How the outspoken Joan Laporta lit a fire under Catalan pride and Barcelona

How the outspoken Joan Laporta lit a fire under Catalan pride and Barcelona

Barcelona, a vibrant, modern city on the north-east coast of Spain, is the capital city of the community of Catalonia, a region with the qualities to be a fitting location in a George R. R. Martin novel. The Montaña de Pedraforca sits proudly in the north of the province, overlooking the mighty history that has unfolded and unique culture that has blossomed south of the foothills.

The region of Catalonia is currently one of 17 comunidades autónomas that make up the country of Spain as an amalgamated, modern whole – but it hasn’t always been so. Go back to the 15th century and Catalonia belonged to the Crown of Aragon; southern Italy and the Sicilian Islands along with Catalonia were united under a separate monarchy to that of the Iberian Peninsula. Jump forward 200 years to when Catalonia falls and you find yourself linked with arguably the region’s most popular facet of its modern culture: football. 

Watch any FC Barcelona game at the Camp Nou and around the 17th minute turn the volume up. At exactly 14 seconds in, Blaugrana fans will begin to chant the way they always do: “In – inde – independència!” The calls for Catalan Independence – the idea that Catalonia should become a nation-state separate to that of the rest of Spain – from some quarters makes reference to the loss of Catalonia to the king of Spain, Felipe V, in the year 1714. For many people, the identity of what it means to be from Catalonia is expressed in its football club. Barcelona is, for many, the heartbeat of Catalan sentiment. 

The club’s inception in 1899 by Swiss businessman Hans-Max Gamper brought with it a pride to the city. However, such pride was short-lived as Francisco Franco turned Spain into a military dictatorship that was to last over three decades. The second of its kind in less than a decade, the Spanish Republic would serve as the eight-year-long punctuation mark in between Primo de Rivera and El Caudillo.

In 1939, Franco stood alongside Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler after the help of the German allowed for a victory for the falange in the war that gave rise to the Spanish nationalist regime. Driven by centralism, xenophobic censorship was implemented; the regional languages of Spain were deemed illegal along with any symbolism that didn’t depict the fascist version of the country that now existed.

Read  |  The story of Real Madrid and the Franco regime

As a result, for over 40 years Barcelona’s homes of Les Corts and subsequently the Camp Nou acted as safe-houses for the people of Catalonia. Despite the crushing regime, a certain degree of expression of Catalanismo was shown within the walls of the stadium. Indeed, shouting for the football club became shouting for Catalonia. Football Club Barcelona became Club de Fútbol Barcelona, yet the people still stood by their team. 

Good things come to those who wait and the culés waited until the mid to late 20th century until they got back what they deserved. The year 1975 came and went. With it, Franco departed. Barça was Barça again; the Senyera was back on the flagpoles in the stadium and Catalonia could sing once more.

Joan Laporta used to work as a lawyer before he decided to run for president of Barcelona a few years after the turn of the 21st century. Before that, he was a member of the short-lived Partit per la Independència, a political party in Catalonia that for the three years of its existence campaigned for the “old” ways of life – independence for a region that was now home to a stagnating football club.

The previous president, Joan Gaspart, had only been there three years himself, but they were far from golden: Luís Figo had left, money was spent aimlessly, and the club languished in €230m of debt amid allegations of corruption. Meanwhile, 600km away, Madrid didn’t even laugh. Why would they? They were too busy showing off their shiny new superstars.

After substandard results and their not-so-noisy neighbours looking to embark on world domination, the Barça fans grew tired. Little did they know but social change was just around the corner, and both themselves and the club were about to embark on a flag-bearer tour as well. 

At the start of the electoral campaign, Laporta was widely acknowledged as the outsider in the pack of six who stepped up after Gaspart admitted defeat and abdicated from his role as president. However, in a sensational turn of events, the ex-lawyer soon found himself neck and neck with the original favourite for the role, Lluís Bassat.

Read  |  Building and destroying a legacy: Luís Figo at Barcelona

In a shrewd move put together by his young, slick team of businessmen, Laporta vowed to rekindle the Catalan values of the club and bring in Manchester United midfielder David Beckham, a world-class signing for a team that fully deserved to eat at the top table. He accomplished one of those things, and with it, brought the club to new heights. Beckham, in the end, wasn’t needed and duly signed for Real Madrid.

With over 27,000 votes, accounting for 52 percent of the total, Laporta broke the record for the presidential candidate with the most votes in the club’s history. In his first press conference – given in Catalan not Spanish – the new president vowed “to return the club to the top of world football” and, crucially, “use the club as an instrument to project the image of Catalonia to the world.”

Barcelona would once again become a superclub, achieved with a conscious decision to reconnect with its roots and present Catalan morals and values at the heart of every move.

The language of Catalonia is a statement in its own right; its usage carries innate and unshakable nuances of identity separate to that of the rest of Spain. Laporta certainly believed so. As if the president saying that “[the independence of Catalonia] is a necessity” was not enough, he made the remark in Catalan. The direction in which Laporta was taking the club from that moment on was glaringly obvious. 

