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Barcelona has a billion-dollar debt and no Messi. Will Xavi and his youthful talents be able to save the day?

BARCELONA, SPAIN — Camp Nou, Barcelona’s renowned stadium, is anything but nou. The red grandstand seats, which were designed to resemble the Catalan flag’s stripes, have faded to a flamingo pink. The concrete floors have scars and are mottled.

It’s a perfect metaphor of a great football club’s rapid demise. The billion-Euro shortage in Barcelona is only part of the problem, though it puts a pall over everything else. Barcelona was in seventh place when Real Betis arrived for a Saturday game in early December, their lowest finish in a LaLiga season since 1942. It had only been a month since Ronald Koeman was replaced by Xavi Hernandez, a club legend who had only ever managed in the Qatar Stars League. Despite this, the Betis game was already being billed as a critical test in the press.

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messi
Messi

Xavi is Barcelona’s fourth manager in less than two years (five if you consider an interim), a worrisome turnover for a club that prides itself on its own consistency. And Lionel Messi isn’t there to help clean up the mess for the first time in in two decades. He ended up making $860,000 per week at Paris Saint-Germain after even the 50% pay drop he agreed to couldn’t fit within Barcelona’s league-mandated wage bill. “We can’t expect the team to win significant titles right now since we’ve come from nowhere,” Albert Ferrer, a Barcelona fan who progressed through the junior system before playing more than 200 games with the first team between 1990 and 1998, said. “We need to get back to basics at this time.”

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The roster, like the stadium, is in desperate need of a makeover. Fortunately, one is already begun; among the veterans who have helped Barcelona win four of the past seven LaLiga titles but will not be there when they win another, a new generation is emerging.

Pedri, an 18-year-old midfielder with a do-it-yourself hairstyle that makes him look even younger, is in the fore. He was crowned World Football’s Golden Boy last month, a title given yearly to the finest under-21 player in the world by an Italian publication. (Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe, and Messi himself are among the previous champions.) Gavi, a 17-year-old midfielder, is another Spaniard who starts and occasionally shines. (Nico, 19, is simply waiting for the phone to ring.) Ansu Fati, a product of Barcelona’s much-heralded youth programme known as La Masia, scored four goals in seven games as a 17-year-old last season before tearing a meniscus in his knee.

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