Life lessons from… Barcelona 2 – Bayern Munich 8

So you don’t care about football? Read on. This isn’t about football.

This is a tragedy of Greek proportions, with a perfect dramatic structure. Strophe followed by antistrophe. Followed by catastrophe. It is a drama and a tragedy – I exaggerate not – because these were a dozen very real people, with very real emotions, being watched and judged by millions of people and being publicly disgraced.

Legendary defender Gerard Pique (of whom, more later) said of his side’s performance, in a post-match interview, “It’s a disastrous result, an embarrassment, that’s the word… We have hit rock bottom.”

This is a story of management and money, personal responsibility, politics and pride.

It is about a humiliation.

More than a club

Even if you have no interest in football, it’s likely that you’ll know a little about Futbol Club Barcelona, the blaugrana. It is the world’s richest club, worth over £3 billion. Their home, the iconic Camp Nou, is the largest stadium in Europe and the club embodies the pride, the culture and the politics of the Catalan region of which it is the centre.

It is owned and operated by its supporters and during the dictatorship of Franco, supporting Barcelona was one of the few safe ways to express your Catalan heritage.

Barça. “Més que un club”. More than a club.

So what can we learn from… Barcelona 2 – Bayern Munich 8?

Life Lesson #1: what got you here won’t get you there

If you’re not a football fan, it’s worth pointing out that at this level, losing by three goals is something of a drubbing. Four and five are thrashings. You have to go back to 1946 for the last time Barcelona shipped 8 goals.

So what happened? 

10 years ago, Barcelona were riding high, the elegant emperors of European football. In 2009 they became the first Spanish club to win the treble, the dream of every European club. They won the La Liga (the Spanish league), the Copa del Rey – the equivalent of the FA Cup in England – and the prestigious Champions’ League, a competition played between only the very best teams across Europe.

Not content with that, that year they also won the Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA (European) Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup.

Under the charismatic Catalan Pep Guardiola – the youngest ever manager to win the Champions’ League – the team were unbeatable. In his trademark dazzling runs, magnetic balls skills and mercurial decision making, an Argentinian footballer named Lionel Messi was on the path to being described as the Greatest Of All Time (the GOAT, a staple topic of football conversations worldwide).

The Spanish national team who won the World Cup in 2010 had seven players from Barcelona in the line-up.

They were inexorably becoming the greatest football team of all time, inarguably if judging by competitions won. Their players were a mix of highly paid glittering stars, and youngsters who had grown up through La Masia, the highly effective youth academy that brought through players like Messi and Guardiola. The football was attractive and flowing.

They were a community. Més que un club. Messi, for example, arrived in Spain because the directors at Las Masia offered to pay for the nightly growth hormones that the 13 year old Messi required.

They were imperious and ethically sound.

They were everyone’s second favourite team.

More than a club. But what got you here won’t get you there.

Life lesson #2: plan for change or change your plan

Business histories echo to the sound of companies who thought they could just keep doing what they’d always done and failed to hear the winds of change whistling under the door.

Companies as diverse as Pan Am, Kodak, Tower Records and Toys R Us all failed to react and flex as tastes and buying styles changed.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Barcelona are in no danger of going bankrupt, although they are currently nursing a debt of around three quarters of a billion pounds, and the club has cash reserves of only £40 million.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that the financial numbers in football are almost meaningless. There is talk of the GOAT Messi being valued at £700 million, which looks like a figure plucked out of the air (it isn’t). Barcelona still owe Liverpool almost £100 million for the transfer of Philippe Coutinho (of whom more later). The record paid for a football transfer so far lies nearly a quarter of a billion pounds, paid to Barça for diving legend Neymar.

Astronomical seems a fair word here. Immoral is another.

Barcelona will not go bankrupt, but they are in a highly unstable financial position.

A sea change occurred in 2015. The team was almost unbeatable on the field but a man called Sandro Rosell was nearing his end of term as President – more about him later.

Rather than encouraging the risky strategy of fully supporting Las Masia, Barcelona were transferring in superstar players from other clubs at eye-wateringly high cost.

Maintaining this team of legends was financially crippling and the beast needed feeding. Decisions were taken not on football grounds, but on profit margins.

These ‘investments’ could not easily be sold, and with increasing player power in the modern game, they could not be sidelined either. Lacking a strategy or a plan, the team just got older and older.

