Just a few short months ago, Barcelona could do no wrong. Relentless in La Liga, the press were fawning over Messi’s brilliance, the hatfuls of goals they scored every weekend, and how entertainment was winning out over pragmatism. That they were heated rivals with Real Madrid, whose stock had fallen with the resurrection of the Galacticos, only enhanced their reputation in the eyes of the neutral.
No more. Their quest to retain the Champions League was brutally exposed by Mourinho’s Inter, Busquets committed one of the worst acts of simulation in the same game to tarnish their puritan status, and even Messi’s stock fell after a disappointing World Cup. Then, of course, they fluttered their eyelashes in Cesc’s direction.
Fast forward to today, and most neutrals want Cesc to stay in England, if only to prove to Barcelona that their ugly and relentless tapping up can be resisted. The way they have systematically gone about destabilising him at Arsenal has been reckless to the point where even the previously admiring media have turned on them.
One thing is for certain – if our captain does return to Spain this summer there will be widespread calls for a tapping up investigation. In theory, it should be an open and shut case – Barcelona have shown zero regard for Arsenal, the player or his contract, and have conducted their business in public despite calls from Arsenal to cease.
Unfortunately, while their approach seems scattergun, it is actually more calculated, and as such a tapping up enquiry may not result in the punishment they clearly deserve. The footballing authorities have only acted in a few instances (notably, those given high coverage in the press), and then only when club officials have been the worst offenders.
While the saga is certainly getting enough media coverage to force a cursory look from the authorities, the issue becomes cloudier when you analyse who is saying what. There is no doubt that Joan Laporta was guilty in the extreme, but he is no longer tied to Barcelona and as such his words are likely to be ignored. Rosell, since being elected president, has been more circumspect – most of his comments have been along the lines of ‘we want him, but have to talk to Arsenal’, which is no different from the ‘I admire him, but he is unavailable’ angle you hear from all managers, week in week out.
Instead, the blatant disrespect has come from the Spanish media (or at least, those under Barca’s control) and particularly the players themselves. But here is the key point – the players are not club officials. Technically, they could be found guilty of tapping up on an individual basis, but Barcelona are not liable for their words. And individual charges are exceptionally unlikely.
All of this makes it very difficult for FIFA to justify charging Barcelona as a club. Of course, common sense should allow them to see the bigger picture, witness how the media and the players have become the club’s mouthpiece and bring them to rights. But common sense doesn’t sit well with FIFA – they removed every referee’s option of applying it long ago and the goal-line technology farce proved how little they have of their own.
The good news is that Barcelona are finally being exposed – after years of forcing the availability of targets and driving their price down with underhand tactics, the wider world has seen them for what they are – a disrespecting playground bully whose off-field antics are the antithesis of their on-field aesthetic.
But negative exposure will change nothing – their tactic works. If it fails this summer, it will be the exception made possible only by Cesc’s refusal to behave in the antagonistic way they desire. With punishment so unlikely to come their way, they have no reason to give in.