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The fall of Barcelona's empire: How Bartomeu has left Messi on the brink of quitting Camp Nou

There was no surprise that Gerard Pique was the first one to speak.

The Barcelona defender has never been one to hide from harsh truths and, as he immediately acknowledged after Barcelona's humiliating 8-2 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich, "the reality can't be hidden anymore."

"It's just a horrible game, a terrible feeling...," the defender told Movistar, struggling to make sense of it all.

"Shameful – that’s the word."

Josep Maria Bartomeu, though, appears shameless.

Whereas Pique nobly offered to step aside last Friday night to allow younger talent to take his place, Barcelona's bumbling president refused to resign, instead promising "announcements will be made".

Everyone knew what he meant; he would hold everyone accountable for Barcelona's embarrassing demise but himself.

Bartomeu instructed technical manager Eric Abidal to fire coach Quique Setien on Monday; then, the Frenchman fell on his sword 24 hours later.

The president did cede to calls to bring forward next summer's elections – but only to the spring of 2021, meaning he will remain at the helm for another new season.

Staggeringly, the man seen as responsible for the fall of the club believes that he is qualified to start the rebuilding process.

A Barcelona member since 1974, Bartomeu joined the board of directors in 2010 as part of Sandro Rosell's triumphant presidential ticket.

He initially served as vice-president and assumed office in 2014 when Rosell resigned after an investigation was opened into Neymar's arrival from Santos the year before.

Bartomeu's suitability to the role was questioned at the time but the Blaugrana won their fifth European Cup just a month before the election; his victory was, therefore, a formality.

On a night of high drama and even higher quality in Berlin, Barcelona had got the better of a brilliant Juventus team in a fantastic final.

Gerard Pique Barcelona GFXGetty/Goal

The Bianconeri boasted a beautifully balanced midfield of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio but couldn't contain the lethal counterattacking of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

"Juve made us suffer at times but we did a lot of damage on the break," Pique said after Barca's 3-1 win at the Olympic Stadium, where Suarez and Neymar both netted, and Messi was involved in all three goals.

"It’s easy with three players up front with such quality and who are so fast. You give them the ball and they just create goal opportunities."

Pique quite rightly argued that when Barca moved the ball quickly through to their forwards, the team was "practically unstoppable".

In conquering Europe, they had beaten the champions of England, France, Germany and Italy. Thus, Berlin 2015 felt like the start of another era of dominance for Barcelona; the dawn of a new empire.

Instead, the Catalans have collapsed.

Since Bartomeu's re-election in July 2015, 29 new signings have arrived at Camp Nou at a cost of just over €1 billion (£895 million/$1.2bn). Not one of them has been an unqualified success.

Samuel Umtiti has been unfortunate with injuries, while Frenkie de Jong has been played out of position ever since he arrived from Ajax last year.

Clement Lenglet has performed reasonably well but his poor positioning and lack of awareness were brutally exposed by Bayern in Lisbon.

Barca's dreadful record in the transfer market was, of course, most glaringly illustrated by the sight of their three most expensive signings of all time all sitting on the bench before kick-off at the Estadio da Luz.

Antoine Griezmann had again been deemed unsuited to Barca's game plan; Ousmane Dembele once again unfit to start. As for Philippe Coutinho, he was to be found in the Bayern dugout, having been loaned out to the Bavarians for the 2019-20 campaign, after a calamitous 18-month spell at Camp Nou.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the Brazilian came on the closing stages and helped himself to a couple of goals and an assist against his shattered former team-mates. It merely hammered home the point that what unfolded in Lisbon was a self-inflicted defeat, one five years in the making.

Four nights afterwards, Bartomeu claimed that Barca were merely dealing with a "sporting crisis – not an institutional crisis".

It would have been a laughable claim were it not so offensive. Indeed, Neymar's infamous Instagram post from 2017 immediately came to mind, "This president is a joke."

Neymar Instagram comment

Barca have now literally become a laughing stock, the subject of a million memes after the Bayern debacle. And not for the first time: Lisbon is merely the latest debacle, after Turin, Rome and Liverpool.

There have been just as many shameful episodes off the pitch, too. Barcelona's reputation as 'more than a club' had been on the wane for years but it has been absolutely shredded by the Bartomeu administration, which has been caught up in one scandal after another.

