Porto and former Barcelona winger Ricardo Quaresma has been in great form lately, especially in the Champions League. This prompted someone to ask a Barca forum I frequent why Barcelona let him go after just one season (03-04), in part-exchange for Deco. Allow me to give my perspective on that question by way of a comparison.
By the way, I apologize in advance if parts of this post sound a bit tetchy. Quaresma's recent declarations struck a chord (by which I mean his attitude seems to embody some of what I dislike most in a player), and I can never resist defending Frank Rijkaard.
Quaresma was one of new president Laporta's first signings, and one of the least successful alongside Turkish keeper Rustu. He was only 18 years old, and failed to win a starting spot on his preferred right-wing position ahead of the likes of often-injured club icon Luis Enrique and Luis Garcia (not the Espanyol version - the one now at Liverpool). All of which is fairly understandable. But he also grumbled about being made to play on the left-wing and criticised Rijkaard for benching him.
That, of course, proved the end of him at Barca. He went on load to Porto and further hammered nails into the coffin marked 'chance to play for Barca again' by declaring that he would never return while Rijkaard was still coach - which might have looked smarter before the Dutchman won all those trophies.
Quaresma is now much improved at 22, more mature and playing very well indeed on the left. He claims that he would like to return to Barca one day - to put the record straight, so to speak, and demonstrate his actual ability. But he still claims that Rijkaard did not give him enough support at the time.
It's fairly logical that out of the players who have left Barca in the past 3 seasons, those who left with medals in their pockets typically have only good things to say about their experiences, while the others are less likely to look back fondly on their time at the Camp Nou.
There are exceptions, of course, but since they're mostly products of the youth system (Cesc, Luis Garcia). Neither Mark van Bommel nor Gabri Garcia got as much time on the pitch as they would have wanted last season, but neither complained about being on the bench at the time. They aren't complaining now either. And of course Henrik Larsson didn't, but that's Larsson for you.
The above observation is also related to another point - open dissent is not tolerated at Barca. If a player has a problem about something internal - like not playing - they know not to take it to the press. Complaining about a team-mate or about Rijkaard is like ushering yourself out the door.
Occasionally you get someone lamenting their lack of playing time, like Thuram saying a while ago that he could not be content being on the bench so often, but not in a way that implies criticism of team selection. Above all, the atmosphere within the squad is all-important, especially with the scrutiny they're placed under every single day by the ravenous press.
youth and support
I'm writing a separate post about Rijkaard's record with youth team players, but suffice it to say that I think he's done very well by the young players at the club. Therefore Quaresma's lament about lack of support annoyed me for several reasons.
First, unless one is implying that an 18-year-old is deficient compared to an older player in some way, one cannot ask for more support than the older player is getting. And if the young player is deficient and in need of such support, then he should not be starting matches for a club like Barca. Either you're as good as the next, older, guy - good enough to play for the first team - or you're not just yet, and you should be patient and take it upon yourself to improve.
Second, everyone knows the pressure players are put under when playing for a big club with a large fanbase. Your own support can be unforgiving, and this is especially true with Barca. Cules are a special lot, after all - it doesn't take much to get the Camp Nou turning on one of their own, or abandoning an old favourite for a new flame.
(A good example of the latter, by the way, is the way Iniesta has been lauded lately. When he had to come off injured in the home game against Werder Bremen, he was granted one of the most enthusiastic receptions I've ever seen by the Camp Nou, with the entire crowd - or at least that's how loud it sounded - chanting "Iniesta, Iniesta," over and over. And then there was poor Xavi, waiting to come on in the 22-year-old's place. Remember the way he was received when he came back from that knee injury last season? Now he isn't even a guaranteed starter anymore, and his place high up in the fans' affection has been taken by another.
That said, Xavi has been with Barca since he was 11. At the age of 26, he's played 9 seasons for the first team - the most of any member of the current squad - and of course he is an outstanding player, a worthy successor to Guardiola's crown. All that earns you credit, not to mention affection. As soon as Iniesta stepped off the pitch, the chants stopped and as Xavi came on, a tremendous roar went up in his honour. So not quite unloved, then, but you see the change in favourites, and how quick it was.)
Anyway, digression aside, my point is that a player knows what they're in for when they sign for Barca. They're paid to handle that pressure. Very young men play at a very high level, for very famous clubs, and have done for a long time. Whether or not they can take the stress is up to them. Look at Raul, Xavi, Torres, C. Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Look at current under-20s like Walcott, Lennon, Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, (Quaresma team-mate) Anderson and Cesc Fabregas. Look at Leo Messi.
an unfair comparison
I'll admit that the comparison I'm about to make looks deeply unfair. After all, Messi hasn't had to worry about forcing his way into the starting line-up ever since the Gamper Trophy match against Juventus just after he turned 18. But before that, he had been quietly making substitute and friendly appearances for Barca for 2 seasons. At the beginning of the 05-06 season, he was the latest wonderkid of the football world, having left such a deep impression on then Juve coach Capello in one game that the Italian was still raving about him half a year later, and dragged an unspectacular Argentina U-20 side to World Youth Championship glory. But when asked what he would do if he wasn't given chances on the first team, he replied that he'd be happy to wait his chance with the B side. Even before that, he'd accepted going back to the C squad from the B team (because they needed the help to avoid relegation) without fuss.
It's not like the press eased off him in the beginning because he was 16-17 years old either - I vividly remember reading a match report (translated from Spanish) which harshly criticised his performance as a substitute in a match from the 04-05 season.
Rijkaard has used Messi carefully in the past, but he has never tried to coddle the Argentine. In one interview the coach said that if a Barca match was hanging in the balance (the way Argentina's game with Germany in the World Cup was) he would not hesitate to send Messi on in order to deliver the killer blow or rescue the team. As recently as the Champions League game in Bremen, in which substitute Messi scored the vital game-tying goal that in retrospect kept Barca's qualification hopes alive til the last match day, the Dutchman has proven as good as his word.
No one expected Messi to start El Gran Clasico against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu last year. Many expected him to be benched (because of his youth, and in order to protect him) against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season. Being booed constantly that evening as well as in the same fixture a season later didn't seem to bother him.
The chances Messi gets in the first team leaves him open to the pressure that Quaresma talked about, and the never-ending critical gaze of the press and fanbase. At one point this season Messi was being slated for 'effort without achievement' (effort in Spanish football does not seem to be seen as a merit on its own, unlike in say England) and bad form because he hadn't done anything game-changing for 2 starts in succession. Now that's pressure.
Rijkaard supports all his players, per their needs, but he will not go beyond his station, which does not involve holding the hands of players who can't cope with being benched, as well as being rich, talented and playing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. If that's not enough, then that's too bad.
After all that unfocused ranting, a final point. Do I regret that Quaresma isn't displaying his great talent for us? Of course. I feel that way about all good players who leave the club. But if you look at the personnel down the wings for Barca now (barring injury), and the players coming up through the youth ranks, it's hard to feel like we've lost out.