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

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

One afternoon in December 2000, Josep Maria Minguella and Carles Rexach were enjoying a cold beer at Barcelona’s Pompeia Tennis Club, following a match on one of its seven clay courts. Also present at the meeting, perched high on Montjuïc Hill overlooking the Catalan capital, was Jorge Messi, father of a young Argentine boy who would go on to become the best footballer in the world.

In what has almost become mythical, Rexach drafted a makeshift contract on a paper napkin, one that stated FC Barcelona would sign Jorge’s son, Lionel. The following day, the contents of the napkin were replicated on official Barcelona letter headed paper, a gesture sufficient enough to convince the increasingly frustrated Messi Sr. to nail his colours to the Blaugrana mast. 

Josep Maria Minguella’s destiny as part of Barcelona’s illustrious and colourful history was in little doubt from an early age. He grew up in Les Corts, the Barcelona neighbourhood which not only contains the Camp Nou, Barça’s home since 1957, but also its predecessor, the Camp de Les Corts. As is often the case, his father officially passed the passion for Barça down to his son, making him a member of the club when he was merely five years old.

Minguella studied law and later became coach of the university football team, before answering an unexpected call. In December 1969, with Barça just four points off the bottom of LaLiga, the club appointed Vic Buckingham as manager. The Englishman, who had twice managed Ajax before taking the reins at the Camp Nou, desperately needed a translator as he was unable to speak a word of Spanish.

On the other end of the phone was Barcelona club secretary Héctor Carrera, seeking an individual with both a knowledge of football and a sound grasp of the English language to assist the newly appointed manager. Despite Minguella’s limited English, acquired after spending two summers in England, he did what every fan would do: he accepted without hesitation and planned to learn on the job. The very next day, at 9:00am sharp, he boldly strode into the Camp Nou dressing room and confidently introduced himself to Buckingham in English.

Despite early language-related difficulties, Minguella and Buckingham struck up a strong personal bond. The club’s poor performance from the first half of the season improved, with Barça rising to finish the campaign in fifth position. The progress continued the following season, with Barça ending 1970/71 in second place, narrowly losing out to eventual champions Valencia only by virtue of an inferior head-to-head record.

Lifting the Copa del Generalísimo – the precursor to the Copa del Rey – proved to be a sufficient consolation yet Buckingham resigned at the end of the season due to health issues. Rather than signalling the end of Minguella’s time in the inner sanctum, it was only the beginning.

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Buckingham’s replacement was Dutchman Rinus Michels, who would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all-time. Minguella’s ascent continued, and he graduated from translator to first-team trainer. Jimmy Burns, in his superbly detailed 1999 book Barça: A People’s Passion, labelled Minguella almost disparagingly as “a one-time nobody who had gradually worked himself into the administrative structure of the club, first as interpreter and then as assistant trainer.”

Barça won La Liga in 1974, the first time they had been Spain’s champions for 14 years. Michels and the Catalan club parted company in 1975 and Minguella also sought pastures new, heading to Alicante for a year to become club secretary of Hércules CF.

Minguella credits the four years under Michels, as well as the sojourn in Alicante, with teaching him all he needed to know about football. In essence, it was an apprenticeship in which he learned skills both on and off the pitch, from training players to arranging their contracts. Rather than returning to Barça or becoming a fully-fledged coach or secretary elsewhere, Minguella decided to become an agent, although ironically the profession was under a FIFA ban, deemed detrimental to the sport. This failed to deter him, and Minguella travelled extensively in his new role, primarily focussing on Latin America, determined to uncover the next big star of world football.

In 1978, despite no previous connection with the club, Josep Lluís Núñez ran for the prestigious position of Barcelona president. Minguella established himself firmly within Núñez’s influential ‘Team of Ten’ and claims he was instrumental in bringing Rexach on board. The endorsement of a popular Catalan player who was coming to the end of his career was vital in swaying the vote in Núñez’s favour, enabling him to narrowly win the keenly fought election.

Although far from being universally popular with the club’s fans, the Núñez regime lasted 22 years – the longest presidency in Barça’s history – gleaning 30 trophies and turning the club into the behemoth that it is today.

During the Núñez era the membership grew by more than a third, leading to the expansion of the Camp Nou and subsequent renovations. Minguella was convinced that the stadium could only be expanded and filled with fans by attracting big foreign stars to captivate the audience. One of the first earmarked to carry this burden was a teenage Diego Maradona, who was plying his trade for Argentinos Juniors at the time.

Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship that wasn’t about to let go of their prized asset cheaply, or without a fight. Minguella flew to Buenos Aires to negotiate Maradona’s transfer with Navy Admiral Carlos Lacoste, who was based at ESMA, the regime’s most notorious concentration camp where thousands of dissidents were tortured and later murdered. Minguella was shielded from – or chose to conveniently ignore – the human rights atrocities that were occurring right under his nose whilst he discussed lucrative deals over fine red wine and steak.

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With the regime preferring Maradona to remain on home soil, at least until after the World Cup in 1982, Minguella brokered a deal in February 1981 that took El Diego from Argentinos Juniors to Boca Juniors on loan. The move cost Los Xeneizes more than $5 million, and Minguella ensured that the player remained firmly on his radar.