The team that took the field on the 16th August 2020 had an average age of 30. 29 years and 329 days, for those of you who like details or are pub quiz aficionados.

Bayern Munich were, on average, two and a half years younger.

Given that I’m double the age of the Bavarian side, I’m not going to throw ageist shade around, but in athletic terms, that difference is huge.

Towards the end, the Barcelona team effectively stopped trying. They were thrashed and they knew it. They were tired. Emotionally, they were battered.

In football terms, they were old.

Barcelona had failed to see that change was coming, and had not changed their plans.

Life lesson #3: leadership is more than a position

Barcelona has a pleasantly ramshackle approach to management and a historically casual attitude to financing. The 21st century forced a wake-up call on them but the management structure did not encourage solid financial decision making.

The management was political.

Barcelona changes its board every six years. The last election was in 2015, following the resignation of the aforementioned Sandro Rosell.

Sandro Rosell had – in effect – politicked his way into the presidency, out-manoeuvring the previous president Joan Laporta (of whom more later – are you sensing a theme here?) for whom he had been the running mate in 2003. Having supported Laporta, in 2005 he resigned in protest at some of Laporta’s decisions. We’ll come back to that, too.

Unfortunately, in 2017 Sandro Rosell spent nearly two years in prison over misappropriation of funds from the signing of Neymar (remember him?). He was later acquitted and he feels strongly that he was stitched up, though by whom remains unclear.

His deputy Josep Bartomeu became President. His record is equally interesting. Of the 21 board members that have sat during his tenure, 11 of them have resigned and of the vice presidents who began with him five years ago, only one remains.

Here’s the problem.

If you want to get onto the board of Barcelona, you need only to be a member – a ‘culer’ (arsehole, a self-deprecating term from when the fans’ bottoms hung over the stadium surroundings). You need to be able to provide a guarantee of 15% of the overall budget (so currently about £5 million) and that’s it.

You don’t need to know anything about football. You’re not measured by how long you’ve been a culer. You don’t even have to have experience of running a business (although to be fair, you’re unlikely to have £5 million without that – but it could be retail, hedge funds or high-level tax evasion).

You’re then voted in for 6 years. And all you have to do for that six years is to work out how you can be voted in for another six.

There is no depth to the decisions. The leaders are subject to the whim of the electorate.

This is not being a leader. This is being a vote tart.

On the positive side, elections are due next year. Of which, let me hear you chorus, more later.

Life lesson #4: avoid the bad judgement chain… inaction – reaction – wrong action

This is where I’m going to get personal. I’m going to discuss your relationships. Either where they go wrong, or the danger you’re in if they’re going well and you’re being complacent.

For the moment, though, back to Catalonia.

Because the Barcelona leadership lacks true leadership qualities, it follows the bad judgement chain.

In the first instance: inaction. Just keep doing what you’ve always done. The managers assumed that the team would keep winning as long as they pumped in enough money. Messi could probably win most games on his own, to be frank. But they were increasingly relying on that fact.

Inaction eventually leads to problems as the world changes around you. When things go wrong, the leadership reacts.

Reacting means that you’re letting others dictate the world in which you move. Thinking forward, planning, being creative and playful in your decision making gives you better outcomes, stronger focus and greater direction.

Barcelona were spending reactively, and then having to navigate increasingly choppy financial waters. Decisions appeared to be made not for footballing reasons, but because the financial deals were conducive.

For example, in addition to the 2018 signing of Coutinho (yes, we’ll come back to him, I promise), in June 2020 they exchanged their 24 year old midfielder Arthur for a 30 year old Pjanic, reportedly because the cash flow on the spend can be spread out over several years, while the income is immediate. Neymar was sold, breaking up the lacerating Messi / Suarez / Neymar strike partnership.

The board was becoming increasingly reactive.

Next, as it’s clear that matters were not running smoothly, the wrong action is taken. And here we combine life lesson 4 with…

Life lesson #5: in any organisation, your most important asset is your people

This goes further than just business. Think of you. Think of your life.

In that life, your most important asset is your network of friends and family.

Barcelona has lost its soul to the twin sirens of politics and money. The distractions off the pitch led to discontent in the team. The players were openly hostile, and this clearly led to a lack of motivation once things started going badly in the match.

Let’s be honest, reaching a Champions League quarter-final isn’t bad. Only eight teams manage it each year.

But being thrashed 8-2 is bad.

