Few teams in European football have suffered a more disruptive 2020/21 than Barcelona. As a football team, a club and as an institution within Spain.
From the 8-2 battering of Bayern Munich in the Champions League this time last year until now, it seemed as if Lionel Messi’s foot was always just outside the door.
And Thursday’s announcement that the club are unable to agree terms on a new contract because of salary issues is the latest development in a horror show 12 months in the making.
But how did we get here?
The terminal decline begins well before this, with the disastrous run of transfers since 2015 leading to £1 billion blown, but for this timeline, let’s begin in December.
BARCA’S TIMELINE OF WOE
⏱️ 18 December: Barcelona 0-0 Real Madrid – a below-par Barca manage just two shots on target at home in a low-quality Clasico in which Real Madrid miss the best chances.
⏱️ 19 December: Sporting Director Eric Abidal privately tells the Barcelona board members that he feels Ernesto Valverde’s team ‘lack one more gear’ and added that he sensed that ‘many players were not satisfied or worked hard’. This is confirmed by Abidal in an interview on 4 February.
⏱️ 19 December: Catalan newspapers suggest that Valverde was ‘surprised’ by Real Madrid’s tactics and that his team were ‘exhausted’ by the end of the match.
⏱️ 28 December: ABC newspaper report that Arturo Vidal is attempting to sue the club for unpaid bonuses amounting to €2.4m, something that the club is forced to vehemently deny.
⏱️ 1 January: Agent Mino Raiola suggests that defender Matthijs De Ligt – now at Juventus – was treated ‘like a piece of cheese’ by Barca in negotiations to sign him, by trying to include him in the deal for Frenkie De Jong instead of negotiating a separate arrangement.
⏱️ 4 January: Barcelona throw away a winning position in the derby against Espanyol, with De Jong given a silly red card as the home side equalise in the final minute.
⏱️ 9 January: Barcelona lose the Spanish Supercopa semi-final 3-2 to Atletico Madrid in Saudi Arabia, though on the balance of play they are somewhat unfortunate, having two goals harshly ruled out for offside and against Messi for handball. But the immediate press reaction and the late concession of two goals suggests Valverde’s days are numbered. Everyone except Valverde seems clear on this.
⏱️ 10 January: Barcelona confirm bombshell that Luis Suarez will miss four months after undergoing knee surgery. Meanwhile, with Valverde still in charge, Xavi is quoted by almost every facet of the Catalan press as close to being appointed the new coach.
⏱️ 13 January: Barcelona confirm departure of Valverde and the appointment of former Real Betis boss Quique Setien, despite links to Xavi, Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. Legendary ex-player Andres Iniesta says that ‘Barcelona’s behaviour has been a little ugly’.
⏱️ 16 January: Catalan daily Sport report in the wake of Valverde’s elongated departure – described in their paper as a ‘three-day crucifixion’ – that his mishandling of young talent such as Carles Alena and Riqui Puig contributed heavily to his demise.
⏱️ 17 January: Xavi claims that he met Eric Abidal to discuss taking over at Barcelona but it was ‘too early’ to be coach. Abidal would later deny any offer to Xavi had been made.
⏱️ 22 January: Ibiza beaten… just. The island minnows take a woefully inept Barca second-string to injury-time in the Copa del Rey before Antoine Griezmann grabs a winner to spare the blushes of all concerned.
⏱️ 25 January: Messi hits 11 shots, but manages no goals in a 2-0 defeat against a motivated Valencia side. Setien’s incessant passing philosophy is already coming under scrutiny.
⏱️ 28 January: With Suarez injured, Barcelona continue to be linked with a huge number of forwards. But the one that seemed closest to completion, Valencia’s Rodrigo on loan, eventually collapses after Los Che demand a compulsory purchase in the summer.
⏱️ 30 January: Despite the continued concern over the number of attacking options, winger Carles Perez is allowed to leave for Roma for €11m, while young striker Abel Ruiz departs for Braga on loan.
⏱️ 30 January: Former Villarreal striker Cedric Bakambu jumps on a flight from Beijing, where he plays for Sinobo Guoan, to Barcelona to sign on loan for the club only for Abidal to communicate to him that the offer had been withdrawn. Bakambu then later took to social media to mock himself as being a ‘nearly Barcelona’ player.
