Barcelona's 'Deco debate' – why sporting director's interview became a hot topic
Xavi usually knows exactly what to expect at his post-match press conferences, so he would have been conscious that an appearance before the media after Sunday night’s 3-3 draw at home to 19th-placed Granada was never going to be easy.
The 44-year-old former Barcelona midfielder is normally fully aware of the various narratives going around Catalan media — but on this occasion, one particular question caught him off guard.
Xavi was asked for his reaction to an interview with sporting director Deco published in the Portuguese outlet Nascer do Sol. The article quoted Deco as saying Barca “needed a deep change”, that the club’s “old method had expired” and it now had to “break with the past”.
Xavi took a couple of seconds to breathe, before responding with a query of his own: “But, where did Deco say that?”
He continued: “This is certainly not what he tells me every day. He trusts in our model a great deal, with the ‘Barca DNA’. It’s not what I hear from his side, but as you will understand right now, I can’t say more than that.”
Xavi hadn’t been briefed about the Deco interview before stepping into the press room, as Barcelona’s media department was unaware of it. Reports carrying his words were published by Catalan and Spanish media minutes before Xavi came out to speak, and they had a very dramatic effect. It wasn’t only Xavi who was shocked — with at least one first-team player also taken aback.
Everyone knows there is a complex task facing Barcelona this summer, troubled as they are by various challenges on and off the pitch. Deco will, for the first time since he began his role last summer, play a fundamental part in shaping the club’s future as decisions are made on how to respond.
Deco’s words were later amended, and a clarification was issued by Nascer do Sol stating a “mistake” had been made. But the way the interview was first reported cast him in almost total opposition to what most fans want to see happen.
During this difficult season, many Barca supporters have at least taken some pride and comfort from the exciting new generation of young players emerging.
Barca have fallen 10 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, and were soundly beaten by their rivals in the Supercopa de Espana final. In the Copa del Rey, they were knocked out by Athletic Bilbao in the quarter-finals. Next Wednesday, they play their Champions League last-16 first leg against Napoli, and few would cast Xavi’s side as capable of lifting the biggest trophy in the European game.
But the progress of 16-year-old Lamine Yamal has been a wonder to behold. Pau Cubarsi has stepped into the centre of defence and last month celebrated his 17th birthday. Fermin Lopez, 20, has enjoyed good moments during his first full senior season — not to mention the enduring expectation around what Pedri, 21, and Gavi, 19, will end up contributing to the club.
Many supporters believe that, if there is one big learning to take from the 2023-24 season, it is that Barca need to trust in their La Masia youth academy more than ever.
Barca’s fanbase might have to learn patience to become fully aware of their state. There will always be tension if the club does not compete for titles, but no one wants to give up on being entertained, even if that means mistakes will be made. Many feel the best way to advance is to double down on the possession-oriented style that has been crucial to the club’s identity on the pitch, a style that is taught through the age groups.
Before they were clarified, Deco’s comments gave the impression that the club’s leadership saw things differently. The former Portugal international has been pointed out by president Joan Laporta as one of the main figures involved in selecting Xavi’s replacement. As his job title implies, Deco is a key voice in shaping Barca’s vision.
Laporta and Deco have already made it known they are working on signings for next season, even without Xavi’s successor in place. “We will try to sign Joao Cancelo and Joao Felix for next season,” Deco said last week in an interview with Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia, words that have been echoed by Laporta.
This also helps explain why there was such a hot reaction to Deco’s interview. Joao Felix and Cancelo have simply not offered solid reasons to suggest they can be long-term fixes for the club. They have both been inconsistent, with Joao Felix losing his starting place before suffering an ankle injury two weeks ago, and Cancelo becoming a defensive liability easily exploited by the opposition attack.
On Sunday night, Barca reacted quickly, keenly aware of the urgency of the situation once Deco’s interview began to appear in local media. They let it be known that they planned to have Deco speak in public the next day to clarify his words, as he didn’t intend to question Barcelona’s model or imply he wanted to steer away from it in the future.
Catalan media woke up on Monday expecting some kind of statement from the sporting director, but hours went by without any sign of one.
Later that day, the Nascer do Sol website re-published a modified version of the original interview with Deco, removing the controversial words and adding a “clarifying” note, “apologising” for a “misunderstanding”.
The note continued: “It is not Deco’s will to change the method or paradigm of the club (Barcelona), but it was Xavi who pointed towards this way with the announcement of his resignation. Deco is in total agreement with the club president on the mentioned subject, as he was keen to emphasise.”
After this comment, Barcelona decided against making Deco speak in public and let the waters calm down by themselves.
The club, and Deco himself, managed to navigate through the controversy caused this weekend but the whole experience will remain in the back of every Barca fan’s mind — the idea of ripping up the club’s model was the last thing they wanted to hear right now.
(Top photo: David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)