Foreign players subsequently had it in their contracts that they would go to Catalan lessons. Samuel Eto’o was once criticised for responding in Spanish to a Catalan journalist after a match against Racing Santander; the striker was also forced to apologise by the leader of the right-leaning political party CiU, Artur Mas.

A friend of Laporta’s, Mas invited the president of the club to breakfast on the Rambla de Catalunya just days before the 2006 Catalan elections. Despite Barça’s officials quelling rumours of political support between Mas and the club, after the meeting was captured by the press, the implicit links were there to see.

Read  |  Josep Maria Minguella: the advisor, coach and agent who brought Maradona, Stoichkov and Messi to Barcelona

This incident was not unique: foreign stars were recommended to proclaim their love for Catalonia. New signing – and Beckham replacement – Ronaldinho made comments about the region that clearly marked the club’s identity as anything but Spanish. Sports daily Marca said the players’ words “would make the president happy” – and they probably did. Barcelona was changing, with Catalan values at their heart. 

To many fans of the club, the famous Blaugrana shirt is so sacrosanct that it could never carry the name of a corporate organisation on the front. The opinion that the modern game’s priorities have football far further down the list than it should be is not an unpopular one, either. A lucrative sponsorship deal would, therefore, go against the humble més que un club image that Barça struggled for so long to project.

For the first time in the history of the club, it was announced that the shirt would have a sponsor, but the outrage would never exist. The shirt would bear the name of UNICEF, a welfare organisation set up by the United Nations with the aim to provide food and emergency care for children across the globe.

A heroic gesture. Laporta broke club tradition to good effect and, knowingly or not, promoted the value of goodwill under the name of FC Barcelona and Catalonia. “If you look at our history, this is a club that has always represented the values of citizenship, sport and democracy in the Catalan capital,” said Laporta at an interview, highlighting the fact that the comunidad autónoma of Catalonia had spread its influence onto the club that now openly embraced such ideas. 

“You haven’t got the balls.” At this moment, Laporta knew he had made the right choice, and he did have the aforementioned cojones to make it. Pep Guardiola’s response to being promoted to first-team manager by the Barça president shows why his promotion is arguably the second greatest sporting decision in the club’s history, second only to Charly Rexach’s quick thinking that meant Messi would sign his first Barça contract on a napkin in December 2000.

Johan Cruyff, the footballing icon who had declared his support for Laporta in the elections that won him the presidency, was playing the role as unofficial advisor to the president and had a huge influence in the boardroom at the Camp Nou. It was the four-time European Cup winner who had originally told Rexach to play Guardiola in the middle of the pitch. It was Cruyff again who chose Guardiola to succeed Frank Rijkaard in 2008. 

Read  |  Oriol Tort: how one man helped turn Barcelona’s La Masia into a bastion of talent

A proud Catalan, Guardiola famously wore the Senyera on his shoulders after the Copa del Rey victory in 1997, and was chosen by Cruyff to carry on Barça’s journey to the top. Brought up through the coaching ranks after winning it all as a player, it was announced in May 2008 that Guardiola would take over the reins at the start of the new season, and with him he brought fundamental changes to the club.

Players deemed counter-productive by the new manager were moved on, a heavy emphasis placed instead on La Masia, which was partly under Pep’s control prior to his appointment. To everybody’s surprise, in his first press conference after being unveiled, Guardiola declared that the star trio of Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o would have no part in his plans.

Sergio Busquets was promoted from the youth ranks and Gerard Piqué returned from the red side of Manchester; Dani Alves was signed and moved north-east from Seville; while first-teamers Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were about to become the midfield duo that would rule the world. But football is football and it never quite goes to plan. After a loss and a draw in his first two matches, the doubters spoke up and some questioned whether Laporta had ruled with his heart instead of his head. 

However, things changed in dramatic fashion as Barcelona went on to lift a historic treble, winning the league with a nine-point gap over Real Madrid, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. Barça were the team to beat and Catalonia was the place to be, with Laporta declaring in 2010 that “the most Catalan Barça of all time is also the most successful” and that the Catalanismo that he brought to the club “increased the prestige of the institution”.

Nowadays, Barça has a different face and Laporta doesn’t like it. Many critics have launched attacks against the current board, headed by Josep Maria Bartomeu. One may, under their breath, coin a word along the lines of “Madridification” to describe the possible thought processes behind many of the decisions made by the men in suits. Never one to mince his words, Laporta showed what he really thought of Bartomeu’s Barcelona in an interview in 2017: “The club has become kidnapped. It is hostage to intoxication and manipulation.”

The club still wins trophies – six out of the last nine league titles have headed to the Camp Nou – but for some that is not enough. The Japanese electronics company on the front of the shirt outbid the previous company, a Qatari airline, to claim the prize of the red and blue stripes that mean so much to so many. 

The fans, as you may have guessed, have not stopped for one second; 17:14 still holds its significance and it always will. The flags are still there and they always will be. So will the memories. The memories of a time when Barça wasn’t Barça, and the memories of the lawyer who lit a fire under Catalan pride and FC Barcelona.

By Joe Brennan @j4brennan

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