Xavi is gone, but the stench of failure remains

In the quarter century that FC Barcelona has held my heart, it is difficult to think of a more grossly mishandled, heartless, incomprehensibly unprofessional situation than the dismissal of Xavi as manager of the men’s first team.

It sits at the pinnacle of a mountain of unpreparedness, ego, stupidity and naked ambition, amid a world in which nobody was or is prepared for the role they inhabit or used to inhabit. And at every last available opportunity on and off the pitch, both main protagonists have displayed that amateurishness.

Joan Laporta isn’t a fool. But he is a proud man guided by hubris, ego and outsized self-opinion. That makes him a real danger to the club that he pledged to do right by, running for president on the platform that he knew better because he had been there before. Underlying that notion was a promise that those days would return.

Which days is the relevant question.

Laporta 1.0 was fast-paced and ugly, a reign defined by the whims of a leader. It featured resignations galore including a batch of board members such as Sandro Rosell, kicking off an enmity that found its eventual realization in yet another selfish egoist assuming the president’s chair. It also led to the Bartomeu era, one that Laporta purported, promised to lead the club out of even if that ultimately meant selling everything of value that wasn’t nailed down, mortgaging the future for more cava-soaked parades.

Laporta got lucky the first time, narrowly surviving a censure motion then hiring Pep Guardiola, who made all questions anyone might have had about the men running the club moot. It was winning, beautiful football and joy. What else was there?

The biggest mistake a person can make is to mistake luck for skill, to think that they had something to do with things they had nothing at all to do with. Opening the door for someone who hands over a check for a million Euros doesn’t make you a financial wizard. You’re just a doorman. Laporta forgot everything about that first tenure except, “I’m the boss.” He never learned what he didn’t know, believing that he had something to do with that success.

Now as then, professionals left to be replaced by yes men. Mateu Alemany, Jordi Cruijff, replaced by Deco, a man Guardiola wanted to see the back of for good reason. FC Barcelona was not in condition to be handed over to someone like Laporta, but because everybody likes nostalgia, he was given the keys.

Laporta was unprepared, and hired a manager even more unprepared. That manager also got lucky as Real Madrid underperformed and opponents proceeded to make at times stupefying decisions in the final third, missing passes and shots time after time that might have led the observant to wonder what would happen when they started making those passes, hitting the target on those shots. This season, Barça finished on almost the same number of points sufficient to win the Liga crown last season, but Real Madrid didn’t cooperate. Neither did opponents. And Barça was looking up at a gone champion, conceding many, many more goals as they battled Girona for second in the table.

Like at a funeral, Xavi, who had to step over the severed head of his predecessor to get to his new office, will be remembered fondly. Whoever gets up at a eulogy and says, “Whooof! Glad that guy is gone, amirite?” People will claim that he developed young players, but he didn’t. He rolled out Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsi not only because they were ready but because they were needed, then he rode them like rented mules because he needed results in a misguided effort to save his own skin. He rolled out Fermin Lopez then ignored him even in matches where his skill set, as we have seen in recent weeks, would have been quite useful.

The club spent 50m on a forward in Vitor Roque and Xavi ignored him, not saying a word about why he wasn’t playing at all until sufficient media buildup happened. Then came the, “Xavi doesn’t like him,” whatever that means. Gavi stagnated, Balde regressed, Lamine Yamal and Cubarsi stayed where they are.

Xavi trusted Joao Cancelo over Hector Fort, demonstrating much about just how pure his commitment to youth really was. Cancelo took center circle in killing the team against PSG and undaunted, Xavi rolled him out again against Real Madrid, with the same overall effect.

His teams made the same mistakes match after match, played so tactically stupid in the second leg against PSG that if it were a kid playing online PlayStation, his friends would be like, “Dude. You okay? No, I’m just asking because you’re acting crazy right now.”

The football and boardroom were having a battle over who was the most messy, until the boardroom decided to get serious about being stupid and unprofessional. Xavi’s team got some good results because of individual brilliance and luck, the latter an underestimated factor in a team’s success. The rumbles began about the board wanting Xavi, who pledged to leave the team at the end of the season, to remain. They talked him into it, had a gladhanding presser that was all grins and joy.

Then results turned. And Laporta, king of flying by the seat of his pants, wanted Xavi gone, choosing to fire the man just a month after he got him to reconsider and stay. The rumors, the buzz, the information flooding social and other media, left the person at its center mostly in a sea of ignorance. Finding out that you’re about to be fired via some journalist’s feed speaks to a degree of dimwitted callousness that nobody — much less a club legend — deserves.

That Xavi was the wrong man for the job is immaterial to the reality of how his departure was handled. The wrong man for a job was outdone by an even more wrong man. Xavi shouldn’t have been hired, Laporta shouldn’t have been elected. Two wrongs never make a right.

Xavi comported himself with calmness and dignity throughout the entire process. He didn’t need to, didn’t have to. He has always said that he loved the club, and his behavior made that abundantly clear, even in the wake of the tersely worded press statement that announced he would be leaving, and not by mutual consent.

The fundamental problem with both men is that they were, are and will be in over their heads. It’s one thing to run a club that has a few financial difficulties but you can make a couple of moves, hire the right coach and suddenly all is well, to inheriting a debt-soaked wreck that has also tithed itself to a billion Euro-plus new stadium, and another seat of the pants decision to hire a firm that promised to get it done quickly, but will end up being late.

Xavi inherited a team that was constrained by a lack of money, bringing his own team of assistants and physios, then being beset by a series of injuries, reinjuries and crucial players in Balde and Gavi lost to season-ending knocks. He wasn’t ready to adapt, wasn’t ready to figure out a system for his team, a manner of playing that prepared it to be anything other than as chaotic and messy as the man in whose hands his fate ultimately rested.

Sadly, we supporters were also unprepared, but we had no control over when the thing we love is being controlled and steered by people who don’t know better, so they can’t do better. Laporta is out of luck and Xavi is out of rope. Both situations led to us watching an absolute shitshow.

And this is a club that had a president resign because of a shady transfer and a socio filing a lawsuit. Another president left when during a global pandemic, members were so sick and tired of his presence that they garnered enough signatures to force him out. Presidents have been arrested, have hired firms to spy on players, have done all kinds of things. Despite all of that, as supporters we found new levels of disgust with the people running the club, OUR club.

As Xavi said during his remarks, manager of FC Barcelona is a crappy job if you aren’t winning. But these days, it’s a crappy job anyhow because your future is in the hands of a capricious, artificially tanned man as full of hubris as he is self-belief. When a person who is wrong doesn’t want to admit they are wrong then doubles down, you have a real mess. FC Barcelona aspires to be a mess.

The new neck on the block, Hansi Flick, has said that managing FC Barcelona has been his dream. It was Xavi’s dream as well until he got so sick of it that he wanted to leave, then chose to stay, then was fired. The adage “Be careful what you wish for” has never been more clearly illustrated. It’s a rueful legacy as well as cautionary tale.