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Ernesto Valverde and the Prison of Barcelona’s Past

The summer before last, Barcelona made the sort of business decision that few — if any — outside the relatively niche world of sports merchandising would have noticed.

Since 2001, Barcelona’s merchandising operation had been subcontracted out to Nike, the team’s jersey sponsor. Through a subsidiary company, Nike ran three official Barcelona stores and 15 licensed stores, as well as overseeing some 328 licensed distributors. The branded products they sold included about 7,000 items: apparel and mugs and all manner of sundry tchotchkes.

Nike’s contract expired in the summer of 2018, and rather than renew it, Barcelona formed its own company — the snappily-titled Barcelona Licensing and Merchandising — to pick up the mantle. The move, the club said, would enable “greater economic profitability and direct control of the brand.”

It was a smart decision. On Monday, the accountancy firm Deloitte confirmed that, over the course of the 2018-19 season, Barcelona had generated more revenue than any other club: $936 million, an increase of $166 million — almost 18 percent — from the previous year.

Deloitte attributed that growth “predominantly to the decision to bring the licensing and merchandising operation in-house.” For the first time, Barcelona had overtaken Real Madrid and Manchester United to become the richest soccer team on Earth.

That is not the only table that Barcelona leads. After winning the Spanish title the past two year, Manager Ernesto Valverde’s team was top of the league, again, this season. Barcelona had qualified with ease from its Champions League group, too, not losing a game as it steamrollered into the last 16. By most metrics, this is a club in fine health.

But not long after Deloitte published its findings on Monday, and after several hours of swirling rumor, Valverde was fired.

At first glance, Valverde’s dismissal — and the hiring of Quique Setién, an avowed aesthete, as his replacement — is simply further proof that what matters at Barcelona is not just success, but style. Barcelona’s position at the summit of La Liga disguises not just how brittle the team has been this season — losing three games and drawing four more, mostly to undistinguished opposition — but also how mundane it has become, even in victory.

There have been high points — crushing Sevilla, 4-0, at home; a master class against Mallorca in November — inspired, pretty much universally, by the undiminished brilliance of Lionel Messi. But it has become an article of faith among Barcelona’s fans and to some extent among its players that even though Valverde has been winning, he has not been winning in the right way.

The flow of talent (again, with a couple of exceptions) from the club’s youth academy has slowed. Much of the time, the team no longer takes the breath away; worse, it has often given the impression it is not really trying to do so.

Worse still, of course, was when Valverde did not win, in whatever way. Comfortably navigating the group stages of the Champions League is all well and good, but it did nothing to exorcise the ghosts of the Stadio Olimpico — where Barcelona blew a 4-1 lead against Roma in the quarterfinals in 2018 — or, more pertinently, Anfield, where Messi and his teammates were swept aside by Liverpool at the semifinal stage last year.

Some expected Rome to be the end for Valverde; few imagined that, after Liverpool, he would be given yet another reprieve, handed another chance to redeem himself. To some extent, the surprise was that it took six months, and a defeat to Atlético Madrid in the semifinals of the Spanish Super Cup, a tournament that tops nobody’s list of priorities, before Barcelona decided it could not risk a third straight spring of despair.

Barcelona is not unique, in the super-club era, in measuring itself not by how it fares domestically but by its strength in Europe — and there, incontrovertibly, Valverde had been found wanting — and nor is it alone, in Pep Guardiola’s phrase, in being a place where “winning is not enough.”

For most teams with global horizons, the Champions League is the acid test of greatness, a competition among true peers, the stage on which you not only cement your status but win new fans, expand into new markets. Victory helps that, of course, but so does spectacle: The received wisdom, at least, is that audiences have not only to be consistently impressed, but charmed, too.

What is unique to Barcelona is that, more than any club, it set the standards by which all of soccer’s great powers are now judged. Between 2008 and 2012, Guardiola did not turn his hometown team into the most admired and, arguably, most popular team in the world just by winning two Champions Leagues and three Spanish titles. He did it by turning Barcelona into a byword for beauty, and sophistication, and style.

That, as much as anything, is what Barcelona Licensing and Merchandising is stamping on scarves and mugs and tchotchkes and selling around the world: not a crest or a logo, not the success of now, not even the style of now, but the sense of what Barcelona is supposed to represent. Those values were not defined by that team of Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta and, of course, Messi, but they were embodied by it.

That is the revenue stream that Barcelona wanted to bring in-house: memory. It is a lucrative business, it turns out, but it is also a considerable burden. Like all superclubs, Barcelona has to win. Like all superclubs, it has to win with style, or at least something that can be spun into style. Unlike all of the others, though, Barcelona has to match up — in its own mind, and in those of its fans — to a very specific image of what it was, just a few short years ago. It has to make them feel as they did then.

Valverde passed the first hurdle. He fell at the second. He got nowhere close to the third. To some extent, that was not his fault: Xavi and Iniesta are long gone. Messi remains, of course, as wondrous as ever, but he has found himself let down, increasingly, at an institutional level: directionless, almost random recruitment of players; uninspired coaching appointments, and an aging squad, at times distracted and often over-empowered; a board that has no clear vision of the club’s direction, at least on the field.

Perhaps Setién will fare better. He seems a more natural fit, certainly — where Valverde has always been a pragmatist at heart, his successor has spent his career, as El País put it, “in love with the ball” — though his credentials are oddly threadbare for a coach of the biggest and now richest club in the world.

Under Valverde, Barcelona had something approaching success. It has anointed Setién as the man to restore the style. It is not impossible to have both simultaneously, of course, but that is not what Barcelona is searching for, at heart. It is not, really, what will define whether Setién is a success or a failure. What Barcelona wants, more than anything else — what he needs to do, to make the club feel whole again — is for the present to be just like the past.

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