When most people think of FC Barcelona, they think of titles and success across Europe. One thing nobody likely associates with them is relegation. Indeed, they have never been relegated from the Spanish top flight. However, that almost changed back in 2002-03 when Louis van Gaal led them towards La Liga relegation.
It was the summer of 2002 when Van Gaal came back to Barcelona for a second spell in charge. Although he had just overseen a horrific qualifying campaign with the Netherlands national team wherein they’d failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Barcelona decided to bring him back because of his good record during his first spell in charge.
He brought in three new players that summer: German keeper Robert Enke (for free from Benfica), Spanish international Gaizka Mendieta (on loan from Lazio), and Juan Roman Riquelme (from Boca Juniors for a fee of up to €10M). The club finished in fourth place the season before, so they were obviously not at their best.
However, they still had a talented group with players such as Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Frank de Boer, Luis Enrique, Thiago Motta, Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol to compete at the top level. And, even though Van Gaal did famously clash with the club’s star player Rivaldo, which saw the Brazilian leave for free to AC Milan, nobody foresaw the disaster that was going to unfold in a few months’ time.
Everything started off well for Van Gaal’s Barcelona. They won six out of their first seven official matches while drawing the other one. People were impressed with their performance until they got completely dismantled at Betis, losing 3-0. Barca would then follow that up with two winless games in the league, drawing to Osasuna at home and losing to Valladolid away.
The Spanish press, known for being very intense, was already putting Van Gaal under massive pressure. The team, while doing very well in Champions League, was decending further and further down the table. And things were just about to get even worse.
December of 2002 is a month Barcelona and its fans would like to forget. While they did beat Newcastle United 3-1 at home in the Champions League and Mallorca 4-0 away, they suffered three consecutive losses in the league.
First, they lost away at Sociedad, 2-1. They followed that with another away loss to Rayo, before being completely blown out at home by Sevilla which ended as a 3-0 loss. The end of Van Gaal’s era was near, and so was the era of club president Gaspart.
2003 didn’t start much better. While the first game of the new year was a comfortable 3-0 win at home over Recreativo Huelva, it was followed with a disappointing away draw at Malaga. Things were about to hit rock bottom for the team as they lost another three consecutive games in the league. They first lost at home to Valencia with a scoreline of 4-2, then lost 2-0 to Celta Vigo, then concluded with an embarrassing 3-0 loss at the Vicente Calderon to Atletico Madrid.
After coming back from the loss to Celta Vigo, Van Gaal finally decided to terminate his contract following a two-hour meeting with the club's board of directors. By that time, they were already at 12th place in the league, and just three points from the relegation zone. Let that sink in: just three points.
The team was subsequently taken over by a Serbian manager by the name of Radomir Antic. They would go as low as 15th place in February, which led to the unthinkable idea of Barcelona being relegated for the first time ever. After increasingly personal attacks by the media, board members and fans, president Joan Gaspert resigned in February 8th of 2003.
The elections began by March and Enric Reyna stepped in as interim president. The improvements showed almost immediately on the pitch, and by the end of the season Antic had somehow led them to a respectable sixth place in the table.
A young, outspoken Joan Laporta, who had the full support of the legendary Johan Cruyff, was finally elected as the new president after an atrocious season had ended. But the contract of Antic would not be renewed, with Laporta preferring a younger manager. He ended up giving the job to Frank Rijkaard, who would start the rebuilding process that summer. The club would reap the rewards of that rebuilding process later on.
Under Rijkaard, the club signed Ronaldinho, Deco, Henrik Larsson, Ludovic Giuly, Samuel Eto'o and Rafael Márquez in the summer of 2003. They would all go on to play important parts for the team. Rijkaard would also promote a young Lionel Messi to the first team, giving him a league debut in October of 2004 against bitter rivals Espanyol.
Since dropping as low as 15th on the table in the middle of the 2002-03 season, Barcelona has gone on to become one of the most successful clubs in the world. They’d go on to win eight La Liga titles, four Champions League titles and four Copa del Rey titles.
Laporta and Rijkaard’s rebuilding work gave them an enormous amount of success, laying the groundwork for a record breaking year in 2009 when they won a sextuple with then manager Pep Guardiola. To this day, it is hard to figure out what exactly went wrong during that 2002-03 season. It would be almost impossible to witness them going through a similar patch again, as they have been strongly dominating the football world since.