Barcelona's high-risk strategy vindicated in the short term with La Liga title

Barca executives gambled with the club's long-term future for immediate success — now Xavi must turn the Catalans into a European force once again

Barcelona players begin the celebrations after the victory over Espanyol confirmed the club as La Liga champions. Getty
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The celebration had been four years in waiting, the longest Barcelona’s captain Sergio Busquets has ever been delayed between La Liga titles.

But the initial rituals of joy would be rushed. Busquet’s ninth Spanish league, achieved on Sunday night with the comfortable margin of four matches to spare, ended with him hurriedly retreating his teammates from the pitch, festivities interrupted by an invasion not from Barcelona fans but those of Espanyol, at whose stadium Barca’s 4-2 win confirmed Spain's new champions.

Espanyol, the second club in a city where the bigger neighbour casts a giant shadow, are in deep trouble, relegation leering at them, and around 100 of their fans were enraged by the sight of Barca players making a wide, dancing circle, hand in hand, in the middle of the field.

Police and stewards prevented direct confrontations as players sprinted towards the dressing rooms. After one or two chairs and plastic barricades were thrown, the Espanyol supporters turned their anger into chanted demands that their club’s directors resign.

The episode passed. It was almost as if Barca had forgotten local protocol by lording their glee too long in front of disgruntled rivals. “The euphoria is to be expected,” said Xavi, the Barcelona head coach, “but we weren’t at home and so needed to get to the dressing room. I said to the players it was time to come in, but you can’t always control the reactions.”

It was the only mild criticism Xavi directed towards his squad, praising their endeavours through a campaign of challenges off and on the field. Many could be forgiven for not reading the mood in the Cornella stadium, which had become more and more silent as Barca outclassed Espanyol, 3-0 up by half-time, 4-0 ahead by the 53rd minute.

Many of the new champions were playing their first city derby away from Camp Nou, debutants in the nuances of the Barca-Espanyol grudge.

That would apply to Robert Lewandowski, who scored twice; Jules Kounde, who glanced in Barcelona’s fourth; to Raphinha, Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso and Franck Kessie. All joined Barca only last summer, part of a hectic turnover of personnel, signings whose fees and salaries were in large part funded by money brought into the club in exchange for selling long-term stakes in future broadcast income.

That strategy, mortgaging of anticipated revenue at a club balancing huge debts, had been deemed high-risk nine months ago. There is partial vindication in Barca’s claiming La Liga after four years when it has been housed in Madrid, at Real or Atletico.

“We saved the club financially and have brought joy back to Barcelona,” beamed the club’s president Joan Laporta, who was elected in March 2021 promising to return the status Barca enjoyed during his previous mandate, a period of regular European and domestic successes between 2003 and 2010.

Ecstatic Barcelona supporters celebrate 27th LaLiga title

Barcelona fans celebrate in the street after their team won the Spanish La Liga championship by beating crosstown rivals Espanyol in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday May 14, 2023.  (AP Photo / Joan Mateu Parra)

Laporta appointed Xavi, an influential Barca midfielder in that era, as his head coach 18 months ago. Xavi has now mirrored the achievement of Pep Guardiola, whom Laporta gave his first senior management job in 2008, in winning the Spanish league in his first full season in charge. The distinction is that in 2009-09, Guardiola’s Barca won a Treble; in the Champions League and the Europa League, Xavi’s Barca have struggled against heavyweight opponents, losing to Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Manchester United.

Busquets, 34, is the last remaining link on the playing staff to Guardiola’s first Barcelona team, and announced last week that this, his 15th season at Barca will be his last. “I wanted to go out with a major prize,” he said. “It will give the club stability and some calm.”

That optimism was shared by thousands of Barca fans who crowded on to the city’s Ramblas into the early hours of Monday morning and those who lined the streets to applaud the champions, and the club’s Liga-winning women’s team, during Monday’s open-topped bus tour.

There were cheers for Lewandowski, formerly of Bayern and now with 21 league goals in his first season in Spain, and for goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and his 25 clean sheets in 34 matches. There were taunts aimed at Real Madrid, deposed as title holders and trailing Barcelona in the table by 14 points.

Another chant rang out loud and clear: “Messi! Messi!” This La Liga title is the first this century that Barca have claimed without Lionel Messi, who was allowed to leave for Paris Saint-Germain two summers ago because of the club’s financial problems.

Laporta and Xavi would now like Messi — 35, out of contract with PSG next month and weighing up a lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal — to rejoin. “With every respect to Saudi Arabia,” said Laporta, “Barca is Barca and it is Messi’s home.”

Updated: May 16, 2023, 7:00 AM