This is a club that has become synonymous with the word capitulation on the field, and incompetence and crisis off it.

Barcelona has long been a vicious political animal; anyone who suggests otherwise doesn't know the history of the club. There is arguably no more important role in Catalunya than the presidency of FC Barcelona, the social institution that represents the hopes and ideals of a people and their region.

Everyone wants the top job; everyone has their own agenda. As former manager Bobby Robson once admitted, "Football here, is about power..."

There are those that crave it; those that have it; and those that refuse to let it go. That can make for a ruthless environment when the wrong people are given positions of prominence.

In 1996, Johan Cruyff, the spiritual leader of the club, learned through the morning's newspapers that Josep Lluis Nunez had already decided to sack him.

Last January, Bartomeu made Ernesto Valverde wait all day while he tried – and failed – to find a better replacement than Quique Setien before finally confirming what everyone else already knew: that the coach of the Liga leaders had been sacked.

On Tuesday night, meanwhile, Bartomeu effectively informed all but seven members of the current squad that they were up for sale – live on the club's in-house television channel.

Barca's squad certainly needs to be rejuvenated. The issue, however, is not that some players should be sold; it's that they need to be sold.

The club with the highest revenue in world football desperately needs to balance the books. They must sell players before they can buy any.

Bartomeu has tried to argue that coronavirus is to blame for Barca's dire financial situation, telling Mundo Deportivo, "Since March 14 we have not received a euro. We have missed out on €200m (£182m/$233m). €200m!

“We have had to close the shops and the museum, there have been no ticket sales. We have paid back the ticket money for matches fans couldn’t attend. €200m is a big blow...

"In our Strategic Plan we had planned on earning €1.1bn (£1bn/$1.3bn) and now we will bring in 30 per cent less because of Covid.

"I say this because if someone thinks that the pandemic does not affect Barca, they are wrong. It affects the big European clubs and Barca is the European club that makes the most money and is the most affected."

Jose Maria Bartomeu Barcelona pandemic GFXGetty/Goal

However, concerns over the Blaugrana's finances pre-date the pandemic.

As far back as 2017, there were protestations over the way in which Bartomeu was running Barcelona, with former director Agusti Benedito claiming that the president was "out of control" and warning of a "serious institutional crisis".

Earlier this year, six directors resigned, citing issues with the "management of the club". Emili Rousaud's departure was particularly significant as he had been earmarked as Bartomeu's successor and it was he who sensationally claimed that somebody at Camp Nou had his "hand in the till".

So, it's inaccurate for Bartomeu to suggest that Barca's financial problems can be attributed solely to the pandemic.

Coronavirus wasn't responsible for the signings of Yerry Mina, Aleix Vidal, Arda Turan, Marlon Santos, Malcom, Junior Firpo or Emerson.

Or wasting the €222m (£200m/$260m) accrued from Neymar's departure on Dembele and Coutinho.

Or handing out lucrative contract extensions to thirty-somethings with next-to-no resale value.

And this is Barca's most pressing problem right now. Barca have a squad full of ageing, declining stars on colossal wages that nobody wants.

They haven't even been able to find a club willing to sign Coutinho at a knockdown price; how are they going to find someone willing to take Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic or Arturo Vidal off their hands?

Barcelona may have a new coach and sporting director but they still have the same old squad. Ronald Koeman isn't arriving with the funds required to build a team capable of challenging for next season's Champions League.

Convincing Messi to stay will be Koeman's first, and perhaps most difficult, task. The Argentine is understandably upset by the state of the club and even cut short his holiday in order to speak to the new coach, on Thursday.

Of course, there are those that believe Messi is part of the problem, on account of his colossal wages. However, if it weren't for the captain, Barca wouldn't even be in the Champions League knockout stage, or competing for Liga titles.

Nor would they have anything like the same global appeal. His exit would be a sporting and commercial disaster for a club now struggling to make ends meet.

Indeed, after years of making terrible transfers and handing out massive deals to sub-standard players, Barca no longer even have the resources to rectify the situation with summer signings.

Ronald Koeman Barcelona 19082020Getty

Barca wanted to re-sign Neymar and prise Lautaro Martinez away from Inter but can't afford either player. Swap deals, then, are their only option, like the one that saw them exchange the 23-year-old Arthur for the 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic.

