Tactical Insights

Barcelona’s ‘entorno’ – the toxic mix not even Guardiola and Xavi could avoid

FC Barcelona is a noisy place. Just ask Xavi.

A legendary figure during his playing days, in January he announced a decision to step down as the team’s manager at the end of this season. The toxicity around the club had worn him down to such a degree that he felt unable to carry on. Even he could not escape the pressures of the Barca ‘entorno’.

The Spanish word ‘entorno’, literally translated as environment or surroundings, was coined by Johan Cruyff — another Barcelona legend — when he was manager in 1992 to describe the unique pressures of the club.

Three decades on, its intensity has only grown.

“Since Cruyff put a name on it, it has grown to a whole different level,” says former Barca press officer Toni Ruiz. “It is broader and way more complex.”

Ruiz spent 26 years at Barca, joining in 1996 and eventually becoming corporate communications director before he was replaced in 2021. Having since worked in several other environments, he believes “the state of attention, pressure and external scrutiny Barca lives is unprecedented in the sports industry”.

He adds: “When you hear anyone at Barca using the word entorno, they’re referring to the mix of members, fans, journalists, but also former presidents, executives, players or even politicians who have been linked to the club at any point.

“All of them express their opinion around the club through media, social networks or even informal meetings.”

If there is one major contributing factor behind the entorno’s powers, it’s Barcelona’s presidential model.

Barca members (socios) vote for the club’s president, with prospective candidates presenting differing visions for the future. Elections are ordinarily every five years and at the most recent edition in 2021, 55,611 votes were counted (a 50.42 per cent participation rate), with Joan Laporta winning with 54.28 per cent (30,148 votes).

Fans of every team are entitled to an opinion — but at Barca, they have a concrete impact and this makes everything around the club more political. Over the past month, the 2021 election runner-up, Victor Font, has been interviewed several times in Catalan media, assessing the state of the club with one eye already on the next vote in 2026.

Being Barcelona president has historically been an unmatched way to get wider public and social recognition and influence — in Catalonia primarily, but now more globally, too.

Josep Lluis Nunez, the longest-serving president in Barcelona’s history (1978-2000) was at least initially most determined to hold the role because it would place him among the Catalan elite. A successful businessman, Nunez was born in Barakaldo, in the Basque Country. Becoming Barca president was a way of gaining a level of influence not usually attainable for outsiders like him.

There is a huge amount of power attached to being at the top at Barca and in the battle to secure your spot, the political games begin. You need to create your own narrative and once you’re inside, all that continues. It is a game everyone ends up playing for their own sake. Conflicting sides have their own agenda and they won’t hesitate to actively push it in search of acceptance among fans.

Cruyff, pictured in 1996 when Barca played at PSV in the UEFA Cup (Gary M Prior/Allsport)

All of this is reflected in the complex structure of Barcelona’s communications department. There are corporate press officers, employees closer to the first team and some who are closer to the big football-related decision-makers. Laporta has his own communication team and at the start of this season, Xavi hired an experienced Barca reporter to handle his relations with the media.

“All sides of the club believe it is useful for them to keep certain relations with a side of the Catalan media, to build some sort of bond for their own sake,” says a source who was close to Pep Guardiola’s coaching staff in Barcelona. Like all sources cited here, they preferred to speak anonymously to protect relationships.

“In Barcelona, journalists also need to take some responsibility,” they add. “As everyone is closer to one side or another of the club, there are multiple occasions in which you can spot fabricated stories out there in the media.

“When we were in the club, it was just so blatant. I’m not referring to news that was broken without our knowledge but was true. I’m talking about stories that were fabricated and everyone inside the club knew it, but which were published as a favour to someone or a manoeuvre against another figure.”

It is still a common theme in Barcelona to see inaccurate messages emerge from the executive side, the dressing room or elsewhere. Ruiz says “the battle against disinformation” was “the biggest one we had to fight” during his time at Barca.

He adds: “When the Barca brand is so big and it has such a massive impact on life in Catalonia, then you instantly have a lot of unauthorised voices.”

These “unauthorised voices” are not just confined to the club’s offices.

Barca is a common topic of discussion within private high-society clubs in the city, such as the Circulo Ecuestre or the Club Churchill. While politics, business and finance might be the central topics at such places, no passion unites in the city like FC Barcelona. Most of the club’s former and current executives have been part of that scene, where gossip and rumour flow in all directions. Some of them, even those still working for the club, might end up telling conflicting versions of the same story.

Xavi and Laporta embrace, back in November 2021 (Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

All of this means there is an incredible amount of scrutiny on the club’s day-to-day happenings and performances on the pitch. For the Barca manager, it’s a case of adapt or risk being left behind.

“The basics of managing a club are the same everywhere; it’s all good if you win, but problems erupt if you lose,” says the source, who was close to Guardiola’s coaching staff.

“What makes Barcelona different is how all managers get to the end on a bad note. When Pep left, there were tensions with (club president) Sandro Rosell’s board, tensions within the dressing room, tensions with the media. It is so tough to leave satisfied. Almost impossible.

“The taste is always sour because the noise is just relentless — and ruthless.”

