Barcelona are going through their worst season in a decade. Their draw against Villarreal and their lack of resources to overcome their bad moments put them in a tricky situation: On the brink of being knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Athletic Bilbao; third in La Liga table, and five points behind Real Madrid who have played a game fewer due to their participation in the Fifa Club World Cup.
The atmosphere surrounding the club proves that this could be the end of an era and what has happened already this week attracts questions over the hierarchy at the Nou Camp and the relationship between the squad and the board of directors.
Barcelona were denied a penalty in the second-half against Villarreal in a controversial match in which the referee's performance caught the attention of supporters. As he was leaving El Madrigal stadium after the game, defender Gerard Pique appeared to shout in the direction of the director's box: "Did you see that? Yes, you, you!" Though Spanish media initially reported the defender was shouting to Javier Tebas, the La Liga president, the version changed in the coming hours. According to Onda Cero and Sport, the former Manchester United centre-back had been shouting at Jordi Mestre, a member of the board of directors.
The same sources claimed that Pique is frustrated with the fact that President Josep Bartomeu and his team are not putting more pressure on referees, with the belief that they are damaging his side. The Spaniard's reaction after the last game showed the distance between the players and the president, not to mention the turmoil inside the club. In fact, El País reports that "Piqué is showing the weaknesses of FC Barcelona and his acts highlight the institution is being compromised and damaged".
Piqué, "the future Barcelona president"
Days before, Pique, who was recently pointed out by Pep Guardiola as the future president of the club, questioned the impartiality of TVE, Spain's public service broadcaster by tweeting screenshots of two polls published by the station's Twitter account. Taking into account that he is not even captain of the club, it seems clear that he has decided to lead the protests against perceived injustice from the media, referees and his own team.
But what happened en route to the game at Villarreal definitely shows there are internal disputes at Barcelona. Lionel Messi and Piqué decided unilaterally that they were not going to attend the Best Fifa Awards Gala that took place in Zurich on Monday, 9 January. The club tried to avoid controversy by publishing a note in which they said that "with the aim of prioritising preparations for Wednesday's Cup game against Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona have decided that players recognised in the Gala The Best Fifa Awards will not be travelling for the ceremony". President Bartomeu went to Zurich, but this was not enough to avoid "FIFA's annoyance" according to El Mundo.
The statement made by Barcelona was not enough to keep the calm around the club. According to sources such as Sport or Onda Cero, this decision was made by the players and against the will of the president; again exposing a difference of opinion between the squad and the board of directors. Perhaps more worrying, the incident highlights how the players can make institutional decisions separately, without the consent of the club.
"There is a power vacuum in Barcelona," reported L'Equipe's correspondent in Spain yesterday. Anarchy at its finest. This kind of behaviour does nothing to diminish the theory that the likes of Messi and Pique can even influence the appointment of managers.
Even in a club full of stars, there is a need for authority to deal with egos, frustration and crisis and it seems like Barcelona are struggling to deal with all this. Something similar to what happened at Madrid a year ago, before Zinedine Zidane brought joy, good judgement and a wonderful ability to manage a squad full of astros. Silverware swiftly followed. Barcelona face Bilbao in the second-leg of the round of 16 knowing that a premature exit from the competition may add fuel to the fire which is burning in both the dressing room and the boardroom.