish Super Cup-holders Real Madrid, Malaga kickoff the new one against Athletic Bilbao. The clock, meanwhile, ticks down on the remaining days and hours of the transfer window, in which a good deal of major business is yet to be done.
These disjointed starts are a Spanish habit. Three seasons back, a players' strike postponed matchday one and turned it into matchday 20; right now, Barcelona confront the confusing sensation that the remaining 10 days of 2014's summer transfer window must cover both the markets of 2015. The Catalan club learned on Wednesday that their ban from recruiting players, imposed by FIFA after they were found to have infringed regulations on the hiring of minors, will prevent their making signing new 18 months after Sept. 1. The sentence, which the club will appeal at the International Court of Arbitration for Sport, clouds an already difficult summer for Barca, a club currently dealing with more bans than freshly-minted medals.
Luis Suarez, the headline fresh face on the staff, is out until late October, the Uruguayan serving his punishment for the bite he inflicted on Italy's Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup. Not until then will Barcelona's head coach Luis Enrique be a position to finesse the role for Suarez in a front line including Lionel Messi and Neymar. By then, Barcelona's fans will have a strong instinct about whether Suarez's talisman role is to provide necessary impetus to a team whose standards have fallen, or whether he is to be a deluxe addition to a side already full of purpose and soaring title prospects.
Barca are at a crossroads. As ever, their situation is defined by the status of Real Madrid, European club champions again after a 12-year wait. But Barcelona's sense of well-being, self-confidence is also tied up with issues beyond the traditional rivalry. Spain's national team have just fallen sharply from their pre-eminence, with early elimination at the World Cup, a Spain whose style, and whose leading individuals through the repeated European championship triumphs and the World Cup of 2010 were drawn predominantly from Barca, the most admired club side of the 21st century, the most imitated club set-up in modern, elite soccer.
With Spain's collapse in Brazil, a curtain seemed to be drawn on a distinct playing system -- patient pass-and-move is moving out of fashion -- and on careers. Xavi Hernandez has retired from international soccer, and expectation is that he will be selected more and more sparingly by his club team in this, his 35th year. His once-designated successor as the initiator of Barcelona's studied possession game, Cesc Fabregas, has been allowed to leave, to join Chelsea. Xavi's great ally, Carles Puyol, has moved from pitch into an office job. Long-serving goalkeeper Victor Valdes has left the club.
These four were ambassadors-in-chief for the La Masia academy, where they all served apprenticeships, local Catalans who grew up with Barca. Xavi, Puyol and Valdes thrived under the coaches Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola in the years 2004 to 2011, accumulating the three Champions League victories of the period, outdoing Madrid 5-2 in league titles. Since Guardiola left in 2012, four different head coaches have taken charge of the first-team.
The latest, Luis Enrique, has the most open license to radically alter the team and its style. The 44-year-old has limited experience as a top-division coach, from a season each at Roma and Celta Vigo. But he knows intimately how the club responds to crossroads moments. He was Barcelona's captain ten years ago, when Rijkaard took over as coach at a low ebb.
As Rijkaard remembers, it was a turning point in Luis Enrique's career. "Unfortunately, he was not in the first team and that hurt him," the Dutchman recalled. "He was still captain. That was hard at the start. But I remember very positively how Luis Enrique changed his attitude. He assumed the responsibility he held in the dressing-room, put aside personal pride and put his whole mid to helping his teammates." The Barcelona of Ronaldinho, Puyol and Xavi, and soon enough, the teenaged Lionel Messi, took off from there.
Luis Enrique, as head coach, may need similar self-sacrifice from Xavi in the months ahead, as Ivan Rakitic, the new recruit from Sevilla assumes some of Xavi's former functions in midfield and Messi some of Xavi's leadership. It is legitimate to talk of a rebuild. Over $195 million has been invested in players, notably Suarez and Rakitic but also two new keepers, Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu reinforce, as a matter of urgency, the center of defense.
Madrid's newcomers are no less eye-catching, James Rodriguez at a phenomenally high fee -- over $106 million -- for a 23-year-old, and Germany's Toni Kroos, whose range of passing ought to suit the counter-attacking strengths.
Atletico have also hired significantly, to partially balance the loss of Diego Costa, Felip Luis, and Thibaut Courtois, all to Chelsea: Mario Mandzukic, bought from Bayern Munich, is a combative, worldly target man and one good argument against the assumption that Atletico cannot again be such sustained challengers to Real Madrid and Barca, that La Liga will return to being the domain only of the so-called Big Two, not a Big Three.