Transfer ban and firing of sports director exposes some very real problems at Barcelona

BARCELONA, Spain - There are some very real problems at Barcelona, and the firing of the club's sports director this week is the latest signal that the once almighty team has entered into meltdown.

While many neutral soccer fans have enjoyed watching Lionel Messi and his teammates win again and again, there are plenty in Barcelona still longing for the days when Pep Guardiola led the team to 14 of a possible 19 titles in a four-year span.

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Not to mention a good deal of envy for Real Madrid's 10th European Cup victory last year and its Spanish record 22-match winning streak to end 2014.

The sense of impending doom that has settled over Camp Nou since the firing of Andoni Zubizarreta on Monday had been festering for more than a year, and it finally came to a head last week when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Barcelona's appeal against FIFA's one-year transfer ban for violating rules regarding the registration of youth players.

Until then, the club had insisted — and many of its fans had believed — that they would win their case and the harsh penalty would never be applied.

Now the reality of a season with no new players for an aging squad is settling in.

Barcelona's faithful will have their chance to express themselves at home matches against Elche in the Copa del Rey on Thursday before Sunday's meeting with defending league champion Atletico Madrid. Many disgruntled supporters will have their handkerchiefs handy in case the team loses. They could demand president Josep Bartomeu calls for early elections instead of seeing out his mandate until 2016.

Barcelona greats Johan Cruyff and Hristo Stoichkov have already lamented the state of their former club.

"I believe Barcelona is heading toward chaos," Stoichkov said Tuesday. "There are too many controversies. I don't understand it."

On the field, the team has continued to churn out wins against minor opponents and can still challenge for titles.

That steady stream of lopsided scorelines and Messi goal records — this season he has broken both the Spanish and Champions League scoring marks — covers up the club's biggest failure: its incapacity to keep top talent both on and off the field.

First, Guardiola left the club in 2012. President Sandro Rosell resigned last year, and top players Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Cesc Fabregas have not been replaced.

The most perplexing part of Barcelona's decline is that most of the blows have been self-inflicted by the myriad of legal cases plaguing the club. Besides the FIFA ban that has damaged the reputation of its once lauded football academy, Rosell left amid a lawsuit into the transfer of Neymar, while Messi is mired in a tax fraud case.

Messi, so far, is holding Barcelona together, but there has been a breakout of Messi-mania recently because of reports the club's all-time leading scorer is not happy with coach Luis Enrique.

The arrival of Luis Enrique — the club's fourth coach in as many seasons — was labeled as a return to the Guardiola model of a player coming home. But his erratic lineup choices, which included resting Messi and Neymar for the first half in Sunday's 1-0 loss at Real Sociedad that cost Barcelona the provisional league lead, have erased any comparisons other than unfavourable ones with Guardiola.

Now, the transfer ban until 2016 means that the club's institutional crisis has finally spilled over to become a sporting disaster as well.

Zubizarreta's latest batch of reinforcements from last year have not panned out. Even if Luis Suarez recovers his scoring prowess after one goal in nine league games, Barcelona has slipped in midfield and defence. Ivan Rakitic and Rafina are no Fabregas; Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen (still to debut because of injuries) are far from the second comings of Puyol and Abidal.

Mainstays Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are showing their age at 34 and 30, respectively. Gerard Pique is not the dominant defender he was, and Dani Alves' contract is up at the end of the season, pointing to his exit.

As Sergio Busquets has said, "football evolves."

"It's impossible for things to stay the same," the Spain midfielder said in November. "We won't see the best Barca again."

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