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Life After Leo

BARCELONA — Even by the most charitable estimate, Camp Nou is barely more than a third full by the time the teams stroll on to the field. The …

Life After Leo

BARCELONA — Even by the most charitable estimate, Camp Nou is barely more than a third full by the time the teams stroll on to the field. The Champions League anthem blares, drowning out the thin applause that had greeted the players. Fans pockmark row upon row of sun-bleached seats, stretching into the sky, lost in the vast stadium.

On the far side, Barcelona’s motto, its statement of self — més que un club — is spelled out in the seats. As the players fan out, taking their positions, the lettering is still readable.

To the left, in the arena’s second tier, where there was once a club sponsor’s logo, a yellow patch has spread. Nobody has bothered to replace the seats that once broadcast the company name. Instead, the club has just painted the ones around them the same color, redacting the branding, leaving a blotch that is supposed to erase the past but acts only as a reminder.

There are, in Barcelona’s defense, mitigating circumstances for the attendance. It is only a week or so since Catalonia’s authorities decreed that the stadium could operate at full capacity; in a city emerging cautiously from the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps many fans are not ready to return.

Prices are high, too — as high as they used to be; they are not, it seems, performance-related — and for now there are not nearly as many tourists, making their long-awaited pilgrimages to Camp Nou, prepared to pay them. Locals might have struggled with the timing, too: An early-evening kickoff time on a Wednesday has meant a rush to get to the stadium after work.

Latecomers, eventually, push the crowd’s size to 45,000 or so, but this does little to improve the atmosphere or the impression. This is a crucial game for Barcelona: Failure to beat Dynamo Kyiv would mean, for the first time since 2003, that it most likely would not make it to the knockout stages of the Champions League.

That failure would damage more than just the club’s pride. The team was, according to its chief executive, Ferran Reverter, “technically bankrupt” in March. It needs the income from a deep run — as deep as it can go, anyway — in the Champions League. And for that, it needs its fans.

But still they did not come, just as they had not come to the league game against Valencia a few days earlier. Even sales for this weekend’s Clásico, the visit of archrival Real Madrid, have been sluggish. Camp Nou used to be the hottest ticket in town. Barcelona was the team everyone wanted to watch. It is a much less appealing prospect now that all it can offer is the chance to bear witness to the decline, to the stark reality of life after Lionel Messi.

The new stars of Barcelona greet visitors to Camp Nou who are still pining for one who has gone.Credit…Albert Gea/Reuters

Outside Camp Nou, on the quiet streets of Les Corts — the neighborhood dominated by and synonymous with the club and its stadium — that reality has not quite sunk in. The stalls hawking Barcelona merchandise and the shops stuffed full of unofficial blaugranasouvenirs are still decorated with his name, his face.

There are Messi jerseys: this season’s and last season’s and further back still. There are Messi bobbleheads. There are Messi pencil cases and key rings and magnets. There are haunting, uncanny dolls that look like some sort of votive Messi. Taken together, it amounts to a clearance sale of Barcelona’s recent memory. It is simple economics, of course — they have the stock, so it all must go — but it is a constant, aching reminder, too, of what Barcelona had, and what it lost.

Just occasionally, though, there are glimpses of something different, a desire to look forward, rather than back. Given all that Barcelona has endured over the last year — from the callous farewell to Luis Suárez to the loss of Messi, a journey that encompassed the dismissal of a president, a fractious election, financial calamity, a continued fealty to the European Super League as conceived by Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s chairman, and all manner of embarrassments along the way — the idea that this might be a place of promise seems unlikely.

And yet, somehow, it is. Messi aside, the most frequent name on the jerseys outside the stadium is that of Frenkie de Jong, the 24-year-old Dutch midfielder. His face beams out from a vast billboard, curving around the facade of Camp Nou, alongside that of the other great hope for the team’s heart: Pedri, an 18-year-old of remarkable poise, signed for $6 million from Las Palmas.

The Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong, center, represents the new guard at Barcelona. Veterans like Luuk de Jong, left, and Sergi Roberto show how hard it is to shake free from decisions of the past.Credit…Quique Garcia/EPA, via Shutterstock

When the teams were announced before the Champions League game on Wednesday, the last name to be read received the loudest cheer by far. Pedri might be missing because of an injury, but Gavi, a 17-year-old with only a handful of appearances under his belt, starts. Gavi is so young, so fresh, that the counterfeiters have not yet begun to churn out replicas of his jersey.

There is a cheer, too, midway through the first half, when Ansu Fati appears on the sideline to warm up. Fati is 18, on the way back from a season lost to injury, but he has already been cast as the club’s savior.

In the slick video the club produced last week to advertise its plan for a $1.7 billion refurbishment of Camp Nou and its surroundings — a project called Espai Barça, and something Barcelona officials insist will not jeopardize the club’s delicate financial situation — the final scene is a computer rendition of a Clásico held in the new stadium. (For some reason the game is in the Champions League, rather than La Liga.)

As the music swells, a commentator bellows that Fati has scored the winning goal. After Messi left, the club upgraded Fati’s squad number. This year, he wears the No. 10. None of this iconography is subtle.

Not long after the Kyiv game, the club’s president, Joan Laporta, moved a step closer to making that animation a reality, confirming that Fati had signed a new contract. That was the easy bit, of course — easier than revamping the stadium — but it was still a step in the right direction. The new contract ties Fati to Barcelona until 2027.

Pedri had agreed to one of his own only a few weeks ago; he will be here until 2026, at least. Both of them have agreed to release clauses — the sum at which Barcelona would effectively be forced to sell them — that stand at $1.16 billion apiece. Laporta is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the previous regime, the ones that lost Neymar and, in the end, Messi.

These young players, Barcelona knows, are its future. With Pedri, Gavi, de Jong and Fati — as well as the likes of center back Eric García, the Uruguayan defender Ronald Araújo and Sergiño Dest, the Dutch-born United States fullback — an outline of a team is starting to emerge, a sketch of what tomorrow might look like.

Barcelona’s president, Joan Laporta, gave Ansu Fati a new contract and Messi’s revered No. 10 jersey.Credit…Albert Gea/Reuters
Pedri agreed to a deal that will keep him at Barcelona until 2026.Credit…Lluis Gene/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Eric García, 20, might anchor the defense of his club, and his country, for a generation.Credit…Alejandro Garcia/EPA, via Shutterstock

But still, Barcelona is not quite ready to let go, to accept that one era is over and another must begin. In the same video, the one promoting the stadium that befits Barcelona’s status as the “best club in the world,” the computer-generated team that takes the field is led out by Sergio Busquets, its current captain. Espai Barça is scheduled to be completed in 2025. By then, Busquets will be 37.

For now, this is a club caught between two worlds, trapped in the no-man’s land between the comfort of the past and the promise of the future. Barcelona beat Dynamo Kyiv, barely, thanks to a goal from another member of the old guard, Gerard Piqué, but it labored all evening to do it. There was muted applause at the end: not the celebration of a victory, but relief at another pitfall avoided.

Barcelona may yet — just — qualify for the Champions League knockout rounds in the spring, but nobody seems to be enjoying it very much, this treading of water, this wishing the days away, this unhappy purgatory of now.

What comes next, everyone knows, will most likely not live up to what came before. Tomorrow will not be quite as good as yesterday. They will be selling Messi jerseys outside this stadium for years to come. But there is hope, however slim, that it will be enough, at least, to draw the crowds once more.

Credit…Albert Gea/Reuters
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