Carlos Del Cerro Grande got there before Joan Laporta could but few expect the Barcelona president to be far behind. It was just before midnight on Thursday when the referee approached the touchline and raised the red card, handing Ronald Koeman his marching orders and everyone else an inescapable metaphor. Now suspended for something he said, the Dutchman may have sat on the Barça bench for the last time, even if he does survive until Sunday’s meeting with Levante at the Camp Nou – and only the cost of replacing him and the lack of an alternative makes that likely now.
“In this country, they throw you out you for nothing,” Koeman said. When it came to the card, he may have had a point; when it comes to the club, there is far more to it than that. This isn’t nothing, this is everything. Down to 10 men after Frenkie de Jong was sent off, it had finished 0-0 at 14th-placed Cádiz, Barcelona’s third consecutive game without a win leaving them seven points behind the leaders, Real Madrid, albeit with a game in hand. They have won only one of their past five and that was an uninspiring 2-1 victory against Getafe, who have lost every game.
“When it opened up, we were more dangerous than them,” the Cádiz coach, Álvaro Cervera, insisted, having seen his team take twice as many shots. Three days earlier, a last-minute header from Ronald Araújo had rescued a point for Barça against Granada, who are in the relegation zone. The game before that was a 3-0 defeat against Bayern Munich, the inferiority so evident the German club felt little need to drive it home. “It is what it is, we are who we are,” Gerard Piqué said, and Koeman agreed. “You have to be realistic in life,” he said. And right now the reality is that Barcelona are not very good.
Nor is it just the results, it is the play. After the draw against Granada, Koeman said, “If you look at the list [of players], what are you supposed to do? Play tiki tiki?” An already dismissive phrase, tiki taka, was made even more disparaging by its misuse and anyway the answer was simple: “Well, yes.” At Cruyff’s club, where its elevation to divine status may be an issue, where the puritanism can be problem, the style is supposed to be sacred. Besides, between a philosophy that supposedly guides everything and this reality there is a chasm.
Against Granada, Barcelona had slung 54 mostly aimless crosses into the box. They had finished with a forward line of Piqué, Araújo, and Luuk de Jong, the striker Koeman had requested after describing him as “better in the air than Neymar”. Against Bayern, they had hidden under the table, put up their guard and just tried to resist; dropping ever deeper, they couldn’t. Against Cádiz, it’s hard to really define what they did except to say: nothing much.
After the Bayern game, Laporta released a short video recorded on a phone, pleading for patience and calm but not exactly expressing it himself. In 30 seconds which lacked his normal charisma he described “a scenario we always anticipated” but also declared himself “indignant and disappointed”, vowing: “We’ll fix this.”
There is still a lot to fix, the problems multilayered and as deep as the €1.35bn (£1.16bn) debt. There is a reason Barcelona’s best-ever player was forced out – more than a billion reasons, in fact – and talk of realism may be reasonable, possibly necessary. But it also risks becoming self-fulfilling, being a discourse that is damaging. It is certainly playing a part in this breakdown.
The manager is just part of the crisis but he is the most immediate, even if this situation has long been coming, another problem Laporta inherited. As soon as the president can, he will do what he always wanted to do: sack his coach. His? Theirs. The question is: when can he? And how? Sacking Koeman costs €12m that Barcelona, who still haven’t paid off Ernesto Valverde or Quique Setién, do not have. In the summer, they also couldn’t find a replacement and doing so is no easier now, although names emerge, Roberto Martínez and Xavi Hernández the most significant.
One thing seems sure, there is no way back for Koeman. The relationship is irretrievable, their differences too profound and public, the fault line growing wider almost by the minute. That was already likely but there were moments along the way where they might have avoided it playing out like this, Piqué having to come out on Thursday night to deliver a long monologue in which he said: “The friction doesn’t help anybody.”
He added: “We have been on the crest of a wave and people are not used to this. We need tranquillity and stability. I know it is hard but there are ways of handling this. We can complain or we can all pull in the same direction.”
A marriage of convenience has become inconvenient. In the summer, Laporta asked Koeman for two weeks to find a better coach but he couldn’t and so they continued together. Before the Bayern game the club even leaked that they were considering offering their coach a contract extension but they also leaked that it would come with “conditions”. He would have to play 4-3-3, Barcelona’s style. There were even suggestions he would have to include the midfielder Riqui Puig, and there was no way he was having that.
The “recommendations” were one thing, the reports another. Koeman was annoyed that those stories had been deliberately placed, something that the many briefed media admitted. In an TV programme in the Netherlands, he said Laporta “speaks too much”. Back in Spain, he admitted that he and Laporta had “had our ‘little things’” but said it was sorted now. In fact, it was getting worse, Koeman no longer bothering to pretend any more. Defiant, he repeatedly challenged his president.
On Wednesday he walked into the press room, put his glasses on and, refusing to take questions, read a 2min 49sec statement demanding backing “in word and deed”. One in which he said that “finishing in the high positions in the league would be a success” and that they could not expect “miracles” in the Champions League, turning the screw tighter. The next night, Sergi Roberto responded. “Finishing in the top four is not enough,” he said. Piqué said: “I don’t wear this shirt to finish third. I wear this shirt to win.”
“What I don’t like is a conformist attitude, a certain defeatism,” Laporta insisted, the battle now open war. “That can’t be allowed at Barcelona. We can aspire to [win] La Liga.” He said Koeman’s job was not on the line at Cádiz, which was true – it was no longer about Cádiz, too late for salvation – but it didn’t help, any sympathy or support slipping away. When he was asked about Koeman’s future, the president had replied: “All coaches depend on results and, in our case, on the play.” In the end there was neither, just a 0-0 draw and a red card, Barcelona’s manager banished from the bench and forced to walk away, alone.