Josep Maria Bartomeu has always been a controversial and divisive figure since he became Barcelona club president in 2014.
The former engineer has been forced to endure a series of ongoing tax scandals, a dangerously close association with disgraced predecessor Sandro Rosell, claims that his board has mismanaged the squad and, this week, allegations that he has ripped off fans over the scheme which allows season ticket holders to sell back their seats.
But thanks to a combination of careful political tiptoeing, using friends in the right places and stubborn willpower, Bartomeu has managed to come through all those setbacks relatively unscathed and maintain his grip on one of the most powerful positions in football.
There is one thing, however, which even Bartomeu would have no hope of surviving. And that’s why, whatever they did this summer, Barcelona had a specific priority which towered above everything else in its importance: keep Lionel Messi.
Can you imagine being the president who allowed Messi to leave Barcelona? Messi, the iconic hero who has scored more goals than anyone else in club history, broken records galore and effectively defined the club, both on and off the pitch, throughout the last decade.
Barça fans will continue enjoying Messi, the best player in history. An example of commitment. pic.twitter.com/qSqhsGnqNc— Josep Maria Bartomeu (@jmbartomeu) July 5, 2017
It’s simply unthinkable. Bartomeu knows full well that being the man who let Messi go would have tarnished his reputation forever and made him persona non grata with the club’s global fanbase, so he had no choice but to pull out all the stops to ensure Messi was happy to stay.
Appointing a new coach, shedding the squad’s dead wood, signing a couple of new key players, progressing plans for the renovation of Camp Nou…these are also important tasks this summer, of course, and the success with which they are executed will go a long way towards determining the team’s fortunes in the coming 12 months.
But keeping Messi was paramount for the current board to survive, and that’s why there was never any real danger that he would leave – Bartomeu and his associates simply could not allow it to happen, because overseeing his departure would have also been signing their own death warrant.
Now they know he is staying, however, Barca need to turn their attention to the question of exactly how he is used.
Without doubt, Messi still has an incomparable amount to offer despite recently turning 30. Last season saw him become the runaway winner of La Liga’s top scorer charts with 37 league goals (12 more than Cristiano Ronaldo), and Barca’s relatively disappointing season would have been a major flop without his contribution.
Even though Messi was often the only reason Barca stayed competitive, however, there was also a strong sense that he was being forced to do too much.
With now-departed coach Luis Enrique unable to provide a strong collective identity or clear tactical direction, the team had lost their way and lost their balance, often reduced to ten players standing around and hoping that one – Messi – could win the game single-handedly.
It frequently worked because Messi is simply so good. But on the occasions that he was well shackled – by Juventus and Paris St Germain in the Champions League, for example – Barca had little else to fall back on and became extremely vulnerable.
That must change, and new coach Ernesto Valverde’s biggest task is instilling an efficiently functioning team structure rather than allowing the continuation of the disorganised mess which marked many of their performances last season.
The team will continue to revolve around Messi, of course, but the question is how that should happen.
Last season, he was neither a right winger nor a centre forward nor a ‘number ten’ playmaker nor an inside right: he tried to do all those things at the same time, with the end result that he did none of them properly and the team became imbalanced and disorganised.
This is not a criticism. Indeed, with Enrique apparently unable to decide between the several tactical options he dallied with, Messi had little option but to try and do everything himself.
That approach can win a few games thanks to his individual brilliance, but it is unlikely – as we saw last season – to be enough to claim major titles.
Now Valverde needs to ensure his key player remains the focal point of the team’s strategy, but also demand that he fits into a collective approach.
Messi might be ‘more than a club’, but he is still part of a team. This season, Barca must be eleven players, not ten servants and one master.
Barcelona have extended Lionel Messi’s contract until June 30, 2021 – just days after he wed his childhood sweetheart in Argentina.
“The deal will be signed in the coming weeks, when Messi returns to the team for pre-season training,” the club said in a statement.
News of the extension puts an end to rumours linking the maestro away from the Nou Camp, with Messi’s new terms reportedly containing a €300m release clause and the option of an extra year with Blaugrana.
His current contract was due to run out in June 2018.
The 30-year-old Argentina international joined FC Barcelona in 2000 when he was just 13 years old in the youth training centre.
Now, with 507 goals scored in 583 official matches, Messi is the club’s all time leading scorer and is widely considered as the best player of all time.
While Barcelona is a team many fear because of the superior skill and technique at their disposal as well as their unique style of play, the secret also lies in the chemistry between the players.
While 2016-17 wasn’t a successful season by their lofty standards, winning only the Copa del Rey title whiled Real Madrid clinched the Champions League and La Liga.
However, the team did stick together and strengthened their bond.
From training ground comedy and shooting ads to the new concept of Barca emojis, there were many hilarious moments behind the scenes.
This below video from Barcelona’s official YouTube channel takes you through the top 10 funny moments from Barca’s 2016-17 campaign.
Watch out for Lionel Messi’s nutmegs, some weird football games during training and a lot more.