When Xavi was made Barca manager in November 2021, many saw him as the perfect appointment at what was a difficult time. He was made in La Masia and earned legendary status in his 17 years as a player, making 767 appearances (only Lionel Messi has more, with 782) and winning 25 trophies.

The theory went like this: if times got tough, he could rely on huge reserves of credit with the club’s fans and would therefore be more protected than others.

When Barca lost 3-2 to Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana in January 2022, Mundo Deportivo’s headline read: ‘Failing With Honour’. You don’t see that kind of tone very often after a Clasico defeat.

It would not last for long, though.



Xavi’s Barcelona resignation: The full story behind his decision to step down in June

Demands rose progressively as that summer, the club financed a transformative spend on new signings through their famous ‘lever-pulling’. Over 2022-23, Xavi’s first full season in charge, Barca won La Liga (for the first time in four years) but were dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage and then knocked out of the Europa League by Manchester United.

That campaign was deemed successful, but there were two key aspects Xavi needed to improve on: progress in Europe and playing a more attractive, creative and less pragmatic style of football.

After stumbling slightly through this season’s Champions League group stage with defeats to Shakhtar Donetsk and Royal Antwerp, and as the team fell behind in La Liga after a series of disappointing results and performances, pressure began to build. It turned out Xavi was perhaps not best equipped to deal with it after all.

Sources close to Xavi say he has been deeply affected by the amount of criticism he has faced and that he found it impossible to ignore. They say he was following everything that was published or said in every Barcelona media outlet and that it began to take a toll.

“Coming from the club helps you to know how Barca works in all departments,” says a former Barcelona coaching staff member. “But it also means this atmosphere has an even bigger effect on you.

“You can try to switch off, but usually you just can’t. Your family, who are also Barca fans, call you every day. You receive texts from friends sending you some news. You feel like you belong to this club, you’re from here, and you suffer double. Eventually, you struggle with what’s being said because you see your loved ones struggle, too.”

Ruiz, the former Barcelona press officer, also feels that being a boyhood fan is a double-edged sword for the club’s manager.

“Having the background of guys like Pep Guardiola or Xavi helps, but the amount of noise and information they receive, from all sorts of channels, is at a different level.

“What they have to deal with compared to a manager like, let’s say Frank Rijkaard, is incomparable. Social media has amplified that noise exponentially.”

Xavi and Guardiola, pictured during an August 2022 charity match at Camp Nou (Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Barca’s results have improved of late — they are 10 matches unbeaten in all competitions and are through to the Champions League quarter-finals where they will face Paris Saint-Germain.

But after a home victory over Napoli in the last 16 secured their European progress on March 12, Xavi lost the plot in the press room. He felt he had some scores to settle with the media and spoke confrontationally of one article in El Pais in particular.

That he chose to do so then, with the team at a high point but far from having achieved significant success, was revealing of how he has struggled to handle the pressures of his role.

“The media has been so unfair to this team,” Xavi said angrily. “I’ve even read that we were Europe’s ‘joker’. What do we have to do with it now? Really, what do we have to do with the media who called us the joker of this competition?”

Xavi was referring to a specific match report written by the renowned Barcelona reporter Ramon Besa, in which he labelled Barcelona “European football’s joker” after their defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in November. The fact the article included reference to Barcelona’s disappointing results in the Champions League over several recent seasons — and not only under Xavi — did not stop the manager from lashing out.

But there was also another element at play here, as Xavi feels certain sections of the media have not given him the praise he deserves out of loyalty to Guardiola — his thinking being that they do not want to undermine the Manchester City manager’s legacy at the club.

When Xavi announced his decision to step down, in the dramatic aftermath of a 5-3 home defeat by Villarreal on January 27, he said it would be “impossible” for Barcelona to have a figurehead like Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, a leader for the long term.

“It’s a cruel job,” he said. “It wears you down. In Barcelona you always feel like you’re not valued, you’re mistreated. That’s how the club works.

“From a mental health perspective, it’s tough. I’m a positive guy, but the battery levels keep running out and at some point, you realise there’s no point in staying.”

On Friday morning, Mundo Deportivo published an interview with Laporta in which he suggested he would like Xavi to stay on.

“When he said this thing about leaving because of the pressure, I told him, ‘We are always under pressure here, as you know with your experience’,” Laporta said.

“I asked Xavi if there was any way to change his mind, but I spotted an unbearable tension in his face and I told him to relax if that was how he saw his situation.

“When I speak with him (now) I always tell him the same: we respect the fact he wants to stay until the end of the season. It’s your choice and we are doing better. Since his announcement, in fact, we are winning again. And then I wink, just like saying that something still might happen with his future here. He keeps saying he’ll leave in June, but we’ll see.”

It feels unlikely that the pressures associated with managing Barcelona will change any time soon. If Xavi does end up rethinking his decision to step down and stays on, that will surely not be lost on him.

Somehow, developing the political skills required to expertly navigate the challenges of Barca’s ‘entorno’ might be one option for success at the club.

Another approach might be to accept that you will always have more to lose than to gain — that it’s almost impossible to play the game and win.

(Top photos: Getty Images, Gary M Prior/Allsport; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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