How about that for a boomerang? In the binary world of Spanish football, this was the sort of gaffe that does double damage. Right now, Barcelona should be sitting back and enjoying the fruits of a Double-winning campaign that saw them go undefeated in La Liga. Maybe send their old rival from the Bernabeu a few postcards ahead of Kiev, too, just to ratchet up the pressure.
Instead, they’re dealing with a PR disaster after the dramatic 5-4 defeat away to Levante (a team with nothing to play for) and, above all, the decision to “rest” Lionel Messi ahead of a friendly match in South Africa on Wednesday.
This is a situation where optics matter and from Barca’s perspective, they are frankly atrocious. To the world, it looks as if they threw away the chance to make history by agreeing to play a friendly match before the end of the season so that they could rake in some extra millions. But because it’s halfway around the globe, they rested a bunch of players to do it, including their star asset. And they paid a heavy price for their money-grubbing greed.
We may never know who exactly decided what and when, so let’s stick to what we do know. Messi was rested and Gerard Pique left on the bench (although he came on after half an hour). Those two factors signal the reality that Ernesto Valverde thought this game, or at least the draw, was going to be close to a gimme. As for the greed argument, it’s not as if Jose Maria Bartomeu is going to pocket whatever appearance fee (which, by the way, probably isn’t going to be enormous like a trip to the Gulf) Barca earns.
Friendlies like this one often do have stipulations about who makes the trip and who plays and, for the biggest stars, how many minutes they are on the pitch. So it’s entirely possible that this is what happened with Messi. On the other hand, Barca have one game left, at home to Real Sociedad. If he was rested, it’s rather hard to believe that it was Valverde’s idea — not unless he’s suddenly become Jorge Sampaoli’s assistant with Argentina and is looking ahead to the World Cup.
A more plausible explanation — and this is purely speculation — is that Messi asked to miss the trip and when Barca found that contractually it would not be possible, he was given Sunday off instead. Either way, it’s not a good look.
All that said, it doesn’t change the fact, as Valverde pointed out after the match, that Barcelona contrived to give up five goals. Or that they’ve kept one clean sheet in the past two months, giving up an average of nearly two goals a game after having, for much of the season, the best defence in La Liga.