FC Barcelona’s membership have placed their trust in former president Joan Laporta to restore sporting glory and a sense of identity as he overcame the challenge of Víctor Font and Antoni Freixa with almost 60 percent of the vote to regain the role he held between 2003 and 2010.
For the past three seasons the club has been in turmoil: building up a £1.1bn debt, falling to heavy Champions League defeats to Liverpool, Bayern Munich and, most recently, 4–1 at the Camp Nou to Paris Saint Germain, whilst the relationship between the board and the club’s top players has been toxic. The resignation of former president Josep Maria Bartomeu in October 2020 appeared to have provided some breathing space for the club to regroup ahead of the selection of his successor.
However, in a sensational development, the club offices were raided by Catalan police on 1 March, just days before the election, whilst Bartomeu spent the night in a police cell as part of an investigation into corruption against the previous board.
At the centre of the investigation is the use by Bartomeu’s board of the 13 Ventures PR company to brief against senior players, most notably Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué in the media in their disputes with the club’s hierarchy. It is alleged that contracts with the company were inflated, with the former president personally benefitting from the difference.
The very public arguments saw Messi trade accusations with former teammate and sporting director Éric Abidal, who resigned in 2020 along with six board members following the sacking of coach Ernesto Valverde and the alleged refusal of players to accept a pay cut in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Apart from the chronic financial situation of the club, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, which saw the club’s revenue decline by €200m in the past year, the major issue on the minds of members was whether any of the candidates could persuade Messi – who cast his vote as a club member for the first time – to stay at the club after previous run-ins with Bartomeu led the Argentine to lodge his intention to leave the club on a free transfer last summer. After casting his vote, Laporta promised to phone Messi’s father and representative, Jorge, to discuss the Argentine remaining at the club.
For Laporta, it was sweet revenge after losing out to Bartomeu in the 2015 presidential election, despite the unprecedented glory achieved during his own seven-year presidency, including six trophies won in 2008 alone.
In terms of restoring Barça’s identity, Laporta repeatedly invoked the ghost of Johan Cruyff, with the image of the iconic player and coach of the club forming the backdrop to a number of speeches. Not only that, but Laporta indicated that Cruyff’s son Jordi – also a former player – would return to the club as sporting director if he was elected president.
Another key pillar of Laporta’s electoral strategy was to restore the club’s soul with a return to a reliance on the “spirit of La Masia” and the promotion of talented youth team products. Whilst the idea of rekindling memories of Pep Guardiola’s team of the late-2000s containing graduates like Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Pedro and Sergio Busquets was appealing for Barcelona fans, the reality is that it’s more an acknowledgement of the club’s straitened financial situation.
Indeed, it is a process already underway. Forced to offload Luis Suárez because of his wages, and unable to bring in players of a similar standard, coach Ronald Koeman has already been placing his faith in youth products like Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig, Pedri and Ilaix Moriba.
Unable to promise a marquee signing like that of Ronaldinho in 2003, Laporta signalled that he would look to sign Messi’s friend and fellow Argentina international, Sergio Agüero, on a free transfer when his Manchester City contract ends in the summer. Although a fine player when available, Agüero’s injury record in recent seasons is a concern, as is the fact that he will be 33 by the time he arrives at the Camp Nou.
However, he could be a useful stop-gap for a couple of seasons whilst Barça recover their financial position and are able to compete in the transfer market for the best global talent, whilst placating Messi in his twilight years in club football.
Ironically, one area in which Laporta’s 2021 campaign diverged from that of 2003 was in the absence of any noticeable reference to Barcelona’s Catalan identity, which was restricted to promoting “the projection of Barça from Catalonia to the world”.
Back in 2003, Laporta promised to make Barcelona an “active agent of Catalanism” following the perceived erosion of Catalan identity during the 22-year presidency of his predecessor, Josep Lluís Núñez. It came at a time when Catalans were seeking greater autonomy from the Spanish state, culminating in the 2006 Estatut d’Autonomia de Catalunya which was later declared unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court.
As president, Laporta enhanced Barcelona’s Catalan identity in a myriad of ways, for example holding board meetings in provincial Catalonia in order to re-state the club as a national symbol, the incorporation of the Senyera (Catalonia’s flag) into the team’s traditional blue and grenadine shirts, and by insisting that all the club’s administrative business be conducted in the local language.
He even added a clause into the contracts of new players in which they were “obliged to respect Catalan institutions and culture, and to learn our language”, although this idea was quietly abandoned as incoming players participated less than wholeheartedly.
Laporta’s bid to have Barça become the living embodiment of Catalanism gained ground when he appointed another avowed nationalist, Guardiola, as the club’s coach in 2008. Pep rarely passed up the opportunity to speak at press conferences in Catalan, explaining after a Champions League game in Ukraine that Catalonia “is a country with its own language, and when we travel, those who speak it, we use it”.
The appropriation of Catalan symbols by the players, particularly following important trophy victories became more pronounced under Guardiola, exemplified by the traditional sardana danced by the team after Champions League triumphs in 2009 and 2011.
When Laporta was replaced by Sandro Rosell in 2010, the Catalan rhetoric surrounding the club was dialled down as Laporta himself entered the world of Catalan politics. Not that this prevented fans taking the lead by chanting “independencia” at the 17 minute, 14 second mark of each game to signify Catalonia’s loss of political independence, and putting the club under a UEFA investigation by displaying the Estelada (Catalan independence flag) at the 2015 Champions League final in Berlin.
However, an attempt at Catalan secession led by Carles Puigdemont in 2017 after a unilateral referendum held by the Catalan parliament showed a majority in favour of independence was quashed by the Spanish state, who jailed many of the movement’s leaders including former vice president of the parliament, Oriol Junqueras. The resulting repression and temporary direct rule from Spain appeared to have dampened hopes for Catalan sovereignty for the foreseeable future.
When more pressing concerns have been addressed, it will be interesting to see if Laporta again links the club with a more aggressive support of Catalanism, especially following the result of elections to the Catalan parliament on 14 February, which saw parties supporting independence gain 74 of the 135 seats – a majority. The largest of these parties, the Catalan Republican Left, has pledged to work towards a negotiated exit from Spain rather than repeat the precipitous actions of 2017.
Ultimately Laporta’s legacy will rest upon his ability to arrest Barcelona’s perilous financial situation and ensuring Messi’s continued presence at the Camp Nou, as well as restoring a winning team to the club. As a confident Laporta told Gol TV in a 2020 interview, “Barça supporters want to win the Champions League again and with Messi, it is possible every year.”
He has the possibility to get off to a great start, with Koeman’s side – the PSG defeat notwithstanding – handily placed in a three-way battle with the Madrid duo of Atlético and Real in LaLiga, and a Copa del Rey final against Athletic Club to look forward to in mid-April.
By Mark Orton @MarkAOrton