Six days after a police raid on their offices led to the seizure of files and the arrest of four club leaders, FC Barcelona turned to their past on Sunday to elect Joan Laporta as their new president.
Laporta, a lawyer whose previous tenure as Barcelona president coincided with Lionel Messi’s debut at the club and ushered in an era of commercial and field success, defeated two rivals in what he called “the most important elections. of the history “of Barcelona. , one of the most decorated football clubs in Europe.
He received more than 50 percent of the vote, defeating his closest rival, 54.2 percent to 29.9 percent. But the bounty from Laporta, a billion-dollar organization facing tough decisions about some of its most popular players, an impending financial crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and the possible loss of its best player, hardly seems like a prize.
The most immediate challenges he faces are navigating the biggest debt crisis in European football, which currently exceeds $ 1.3 billion; lower the team’s salary bill, currently the highest in Europe; and avoid the loss, perhaps as early as this summer, of Lionel Messi. Laporta was the president of Barcelona when Messi made his debut with the club more than a decade ago; now, it will be up to him to persuade him to stay.
“Lionel Messi loves Barça,” Laporta said in his first statements to the fans, leaving little doubt that he considers consolidating Messi’s future at the club to be his top priority. “We are a great family, a great club with the best player.”
Perhaps an even more important task, however, will be to unite a club that was once revered for elevating modern football to the superior art of an era of infighting, dirty tricks and red ink. The series of crises that develop have turned Barcelona from a model of commercial and sporting success into, at times, the culmination of a joke in bad taste.
“We want joy and happiness to be at this club again,” said Laporta, adding in a direct appeal to the members: “The best thing you can do for Barça is to love it.”
Laporta’s predecessor, Josep Maria Bartomeu, resigned in October, just before a vote to remove him. By then, more than 20,000 of Barcelona’s 140,000 members had submitted hand-signed forms seeking his dismissal, and last week he was detained by police as part of their investigation of the team’s internal affairs.
But on Sunday, Bartomeu was still lining up, along with everyday fans, team executives, former players and coaches, and even a handful of current first team members, including Messi, to cast his presidential vote. Even amid the turmoil of the team, the turnout represented the kind of picturesque spirit, of a fan, one vote. of which Barcelona is proud.
The elections have been delayed due to the continuing repercussions of the pandemic. Restrictions on mass meetings forced Barcelona to change its voting process by extending polling stations throughout Catalonia and allowing ballots to be sent by mail for the first time in its history. But thousands of club members still showed up in person to cast their vote during the 12 hours allotted for Sunday’s vote.
The club said more than 55,000 votes were cast by members who elected not only a new president but also board members who will serve through 2026. Even before the final ballots were counted, the other two candidates, runner-up Victor Font and granted Toni Freixa. In video broadcast on the club’s television network, Font y Freixa congratulated Laporta and embraced him in a show of unity.
“I want to congratulate Laporta for this victory, which does not allow any discussion,” said Freixa. “Now we must support our president.”
When choosing Laporta, the people of Barcelona opted for a candidate that many fondly remember from his previous term. As president of Barcelona from 2003 to 2010, he ushered in a golden decade of success for the centennial club.
His iconic decision, to remove the untested Pep Guardiola from his role as Barcelona’s B-team coach to take over the first-team squad in 2008, proved to be a masterstroke. Guardiola rebuilt Barcelona around local talents, including Messi, and paired them with established stars to produce a brand of soccer that captivated audiences around the world. The club collected more than a dozen trophies with Guardiola, including three Spanish titles and two victories in the Champions League, the richest and most treasured club competition in European football.
With the current squad seen as aging and below club standard, Laporta is expected to lead a similar renaissance. But this time, the outlook is bleaker than ever.
More recently, Barcelona has become synonymous with negativity, with bad news arriving in waves. Since June, the team has had to deal with the huge impact the coronavirus has had on its finances; a scandal involving a club-funded social media campaign that targeted Bartomeu’s rivals, including several popular players; a humiliating exit from the Champions League; a public dispute between Messi and Bartomeu that almost led to Messi’s departure before the season; and then, more recently, last week’s raid on Barcelona’s offices that resulted in the arrest of four team officials.
With Barcelona facing the most urgent short-term debt crisis in European football, the new president is immediately faced with the double challenge of keeping the club afloat while at the same time delivering on his promises to keep it competitive not just with national rivals such as Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid, but also wealthy foreign competitors such as Manchester City, Paris St.-Germain, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, many of them funded by Gulf nation states, Russian oligarchs or American billionaires.
As a member-supported club, Barcelona doesn’t have that luxury. Laporta will have to decide whether or not to go ahead with a plan drawn up by the club’s executive team and Goldman Sachs to raise € 250 million (nearly $ 300 million) by selling a basket of club-owned assets to outside investors. The move would be unusual and likely controversial, and would require the backing of a membership fractured by the recent crisis.
The new board will also have to recalibrate supporter expectations and reverse the tide of a management style, including that of Laporta during his previous tenure, that has drawn criticism for prioritizing short-term rewards, in the form of generous and popular spending. (and expensive). transfers, on long-term financial stability.
He will also have to restore the club’s battered reputation. At a sports business conference organized by the Financial Times last month, Christian Seifert, chief executive of the German Bundesliga, targeted Barcelona and rival Real Madrid for their spending habits. “These so-called superclubs are, in fact, poorly managed cash-burning machines that failed, in a decade of incredible growth, to come close to a sustainable business model,” said Seifert.