The season has brought enough hiccups and hurdles for Barcelona but this does not end here.
Expect even more turmoil at Camp Nou this summer, say the Catalan observers.
The shock Champions League exit to La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid was just the latest setback in a year which has been plagued by bad news for Barcelona, much of it taking place off the pitch.
The season began with Lionel Messi appearing in court over tax-fraud charges. The ‘Neymar affair’ then brought the surprise resignation of then-president Sandro Rosell, with a criminal investigation for potential fraud in the Brazilian starlet's transfer continuing in a Madrid court.
The punishment is excessive, but the truth is the institution has made mistakes
The campaign is now ending with the club unable to sign new players for two transfer windows having been found guilty by FIFA of breaking youth transfer rules.
New president Josep Maria Bartomeu led Barca's defense by accepting rules had been broken but arguing for an exemption due to his club's exemplary La Masia academy. Bartomeu also claimed that the real scandal was the unnamed dark forces who were out to get the club.
Graham Hunter, author of ‘Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’, told Al Jazeera that this was a pretty blatant attempt at misdirection.
“For Barcelona to construct their public response around conspiracy theories and pompous avoidance of the clear fact that they have broken the rules is dispiriting and disingenuous,” Hunter said.
Santi Gimenez, who covers Barca for Spanish sports daily AS, agrees that Barca executives often reach for such conspiracy theories in times of trouble.
“The stuff about the ‘black hand’ did not surprise me at all,” Gimenez told Al-Jazeera.
“It’s an infantile reaction and lacking in self-criticism. The punishment is excessive, but the truth is the institution has made mistakes. There has been a lack of foresight, bad communication and a high-handed manner.”
News of FIFA’s ban broke just three days before Barca’s club members were to vote on an ambitious €600m proposal to completely remodel their stadium. The construction project is scheduled to begin in 2017. Four years later, the ground’s capacity is to be increased to 105,000 with many new corporate and commercial facilities added to the site.
Less happily for many Barca fans is the ‘partial’ naming rights to the new stadium that are to be sold for €200m. The club, which is currently about €330m in debt, also plans to borrow a further €200m to finance the project.
Hunter, though, is unsure such a huge investment is required.
“I think the sum quoted is far, far in excess of what is sane and needed,” he said. “Stadium development projects are almost always troublesome - financially, philosophically and architecturally. But that's a personal opinion, not a fact.”
|Neymar's transfer saga forced Sandro Rosell to resign as club president [GALLO/GETTY]
Many observers thought the 118,578 Barca socios eligible to vote in the April 5 referendum on the new stadium would share these worries. However, the proposal was approved by 72% of the 37,535 who voted. Gimenez says neither the 'yes' vote nor the low turnout was a shock as many members tend not to take a close interest in the club’s internal workings.
“[The vote] did not surprise me at all,” Gimenez said. “Barca’s socios are very conservative and always back whoever is in charge. Furthermore, they do not follow such workings so closely. In one of the most important votes in the club’s history, hardly 30% actually voted.”
The successful referendum took heat off the board until Wednesday’s limp Champions League quarter-finals exit - the first time the team had not made the semi-finals since 2007. Now that is something all Barca members take a close interest in.
Such an early European exit made it even more likely coach Gerardo Martino will leave in the summer after just one year in the job. Senior players are also departing, including captain Carles Puyol and long-serving goal-keeper Victor Valdes. Perhaps veteran playmaker Xavi Hernandez too.
“Barcelona has seen a decline in the quality of its strategising and execution since the end of the Laporta regime and consistently from then until now,” he says. “Their problems reach far beyond the tenure of 'Tata' Martino.”
Fight for power
Bartomeu regularly maintains he can take the club forward, and will remain in charge until his term ends in 2016. But not everyone is so sure.
Last week, 2010 presidential poll runner-up Agusti Benedito called for a new election to be held this summer, as Rosell's former vice-president has no real mandate to lead. Laporta could also have his eyes on returning to the job.
Any more explosive revelations [such as Messi's future at the club being seriously endangered as contract talks drag on, or criminal charges against club figures relating to the Neymar transfer] could see a snap election back on the agenda.
“Nobody would dare predict anything other than a busy summer,” Gimenez added. “For many months now, this board has been stepping onto a mine every week.”
It’s been a sensational season at the Camp Nou. You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine that the drama is far from over.