Only a few months ago, Barcelona sacked their manager, Ernesto Valverde. That in itself was not necessarily a wrong decision (although given that they had won La Liga twice consecutively under his management, were top at the time of sacking and still in the Champions League, it could at least be called a curious decision).

However, they did this without lining up a replacement. Wrong action.

Knowing that elections were due in 2021, and knowing that the earlier-mentioned Laporta was likely to win, and knowing that he has been very vocal about wanting his own choice of manager, most of the likely candidates were unwilling to become a de facto interim manager.

In the event, they were left with their fourth choice manager, Quique Setien.

Six members of the board resigned in April in protest at the running of the club.

The players were vocal about the way the club was being managed, while accepting a 70% pandemic pay cut. They were also unhappy with being led by someone they saw as second rate, especially as many of them had been in favour of Valverde.

There were strong rumours of a social media group being paid to discredit those opposed to the President, Bartomeu.

Wrong actions, wrong actions, wrong actions.

What was I saying about relationships? Simply this: learn from Barcelona and avoid the bad judgement chain.

When your relationship is strong, don’t be inactive. Look at how to make things stronger. Take action.

If things are looking rocky, don’t just react to the problems in front of you. Be proactive.

When you do act, act with the long term goal in mind, not what might seem expedient in the moment. Right action.

Life lesson #6: if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there

Are you happy? Are you content? Are you OK? Chances are, you’re probably just content. Satisfied with your lot, but no more. And you’d prefer to be happy, rather than merely satisfied, wouldn’t you?

Every football club, every business, every charity needs a plan for the future. Where they want to be, when they’ll get there.

It’s something that we all could do with, frankly.

Each one of us is only three bad months away from financial ruin, and this current pandemic has certainly brought that lesson firmly to the front of our minds.

But back to Barcelona.

There was a pleasing amateurism to their set up. They only gave in to shirt sponsorship (by which a sponsor pays to have their name on the front of the team’s shirts), more than 25 years after their major rivals, Real Madrid, had signed a deal with Zanussi.

However, this grubby acceptance of money was too business-like for Barcelona, who decided instead to pay UNICEF for the honour of putting the United Nations agency’s name on their shirts. And not just a token gesture, but around £1.5 million.

(Although no longer the official shirt sponsors – the name now appears in smaller letters on the back – the link with Barcelona has so far contributed more than £17 million for UNICEF).

This allowed Barcelona to buy the moral high ground, but was hardly compatible with their cashflow crisis which at one point had the President banning colour photocopying in the club’s offices in order to save money.

Fundamentally, the club didn’t know what it wanted. The arch-rivals, Real Madrid, had clearly and openly prioritised winning the Champions League over winning La Liga, and had done so four times in the last six years.

Barcelona didn’t know whether they wanted national glory (La Liga) or international (Champions League) but they knew they were dissatisfied with their rival’s success.

And they have forgotten the biggest lesson of them all.

Management is about leadership. You know that. But how does that apply to you?

Because managing yourself, your dreams, your ambitions and your relationships takes leadership from within. You need to take hold of the tiller of your ship in order to reach your goals.

I might even suggest that you might get a coach… but that would be too obvious.

No, I’ll leave you with Philippe Coutinho.

Coutinho completes the Greek tragedy for us, bringing hubris and nemesis to the stage.

Coutinho came to Barcelona only two years ago. He remains their most expensive signing, valued at around £100 million up front, with about another £40 million in various add-ons. But he didn’t fit in with the squad, averaged about one goal every five games, and was loaned out to another team.

That team?

Bayern Munich. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you who came on as a substitute in that debacle, setting up a goal shortly after coming on, and scoring goals seven and eight do I? Philippe Coutinho.

There can surely be no greater humiliation than a player you snubbed coming back to rub salt into your wounds – and he’s not finished yet.

One of the various add-ons that Barcelona might have to pay was an extra bonus should he win the Champions League. Which he could do with Bayern Munich.

Life Lessons

So I hope this meandering ramble through the ragged ramblas of Barcelona has provided some food for thought.

But one more thing.

I said I’d get back to Gerard Pique. It’s nothing to do with Barcelona, but you might like to know that he’s one of only four footballers to win the Champions League in consecutive seasons with two different clubs. I hope that information is useful to you when you’re setting up a pub quiz.

… and if you enjoy my writing, why not buy me a coffee at It’s not expected or demanded, but I’d be really touched. I live on appreciation and coffee… in that order

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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