BARCELONA — Spain's league season begins Saturday, still tying up its loose ends in a hurry. Less than 19 hours after the finish of the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, an event that celebrates the achievements of the previous campaign, Malaga kicks off the new one against Athletic Bilbao.
The clock, meanwhile, ticks down on the remaining days and hours of the transfer window, in which a good deal of major business is yet to be done. These disjointed starts are a Spanish habit. Three seasons back, a players' strike postponed Matchday 1 and turned it into Matchday 20.
Right now, Barcelona confronts the confusing sensation that the remaining 10 days of 2014's summer transfer window must cover both markets in 2015. The Catalan club learned Wednesday that its ban from recruiting players, imposed by FIFA after it was found to have broken rules on signing youth players, will prevent the club from adding players for 18 months after Sept. 1.
The sentence, which the club will appeal at the International Court of Arbitration for Sport, clouds an already difficult summer for Barca, a club currently dealing with more bans than freshly minted medals.
Luis Suarez, the headline fresh face, is out until late October, with the Uruguayan serving his punishment for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup. Not until then will Barcelona coach Luis Enrique be in a position to mold the role for Suarez in a front line including Lionel Messi and Neymar. By then, Barcelona's fans will have a strong instinct about whether Suarez's role is to provide necessary impetus to a team whose standards have fallen, or whether he will be a deluxe addition to a side already full of purpose.
Barca is at a crossroads. As ever, its situation is defined by the status of Real Madrid, European club champion again after a 12-year wait. But Barcelona's sense of well-being and self-confidence is also tied up with issues beyond the traditional rivalry.
Spain's national team has just fallen sharply from their pre-eminence, with early elimination at the World Cup. It's a Spain team whose style and stars were drawn predominantly from Barca, the most admired club side of the 21st century, and the most imitated club in modern, elite soccer.
With Spain's collapse in Brazil, a curtain seemed to be drawn on a distinct playing system — patient pass-and-move is moving out of fashion — and on careers. Xavi has retired from international soccer, and the expectation is that he will be selected more and more sparingly by his club team. His once-designated successor as the initiator of Barcelona's studied possession game, Cesc Fabregas, has been allowed to leave for Chelsea. Xavi's great ally, Carles Puyol, has moved from the pitch to an office job. Long-serving goalkeeper Victor Valdes has left the club.
These four were ambassadors-in-chief for the La Masia academy, as local Catalans who grew up with Barca. Xavi, Puyol and Valdes thrived under the coaches Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola from 2004 to 2011, accumulating three Champions League victories of the period, and outdoing Madrid 5-2 in league titles. Since Guardiola left in 2012, four different head coaches have taken charge of the first team.
The latest, Luis Enrique, has the most open license to radically alter the team and its style. The 44-year-old has limited experience as a top-division coach, from a season each at Roma and Celta Vigo. But he knows intimately how the club responds to crossroads moments. He was Barcelona's captain 10 years ago, when Rijkaard took over as coach at a low ebb.
As Rijkaard remembers, it was a turning point in Luis Enrique's career.
"Unfortunately, he was not in the first team and that hurt him," the Dutchman recalled. "He was still captain. That was hard at the start. But I remember very positively how Luis Enrique changed his attitude. He assumed the responsibility he held in the dressing room, put aside personal pride and put his whole mind to helping his teammates."
The Barcelona of Ronaldinho, Puyol and Xavi, and soon enough, the teenaged Lionel Messi, took off from there.
Luis Enrique, as coach, may need similar self-sacrifice from Xavi in the months ahead, as Ivan Rakitic assumes some of Xavi's former functions in midfield and Messi some of Xavi's leadership. It is legitimate to talk of a rebuild. Over $195 million has been invested in players — notably Suarez and Rakitic, but also goalkeepers Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu reinforce, as a matter of urgency, the center of defense.
Madrid's newcomers are no less eye-catching, James Rodriguez at a phenomenally high fee — over $106 million — for a 23-year-old, and Germany's Toni Kroos, whose range of passing ought to suit the counterattacking strengths.
Atletico has also bolstered its roster, to partially balance the loss of Diego Costa, Felip Luis and Thibaut Courtois, all to Chelsea. Mario Mandzukic, bought from Bayern Munich, is a combative, worldly target man and one good argument against the assumption that La Liga will return to being the domain only of the so-called Big Two, not a Big Three.
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