We are coming to the end of an era in football. In English football, we are seeing the last signs of loyalty slowly but surely dry out; Ryan Giggs perhaps being the last of the 'one-club men'. Ok, so perhaps only ever playing for one club isn't the only sign of loyalty in a football player, but it is something we hardly see in English football these days. Players would rather go to bigger clubs with more money and more glory; and let's be honest, who can blame them?
FC Barcelona are very different to any other football club, particularly any English football club. Many mock the mes que un club motto, but I really do believe that they are more than a club. Of course, many of the players who progressed through La Masia have stayed at Barcelona because they are one of the biggest and best clubs in European football; but there's something that makes FC Barcelona different to the likes of Manchester United and Bayern Munich.
In tonight's game against Bayern Munich, seven players out of Barcelona's starting eleven have played for the club since age sixteen and under. This is a group of players who have not only grown together as football players, but grown together as people. They are best friends, and they are a family. It doesn't take an expert to look at this group of players and see that the passion and commitment that they hold is something truly special and cannot be bought. Over the past five years, we have seen Pep Guardiola shape FC Barcelona into an outstanding organisation. Under Pep, you could win the battle, but Barca would always win the war. I don't believe that passion can win you a football game, but I do believe that combined with individual skill and Guardiola's tactics, passion and love for the club is what made Barcelona the indestructible force they have been for the past five years. But I also believe that is what has been their downfall over the past couple of months.
Pep Guardiola's departure left a huge hole in the heart of FC Barcelona. Many will never understand how he could leave the club he had made so special as both a player and a manager, and the club he had adored since being a young boy. It will be interesting to see what Pep does with Bayern Munich, but will he ever really care for them as much as he did for Barcelona? I'm not so sure.
I think that Pep's departure really did break the players hearts, and it took them a long time to get used to not constantly having him there not only as a manager, but as a friend. But of course, they hadn't totally lost Pep's tactics and passion completely, because his successor was his former assistant Tito Vilanova. I think that Tito was the best man for the job, but I also think that he is (through absolutely no reason of his own) part of the reason Barca have been so, well... off, recently.
On 19th December 2012, news broke to the media that Tito Vilanova had suffered a cancer relapse, and was to undergo surgery the very next day. This came just nine months after Barcelona defender Eric Abidal had to undergo surgery for a tumour relapse in his liver. I think this is what has struck FC Barcelona the hardest over the past few months; they have had to continue to play football whilst knowing that two of the closest members of the Barcelona family have been dealing with perhaps the most horrific thing a person can deal with. Losing a manager and a key player will always dampen a football team's spirit and often their performance on the field, but to lose them in this way must have been extremely difficult to deal with. And of course, all this happened only months after they had lost the most decorated manager in FC Barcelona's history.
It's not just these off-pitch issues that have affected Barcelona's performances recently; I think the lack of Carles Puyol has really affected the team, particularly Gerard Pique, who hasn't seemed to play as well when paired with any other player. Barca aren't a one man team and they can perform without their Argentinian wizard, but against a side as resilient and organised as Bayern Munich, of course they were going to miss him (note: It has just been stated by Vilanova in the post-match press conference that Messi was "not injured, but was not 100% and felt he could pick up an injury").
This year has been a long and bumpy road for FC Barcelona, but I don't think it's the end of an era. Messi is still surpassing records practically by the day, they're still comfortably at the top of La Liga, and Dani Alves is still sporting ridiculous clothes and hair-dos. It isn't the end of an era; in fact it is far, far from it.