Chronicle of a death foretold. Andoni Zubizarreta has long looked like a man living on borrowed time and the Basque was finally dismissed by Barcelona on Monday. Problems at the Catalan club, however, run far deeper than a former footballer with a poor transfer record.
The 53-year-old, a goalkeeper at Barca between 1986 and 1994, was a popular player and returned to Camp Nou as sporting director when Sandro Rosell swept to power in the 2010 elections.
Early indications were positive as Adriano and Javier Mascherano joined David Villa (already signed earlier in the summer) to bolster Pep Guardiola’s great side. But as the world’s best team began to decline, Zubi was unable to revitalise an ageing squad.
After Carles Puyol missed much of the 2011-12 season through injury, it was clear that Barca needed a new defender – even though Guardiola had successfully converted midfielder Mascherano into one of the game’s finest centre-backs.
Instead, however, Zubizarreta brought in Alex Song in the summer of 2012 after top target Javi Martinez had been deemed too expensive for the Catalan club. Song was seen by Barca as a player who would cover both central midfield and defence, but the Cameroonian was never cut out for the latter role and coach Tito Vilanova quickly abandonded that experiment after the former Arsenal man was shown up at the back in a game against Sevilla. And at the end of the season, Barca were brutally exposed defensively in a 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich.
Zubizarreta again failed to address the problem in 2013 as incoming coach Gerardo Martino was told to work with what he had.
“Our signing is Puyol,” Zubi told the media. But nobody was convinced and, by the end of the season (which finished without a major trophy), the club captain had retired. Meanwhile, Eric Abidal was allowed to leave – even though he would have been useful in central defence after recovering from his illness and receiving the public promise of a new contract from the Barca board.
Last summer, as Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez were surprisingly allowed to leave, two defenders did come in, but Jeremy Mathieu was hugely overpriced at €20 million for a 30-year-old and Thomas Vermaelen has yet to kick a ball for Barcelona. The Belgian is now set to be sidelined for the rest of the season and must go down as one of the worst signings made by the club in recent years.
But Barcelona have other problems, too. President Josep Maria Bartomeu remains unpopular and was never actually elected by socios, many of whom want elections to be brought forward to this year instead of waiting until 2016.
Bartomeu took over from Rosell after the former chief resigned last January and the current Barca board cannot seem to do anything right. Caught up in court cases over the controversial Neymar transfer and now banned from signing players in 2015 due to irregularities in their recruitment of youngsters, the credibility of Bartomeu et al is at an all-time low.
On top of that, Barca are currently playing their worst football in years under Luis Enrique. Initially thought to be an upgrade on Martino, the former Spain midfielder has already seen his side lose four matches in 2014-15 and, perhaps more worryingly, there is an apparent lack of identity about the 44-year-old’s team.
Constant changes to the starting line-ups and tactics have left the players confused and it simply does not look like everyone is rowing in the same direction at the moment. The coach, meanwhile, is often too stubborn to admit his mistakes.
Zubizarreta was a convenient scapegoat for those mistakes and took the blame for almost everything during his time at the club. He was part of the problem and probably did need to go, but the issues run much deeper and whoever replaces the Basque will not be allowed to sign players anyway in 2015.
Barca need much more than a new sporting director to solve their current crisis.