In Barcelona, ​​life after Lionel Messi is haunted by the past

BARCELONA – Even by the most charitable estimate, Camp Nou is barely a third full by the time the teams hit the pitch. The Champions Le...


BARCELONA – Even by the most charitable estimate, Camp Nou is barely a third full by the time the teams hit the pitch. The Champions League anthem rang out, drowning out the meager applause that greeted the players. Fans nibble row upon rows of sun-bleached seats stretching across the sky, lost in the sprawling stadium.

On the other side, Barcelona’s motto, its self-declaration – but a club – is written in the seats. As players unfold taking their positions, the lettering is still legible.

To the left, in the second floor of the arena, where the logo of a club sponsor once stood, a yellow stain has spread. No one bothered to replace the seats that once carried the company name. Instead, the club just painted those around them the same color, writing the mark, leaving a stain that is meant to erase the past but only acts as a reminder.

There are extenuating circumstances for participation in the Barcelona defense. It was only about a week since the Catalan authorities decreed that the stadium could operate at full capacity; in a city cautiously emerging from the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps many fans are not ready to return.

Prices are also high – as high as they were before; they are not, it seems, linked to performance – and so far there are not so many tourists, making their long-awaited pilgrimages to Camp Nou, willing to pay them. Locals may also have struggled with the timing: a kick-off in the early evening on a Wednesday meant a rush to get to the stadium after work.

Latecomers end up pushing the crowd to around 45,000, but that doesn’t improve the atmosphere or the impression. It’s a crucial game for Barcelona: failing to beat Dynamo Kiev would mean, for the first time since 2003, that they would likely fail to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League.

This failure would hurt more than the pride of the club. The team was, according to its managing director, Ferran Reverter, “technically bankrupt” in March. He needs the income from a deep run – as deep as it gets, anyway – in the Champions League. And for that, he needs his fans.

But they still haven’t come, just as they hadn’t come to the league game against Valencia a few days earlier. Even this weekend’s Clásico sales, the visit of rival Real Madrid, have been sluggish. Camp Nou was the hottest ticket in town. Barcelona were the team everyone wanted to watch. It’s a much less appealing prospect now that all it can offer is the chance to witness the decline, the harsh reality of life after Lionel Messi.

Outside Camp Nou, in the quiet streets of Les Corts – the dominated district and synonymous with the club and its stadium – this reality has not quite penetrated. Stalls selling Barcelona wares and shops stuffed with unofficial blaugrana the memories are still decorated with his name, his face.

There are the Messi jerseys: those from this season and last season and beyond. There are the Messi figures. There are pencil cases, key chains and Messi magnets. There are haunting and weird dolls that look like some sort of votive Messi. Together this amounts to a liquidation sale in Barcelona’s recent memory. It’s simple economics, of course – they have the stock, so everything has to go – but it’s also a constant and painful reminder of what Barcelona had and what they lost.

Every now and then, however, there are glimpses of something different, a desire to look forward rather than back. Considering all that Barcelona have gone through in the past year – from the insensitive farewell to Luis Suárez To the loss of messi, a journey that included the dismissal of a president, a turbulent election, financial calamity, a suite loyalty to the European Super League as conceived by Florentino Pérez, president of Real Madrid, and all kinds of embarrassment along the way – the idea that this could be a place of promise seems unlikely.

And yet, in a way, it is. Aside from Messi, the most common name on shirts outside the stadium is Frenkie de Jong, the 24-year-old Dutch midfielder. His face beams from a vast billboard, curving around the Camp Nou façade, alongside that of the other big hope for the team’s heart: Pedri, an 18-year-old from remarkable composure, signed for $ 6 million from Las Palmas.

When the teams were announced ahead of the Champions League game on Wednesday, the last name to read received by far the loudest cheers. Pedri may be missing due to injury, but Gavi, a 17-year-old with only a few appearances under his belt, is getting started. Gavi is so young, so fresh, that counterfeiters have yet to start producing replicas of his jersey.

There is also cheering in the middle of the first half, when Ansu Fati appears on the sidelines to warm up. Fati is 18, on his way back from a lost season due to injury, but has already been chosen as the club’s savior.

In smooth video the club produced last week to announce their $ 1.7 billion plan to renovate Camp Nou and surrounding areas – a project called Espai Barça, and something Barcelona officials say won’t jeopardize the financial situation delicate club – the final scene is a computer interpretation of a Clásico held in the new stadium. (For some reason, the game is in the Champions League, rather than La Liga.)

As the music swells, a commentator yells that Fati scored the game-winning goal. After Messi left, the club improved Fati’s squad number. This year, he wears the n ° 10. None of this iconography is subtle.

Shortly after the Kiev game, club president Joan Laporta took another step towards making this animation come true, confirming that Fati had signed a new contract. It was the easy part, of course – easier than reorganizing the stadium – but it was still a step in the right direction. The new contract binds Fati to Barcelona until 2027.

Pedri had accepted one of his only a few weeks ago; he will be here until 2026, at least. The two have agreed to release clauses – the amount Barcelona would effectively be forced to sell them to – that amount to $ 1.16 billion each. Laporta is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the previous regime, the ones that lost Neymar and ultimately Messi.

These young players, Barcelona know, are his future. With Pedri, Gavi, de Jong and Fati – as well as center-back Eric García, Uruguayan defender Ronald Araújo and Sergiño Dest, the Dutch-born American full-back – a glimpse of a team begins to emerge, a sketch of what what tomorrow might look like.

But still, Barcelona are not quite ready to let go, to accept that an era is over and another must begin. In the same video, the one promoting the stadium that befits Barcelona’s status as ‘the best club in the world’, the computer-generated squad taking the pitch is led by Sergio Busquets, its current captain. Espai Barça is expected to be completed in 2025. By then, Busquets will be 37 years old.

For now, it is a club caught between two worlds, trapped in the no man’s land between the comforts of the past and the promise of the future. Barcelona barely beat Dynamo Kiev, thanks to a goal from fellow old guard Gerard Pique, but he worked all night to get it. Muffled applause at the end: not the celebration of a victory, but the relief of another avoided pitfall.

Barcelona can still – just – qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League in the spring, but no one seems to appreciate it much, this trampling of the water, this wish to spend days, this unfortunate purgatory of today ‘hui.

What comes next, everyone knows, is unlikely to live up to the above. Tomorrow will not be as beautiful as yesterday. They will be selling Messi shirts away from this stadium for years to come. But there is hope, as slim as it is, that it will at least be enough to attract crowds again.



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Newsrust - US Top News: In Barcelona, ​​life after Lionel Messi is haunted by the past
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