BARCELONA — There’s nothing nou about Camp Nou, Barcelona’s iconic stadium. The red grandstand seats, meant to evoke the stripes on the Catalan flag, have faded to a flamingo pink. The concrete floors are mottled and scarred.
It’s a fitting symbol of the vertiginous decline of a great football club. Barcelona’s widely reported billion-Euro shortfall is only part of the problem, though it casts a shadow over everything else. When Real Betis arrived for a Saturday game in early December, Barcelona was mired in seventh place, lower than they have ended a LaLiga season since 1942. This was barely a month after Xavi Hernandez, a club legend who’d only ever managed in the Qatar Stars League, was hired to replace Ronald Koeman. Yet the Betis game was already being billed in the newspapers as a crucial test.
Xavi is Barcelona’s fourth manager — fifth, if you count an interim — in less than two years, distressing turnover for a club so impressed with its own continuity. And for the first time in nearly two decades, Lionel Messi isn’t around to salvage the wreckage. When even the 50% cut he’d agreed to couldn’t fit into Barcelona’s league-mandated wage bill, he ended up making $860,000 a week at Paris Saint-Germain. “We cannot ask the team to win big trophies now, because we are coming from very low,” said Albert Ferrer, a Barcelona loyalist who advanced through the youth system and then played more than 200 games with the first team from 1990 to 1998. “At this point, we have to go back to basics.”
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Like the stadium, the roster needs a drastic overhaul. Fortunately, one is underway; a new generation is hidden in plain sight, among veterans who helped Barcelona win four of the past seven LaLiga titles but won’t be around the next time they win another.
At the forefront is Pedri, an 18-year-old midfielder with a DIY haircut that makes him look even younger. Last month, he was named world football’s Golden Boy, a designation awarded annually by an Italian newspaper to the best under-21 player in the world. (Previous winners include Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe and Messi himself.) Another midfielder, Gavi, 17, is starting — and sometimes starring — for Spain. (Nico, 19, is just waiting for the call.) Striker Ansu Fati, a product of the club’s much-hyped youth program known as Barcelona’s La Masia, scored four goals in seven games last year as a 17-year-old before tearing a meniscus in his knee.
The year has not been good to Barcelona, with seemingly insurmountable debts, the loss of …….