How does that tie in with the club's attempts to lower the age profile of the squad? It doesn't. But it's entirely in keeping with Barca's scattergun approach to transfers in recent seasons.

Former director Albert Perrin once claimed that Bartomeu became president "without ever knowing why" and that the board had no real idea how to govern the club.

There is certainly ample evidence of a total lack of understanding of what the senior squad requires. They've clearly needed cover at No.9 since Paco Alcacer left for Borussia Dortmund in 2018 yet completely botched the process of replacing Suarez.

A year after signing Kevin-Prince Boateng as short-term solution, Barca even more embarrassingly had to make an emergency signing to bolster their attack, Martin Braithwaite. Leganes were understandably enraged by the loss of their top scorer outside of the transfer window but such transfer disasters have become commonplace at Camp Nou.

Barca pulled the plug on a deal for Jean-Michael Seri at the last minute, prompting Bartomeu to issue a grovelling apology to Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivere, while they also hijacked Roma's agreement with Bordeaux for Malcom.

Both farces merely reinforced the perception of Barca as a club in a constant state of chaos; suffering from a total crisis of confidence.

In truth, Bartomeu has never truly regained control of the club since Neymar left for PSG in 2017.

Just as Barca were saying that the Brazilian was "200 per cent" staying at Camp Nou, the forward was negotiating his bumper new contract at the Parc des Princes. At that moment, Bartomeu essentially lost the dressing room; and he has never retrieved it.

Lionel Messi Josep Maria Bartomeu Barcelona GFXGetty/Goal

He tried to make amends but Messi openly wondered whether the club had really done "everything" possible to re-sign Neymar last year. Their relationship only strained further during the talks between the squad and the board over a pay-cut, with Messi alleging that certain people within the club were trying to cast the players in an unfavourable light.

Certainly, the Argentine could be forgiven for thinking the club was conspiring against him, in particular. After all, just a few months previously, it had been reported that Barca had hired a social media company to not only praise Bartomeu and his board, but also slight their perceived enemies, including Pep Guardiola, Pique and Messi himself.

The pandemic, then, didn't cause Barcelona's problems; it merely exposed them.

Bartomeu had long claimed that there was nothing wrong with the way he was running the club; nothing wrong with the fact that more than 70 per cent of the club's expenditure was going on wages.

"The LFP and UEFA make recommendations but nobody sets a salary cap," he argued. "We are above what is recommended but the important thing is to be sustainable."

But Barcelona weren't. Their financial foundations have been proven as shaky as their defence. It was only ever a matter of time before both came tumbling down.

Indeed, there's a reason why Xavi has twice declined Bartomeu's offers to become Barca coach: he wants to usher in a new era at Camp Nou; not be dragged down with the old one.

Xavi Al-Sadd 2019-20

In a sense, Bayern arguably did Barcelona a favour by brutally dismantling the notion held by the likes of Arturo Vidal that the Blaugrana are still "the best team in the world". Such a cataclysmic defeat should have automatically provoked radical reform at every level of the club.

As Pique admitted in Lisbon, "I hope some good comes of this. I think the club needs changes and I'm not talking about the manager or the players; I don’t want to highlight anybody but I think structurally the club need changes of all types.

"No one is irreplaceable: if we need new blood to change course, then I’m the first to go, to leave.

"We all have to reflect and decide what is best for the club, for Barcelona, because that’s the most important thing."

Not as far as Bartomeu is concerned, though. He refused to step down because he does not want to bow out with Barcelona at rock bottom.

He is desperate to repair some of the financial and sporting damage he has done to the club. As he told BBC Radio 5 Live last year, "I need to leave the club in a great position and tell the new president 'that's our legacy'."

As it stands, though, his legacy looks like it will be to run Barcelona into the ground while wasting Messi's final years as a Barcelona player.

He has claimed that resigning would have been the easy thing to do; that's beside the point, though; it simply would have been the right thing to do.

Instead, Bartomeu will do whatever it takes to try to salvage the situation, in order to salvage his reputation; to avoid being remembered as the worst president in Barcelona's history.

Shameful, as Pique said last Friday. That really is the word.