Yochange my transfer history with “Almost ” please
No matter what happens we trust the process.
Thank God for everything
See you an other time
— Cédric Bakambu (@Bakambu17)
⏱️ 31 January: Barcelona sign Francisco Trincao from Sporting Braga for €31m; the club contrive to pay a huge fee for a 20-year-old who has played just 410 minutes of Primeira Liga football. What’s more, despite the squad’s attacking concerns, he won’t move to Camp Nou until July 1.
⏱️ 2 February: It is alleged in the Spanish media that super-agent Jorge Mendes could collect a maximum of €7m from the Trincao transfer deal.
The reporting is somewhat skewed; Braga’s message to the stock exchange made it clear that Mendes would receive €1.5m up front, with the rest tied into performance bonuses based on Trincao’s success at Camp Nou. Needless to say if those clauses are met, it is unlikely Barca will be too concerned about the additional payment.
⏱️ 2 February: Ivan Rakitic, who had been linked with a move throughout the transfer window, ultimately stayed and told reporters after the 2-0 win over Levante that ‘I can say very clearly that things have happened that I have not liked’.
⏱️ 3 February: Abidal goes public on a number of issues, including Valverde’s situation and his comments regarding the players not working hard for the deposed boss.
⏱️ 4 February: Messi, not one for public statements,
⏱️ 4 February: Ousmane Dembele, a transfer disaster of biblical proportions, is ruled out for the rest of the season with a serious muscle injury, while attempted to recover from another muscle strain he picked up in November. Dembele has played just 492 mins this season, scoring one goal. He cost €140m.
⏱️ 6 February: Barcelona are eliminated from the Copa del Rey after a 90th minute goal from Athletic Bilbao’s Inaki Williams.
⏱️ 25 February: Barcelona toil to a 1-1 result in Napoli earning a draw their performance scarcely deserved.
⏱️ 1 March: Barcelona produce another sub-standard performance away to Real Madrid in the second Clasico of the season, losing 2-0.
⏱️ 30 March: Knowing that there would be no football for some time, Barcelona move quickly to demand that the squad take 70% pay cuts, a move which is accepted by the team.
⏱️ 10 April: Despite the pay cut, Barcelona are still continually linked with signing players such as Lautaro Martinez (£100m) and even Neymar (who knows!)
⏱️ 18 April: Former president Sandro Rosell emerges from the shadows following prison time to give a series of interviews where he says he would ‘absolutely’ sign Neymar this summer.
⏱️ 2 May: With the Bundesliga nearing a return, Barcelona continue to look at plans to tentatively recommence training. They eventually return on 8 May after 56 days in lockdown.
⏱️ 15 May: Rumours begin to intensify that Barcelona will only be able to sign players during the summer if there are exits first, and that the club are actively trying to offload Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and other first-team players.
⏱️ 29 May: Quique Setien goes on record to say that he is not looking forward to the introduction of five substitutes, because Barcelona’s thin squad will not have as many options as Real Madrid during games.
⏱️ 18 June: Frenkie de Jong becomes the latest player to be injured ahead of the trip to Sevilla and will not likely play another match before the end of La Liga season.
⏱️ 19 June: Barcelona draw 0-0 in Sevilla to hand the initiative to Real Madrid in the title race, who have a superior head-to-head record. Gerard Pique already declares that it ‘will be very difficult’ to win the league.
⏱️ 24 June: El Mundo Deportivo’s headline on Barca’s transfer business of ‘SELL, SELL, SELL’ indicates the club’s financial position and expedites the rumours of Arthur’s departure to Juventus.
⏱️ 28 June: Following the 2-2 draw away at Celta which pushes Barca further behind Real Madrid in the title, there is talk of unrest in the dressing room, with senior players unhappy about Setien’s tactical decisions.
⏱️ 29 June: The transfer of Miralem Pjanic for a fee of €60m is confirmed, while Arthur’s deal going to Juventus is announced on 1 July. It is thought that there are clear accounting decisions at play and that Barca were required to do the deal to have the capacity to perform further transfers. Trincao, already signed in January for €31m, is arriving in July.
⏱️ 30 June: Barcelona draw 2-2 at home to Atletico Madrid, losing more ground.
Antoine Griezmann is given just three minutes injury time in the match. Griezmann’s family members take to social media to criticise Setien, while Spanish media suggest that Messi has been ignoring instructions from the bench during the contest.