Towards the end of the loan agreement, Barça stepped up their interest in reviving the Maradona deal, taking advantage of Argentina’s perilous economic situation which, along with the abject failure of the Falkland’s War, would contribute to the fall of the military dictatorship within a year. The peso had lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar, making the deal much more appealing to Barça’s previously sceptical money men.

The $7.6m deal that took Maradona to Catalonia in 1982 was shrouded in deceit, with numerous shady parties making a lot of money. Minguella later claimed that his personal remuneration wasn’t particularly impressive, but instead that the move enhanced his reputation a deal-maker extraordinaire. Curiously, despite his prominence in the early deals of his career, Maradona neglected to dedicate a single word to Minguella in his 2004 autobiography, El Diego.

Throughout the rest of the lengthy Núñez reign, Minguella played a key role in numerous signings that would prove vital to coach Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team. Minguella was involved in the acquisitions of Guillermo Amor, Miguel Ángel Nadal and diminutive Brazilian forward Romário to name but a few, and in 1984 he almost lured Mexican forward Hugo Sánchez to the Camp Nou, only to be rebuffed by a stubborn Terry Venables. A year later, with the new Barça boss preferring Steve Archibald, Sánchez crossed the Madrid divide and became a hugely popular figure at the Santiago Bernabeú.

Mirroring his trips to Buenos Aires a decade earlier, in 1990 Minguella was once again brokering deals with military personnel. Fiery genius Hristo Stoichkov joined Barça from CSKA Sofia – who were run by the military on behalf of the Bulgarian Communist Party – for $3m. Minguella earned a good commission from this deal, and in the process helped secure Stoichkov a pay rise that would have been unthinkable in his home nation.

Many doubted the wisdom of the transfer due to the Bulgarian’s explosive temper, yet Minguella was convinced that he was right for Barça and he would go on to prove himself as hugely successful in Barcelona, one of the final pieces in Cruyff’s jigsaw.

Lionel Messi first appeared on Minguella’s radar when he was just 12 years old, his mesmerising gift belying his tiny stature. Those in the corridors of power at the Camp Nou had doubts over Messi, after being stung by several Argentines including Maradona, Javier Saviola and Juan Román Riquelme. Maradona was deemed more trouble than he was worth during his two turbulent years at the club, and the latter duo failed to live up to the billed expectations. Because of this scepticism, Minguella paid for the airfare between Argentina and the Catalan capital for Jorge and Lionel Messi out of his own pocket, housing the pair in a hotel on the city’s Plaça d’Espanya. 

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As in 1978, Minguella called on old friend Carles Rexach, who once again proved to be pivotal. Rexach, at the time a football advisor at the club, arranged a friendly match so he could run the rule over this diminutive Argentine who had so captivated Minguella. Rexach was equally stunned, agreeing with Minguella that the move had to happen.

The meeting at the tennis club was then arranged in an attempt to shore up the deal, and it was here that the famous napkin was signed. The napkin was then copied onto letter headed paper and signed by Joan Lacueva, another crucial player in the emergence of Messi. Lacueva was the director-general of the club and later paid for some of Messi’s growth hormone treatment out of his own pocket.

It’s incredible to think that, for many reasons, the blissful marriage of Lionel Messi and Barcelona may never have happened. At the time of Messi’s initial signing, the first reign of Louis van Gaal was coming to an end, with the club eventually failing to retain the LaLiga crown won so emphatically the year before. Short-sighted directors, more concerned with the next result than the club’s long-term future, were not keen to sign a player who could potentially take years to develop, especially given his highly publicised physical issues. If it wasn’t for the persistence of Minguella, the deal may never have happened. 

Three decades after he tentatively stepped foot in the Camp Nou as an under-qualified translator, Minguella attempted to ascend to the pinnacle of the Barcelona hierarchy by running for president in the 2003 elections. Unlike in 1978 when he was a vital cog in Josep Lluís Núñez’s successful campaign, Minguella’s flattered to deceive. He garnered less than five percent of the vote, finishing fifth in the pecking order. The elections were won by Joan Laporta, who trounced the opposition in amassing just under 53 percent of the vote. Laporta’s spell in charge was hugely fruitful, firstly under Frank Rijkaard and later Pep Guardiola, with Messi a leading light in the latter’s stunning team. 

Minguella’s contribution to Barcelona, a club he grew up adoring, cannot be understated. He has fulfilled the role of fan, translator, coach, advisor to the president and agent, and even attempted to become the president himself in 2003. He has seen some huge names come and go – on the pitch, in the dugout, and in the boardroom – and he has been present for some of the key moments in the illustrious history of a club that is huge in all four corners of the world.

Perhaps his most notable achievement is in his role as the agent responsible for bringing Lionel Messi not only to Barcelona, but to football fans all over the world. After all, who knows what may have happened had he not joined the Catalans. Although agents are not universally popular, and their influence on the game will be forever debated, they are clearly here to stay in modern football. The story of Josep Maria Minguella is a perfect example of how they can shape the future of the beautiful game. 

By Dan Williamson

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