With 24 major trophies over the last decade (not including several more likely to be added in 2016), it’s almost impossible to imagine a world where Barcelona is considered anything other than the gold standard in world soccer. And yet, as recently as 2003, the club’s situation was not only starkly different, but downright perilous.
Bereft of Champions League competition after an abysmal campaign in La Liga, coupled with an increasingly crippling debt, Barcelona’s newly elected board quickly failed to achieve the marquee signing it had campaigned on.
At this juncture, when Lionel Messi was only a promising player at La Masia, Barcelona, despite facing its most intense problems in decades, managed a signing that was perhaps more important than any the club achieved since Johan Cruyff in 1973.
Ronaldinho, whose very name conjures the best ideals of soccer among an entire generation of fans, arrived at Barcelona in slightly miraculous circumstances. Instead of choosing an established European superpower with guaranteed Champions League playing time, the Brazilian gambled on a Barcelona team in crisis.
He was the perfect addition, arriving at the perfect time. As a one-man goal creation system, he got the ball rolling for Barcelona in the 21st century, helping to rescue the Catalan club in its hour of need. It’s a story filled with drama that’s largely forgotten in the contemporary context of Barcelona dominance. And it almost didn’t happen.
“Ronaldinho is the one who changed this negative spiral,” former Barcelona President Sandro Rosell said in 2013 (on the tenth anniversary of the Brazilian’s arrival in Catalonia). “He turned it round into something positive, and we still have that momentum today.”
Van Gaal’s Second Stint Spiral
The 2002-2003 La Liga season for Barcelona was an unmitigated disaster. For the first time in the memory of most Blaugranes’ minds, the team finished half a season with more losses than wins. In reality, it was the byproduct of decay that began years before.
Known as the polarizing manager of Manchester United in 2016, Dutchman Louis van Gaal cut a similar figure as Barcelona manager that season. In his second spell with the team (having achieved moderate success, including a pair of La Liga wins in his first tenure from 1997-2000), the manner of Van Gaal’s return was far different than when he first arrived in Catalonia in the ‘90s.
Having ascended to the Barcelona job in 1997 on the back of his masterful managerial job at Ajax (which included a Champions League victory in 1995), Van Gaal returned in 2002 amid very different circumstances. Ignominiously, he’d presided over the first Netherlands team since 1986 that failed to qualify for the World Cup. The team’s 2002 fate was sealed when, after particularly boastful comments from Van Gaal, it slumped to a loss to Ireland 1-0 (despite the Irish being down to ten men).