⏱️ Jul 11: Barcelona labour to consecutive 1-0 wins v Espanyol and Valladolid respectively, with Messi a noticeably subdued figure in both contests.
⏱️ Jul 16: Barclona lose 2-1 at home to Osasuna, handing the Liga title to Real Madrid in the process.
In the post-match interview Messi brands Barcelona ‘an inconsistent and very weak team’.
⏱️ Aug 8: Messi magic helps Barcelona eliminate Napoli in the Round of 16 of the Champions League, but the second half performance in particular is once again far from convincing.
⏱️ Aug 14: Barcelona are completely embarrassed by Bayern Munich, losing 8-2 and it could have been worse.
Post-game, Gerard Pique virtually offers up his resignation from the team, while captain Messi refuses to face the TV cameras. Replacements are already being made for coach Quique Setien.
⏱️ Aug 16: A leak from a reliable source, one that had originally broken the story of Neymar’s desire to sign for PSG, reports that Messi has told the club he wants to leave, citing the lack of success and ability to build a team to support his desire to win another Champions League title before he retires.
⏱️ Aug 20: Ronald Koeman is announced as the new coach of Barcelona, signing on a two-year contract.
⏱️ Aug 23: One of Koeman’s first acts is to tell a number of first-term players that they can leave, with Luis Suarez among those that will be shown the door. An ally of Messi, the Argentine is thought to be extremely unhappy as the decision.
⏱️ Aug 25: Koeman allegedly tells Messi in training ‘his privileges are over’, leading to the Argentine leaving training immediately to hand in a transfer request.
⏱️ Oct 27: Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the club’s board resign following a summer of in-fighting with Messi. The club then call for an election to elect a new president.
⏱️ Nov 11: Atletico Madrid beat Barcelona 1-0, pushing Messi’s side down to thirteenth in the Spanish top-flight table.
⏱️ Dec 2: Following his side’s victory over Manchester United, PSG star Neymar tells ESPN that “What I would most like is to return to playing with Messi… next year we have to do it.”
⏱️ Dec 3: Barcelona’s chairman of the management committee, Carles Tusquets, says the only the way the club can sign Neymar in the summer is if they don’t have to pay a transfer fee.
⏱️ Dec 7: Presidential candidate Jordi Farre says the signing of Neymar would not represent a problem for Barcelona, as he plans to restructure the club’s debt.
⏱️ Dec 8: Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus come to Barcelona in the final match day of the Champions League group stages and walk away with a comfortable 3-0 victory. Ronaldo bags two goals, with Messi standing in the background with his hands on his hips.
⏱️ Dec 10:Presidential candidate Jordi Farre promises to tie Messi down to a new contract before the end of January.
⏱️ Dec 14:Presidential candidate Emili Rousaud announces that the Argentine will leave if he doesn’t take a pay cut like the rest of the Barca squad.
⏱️ Dec 14: Neymar post on his social channels a picture of him embracing Messi after the Argentine won the Ballon d’Or. It is captioned: “See you soon my friend.”
⏱️ Dec 15: PSG tell club stores to be braced for Messi signing announcement.
⏱️ Mar 14: Despite being competitive in the second leg, Barcelona ultimately exit the Champions League meekly at the hands of PSG and Kylian Mbappe, whose first-leg hat-trick destroyed them at Camp Nou
⏱️ May 15: Barcelona lose the league title race to Atletico Madrid and Messi heads on holiday prior to the Copa America, with no clarity on his future.
⏱️ May 15: Joan Laporta is finally confirmed as the new president of Barcelona, saying at his inauguration that he expects ‘changes’ at the club and that he intended to persuade Messi to stay.
⏱️ Jun 19: Barcelona announce the signing of Memphis Depay on a free transfer, their fourth signing of the summer. It’s not yet clear how Depay, Garcia, Aguero or Emerson will be registered.
⏱️ Jul 1: Deadline day comes, and Messi is officially no longer a Barcelona player, but out of contract.
⏱️ Jul 3: La Liga president Javier Tebas once again confirms that the league rules regarding salary caps and that they ‘would not budge’ regarding Messi’s current situation.
⏱️ Aug 5: Barcelona announce via official channels that Lionel Messi will leave the club as they cannot find an agreement with La Liga in respect of his salary.