Fear and loathing in Catalonia as FIFA ban provokes Barca paranoia


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A conspiracy burns in Barcelona. The big banner unfurled before Barca’s game v Betis bemoaned and blamed others. And no, the conspiracy wasn't to get as many words beginning with 'B' into the first sentence. Barca paid for the giant 40m x 40m banner showing a huddle of young players with the words 'Don't Touch The Masia' - the club's famed youth academy.

The Catalans were stung last week when FIFA announced a fine and ban for the next two transfer windows relating to alleged offences with the signing of 10 underage foreign players between 2009-2010.

Barca pleaded innocence in a 600-word statement which talked of the excellence they do in educating young players and helping them turn into fine young men. That's all true, yet it skirts the issue. Because the Spanish champions apparently broke the FIFA rules.

They'll appeal, though that won't be until the end of this month at the earliest. April is a busy time for planning transfers and though Barca claim it will be business as usual, uncertainty remains at the club and sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, who reassured incoming German goalkeeper Ter Stegen that his transfer would be fine, was later said to have offered his resignation.

The former goalkeeper oversees youth development now, but it wasn't his responsibility when the rules were allegedly broken. Zubizarreta will stay for now rather than follow club president Sandro Rosell out of the door which sees many a club suit depart.

Barca knew what they were doing. Rosell tried to change the rules around young players with FIFA while president because he (and others in football) didn't think they're right. That's like campaigning for the speed limit to be raised to 90 mph and driving at 90 until it is. You're still breaking the rules.

FIFA rules state that players under 18 can only move to a club in a different country under one of three qualifying criteria. They must live within 100 kilometres of the club, their parents move to the country for non-footballing reasons or they are from the European Union and aged between 16-18.

Clubs usually circumnavigate this by making sure their parents get jobs, yet Barca had allegedly imported players in their academies whose parents were still in South Korea or Cameroon.

Under the current rules, Barca couldn't have taken a young Lionel Messi from Argentina, paid for his hormone treatment and helped him become the player he is - unless his medical treatment constituted 'non-football grounds' of course.

Barca's youth development model is a positive one and FIFA's rules are ostensibly about the protection of minors. Barca are quite right in saying that they protect minors, but they think they're victims, that they've been singled out and that the announcement of the ban was deliberately announced in April, the most important month of the season. FIFA admitted they had made the decision in November, so why announce it now?

Gerardo Martino's side played Atletico Madrid the night before the announcement in a Champions League encounter with the return leg tonight in Madrid. The pair have drawn on all four epic, draining, occasions this season. Something has to give later in the Calderon, unless it's another draw and one team progresses via the away goal rule. Don't bet against it.

Barca sense envy at their peerless youth system and their media allies point to darker forces (usually featuring the words 'Real' and 'Madrid') being somewhere behind the scenes pulling the FIFA puppet. As if. Barca's a brilliant, yet odd club. While Sir Alex Ferguson maintained that control was vital for success, at Barca the power and control is spread and constantly shifting. When Pep Guardiola was about to win his sixth trophy of 2009, a senior club suit said: "he has many enemies lurking in the shadows".

That was the greatest manager in the club's history, a charismatic, intelligent man whose sides played wonderful football - and there were still people who worked closely with him who hoped he'd fail. Guardiola lasted a few more years before he'd had enough.

Ronnie Reng, the best selling German author who lived in Barcelona and now lives in Munich, saw and sees Guardiola close at hand. "Pep's much more relaxed in Munich than in Barcelona," he told us. "He doesn't have to deal with same political infighting here because everyone loves him."

On Saturday around the Betis game, 37,535 socios (club members) voted to pass a rule which will see Camp Nou remodelled (72% for, 25% against), boosting the capacity to 105,000, adding a roof and more executive facilities. The plans look superb. Inside the ground, a club official beamed in the press box at the high numbers voting for what he saw as progress "including seven of our players who are club members". Barca are rightly proud that many current first-team players were childhood fans of the club, something you don't get at any other major club in the world.

Cynics in the same area bemoaned that only 31% of the potential voters had bothered to vote in person.

It's that kind of club, where nothing is ever good enough for those who demand the very best and complain even when they get it. And because it's a fan-owned democracy, they have every right to complain, especially when their club has been banned from making transfers.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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