As many of you already know, the founding and spiritual father of this space, Isaiah, is gone. Real life beckons. But he sent me this, which he calls a “draft,” but which is actually an extraordinary bit of writing, and an example of more of what we are planning, hopefully, for the space this season. This piece is a bit of history, from back when a few of us were muttering things about a soon-to-be club president.
The interest now is first and foremost, as a lovely piece of writing. But I also expect it to have resonance when Joan Laporta officially begins his quest to once again, become president of FC Barcelona.
The victory parade runs for 5 miles through the heart of the city, snaking its way through crowded streets from the airport. Crowds line the streets leading to the colossal stadium, the largest in Europe, while the players ride in an open-topped bus. Flags are waved, trophies hoisted aloft, and bottles of cava are sprayed into the cheering masses. It’s May 2008 and Fútbol Club Barcelona, or Barça as it is known, has just won the European Champions League for the third time in the team’s history. The crowd and players, joyous and unrestrained, scream out “Visca el Barça i visca Catalunya!” “Long live Barça and long live Catalunya!”
Things could not be better on the field, but behind-the-scenes, the club’s history has taken a turn for the more dramatic. It is the classic tale of two men waging a private war using a public institution. One is a politician from the top of his perfectly coiffed head to the soles of his shiny shoes. He laughs for reporters, winks at fans, and has a penchant for expensive cava and cigars.
The other looks like an overgrown child; his ears stick out and he’s got a bucktooth grin that would win over any grandmother. He never looks truly comfortable in a suit, as if he can’t stop fidgeting with his jacket buttons.
For a while these two men, Joan Laporta and Sandro Rosell, ran FC Barcelona together as President and Vice President respectively. A fallout in 2003 resulting from disagreements on how the club should be run turned personal and sent slowly expanding ripples through Barcelona and Catalunya. Despite massive success, Barça is in the midst of a crisis of its own making that threatens to tear the club apart both financially and politically.
Most sports teams are owned by businessmen or investment companies, but Barça is owned by its more than 170,000 members. These socios pay a yearly fee and each is given the right to vote in Barcelona’s presidential elections, which take place every 7 years, and at the yearly General Assembly that governs the actions of the club. The institution is one of just 4 such sports clubs in Spain; the United States has just one similarly modeled team: the Green Bay Packers, who are owned by shareholders that act as voting members. Like the Packers and their Green Bay Packers Foundation, FC Barcelona has a foundation to which it donates 0.7% of its annual revenue, the percentage suggested by the UN Millennium Project. In 2010, that amounted to €2.5 million ($3.5 million).
When Laporta, a wealthy lawyer and the co-founder of Catalunya’s Party for Independence, took over the club in 2003, he promised to rectify the club’s woeful financial situation—€40 million in losses for the 2002-2003 season—and bring sporting success as well. He and Rosell, a young businessman associated primarily with Nike in Brazil, quickly turned the books around. They changed coaches and brought in new players in an effort to improve and expand the club’s brand and, thanks in part to the team’s on-field successes, the club was almost in the black by the end of the 2003-2004 season.
Laporta’s business model was based on growing the club’s brand internationally, gleaning more money from running the club as much like a corporation as possible, including television and image rights deals. The club struck a TV contract worth nearly $1billion with Spanish media company Mediaproduccion SL and then launched a successful membership drive designed to pull in thousands of casual fans and bring foreign-based fans into the club in a way that had not previously occurred.
Unlike in American sports, each team in Spain has the right to negotiate its own TV deal independently of all other teams. Because of this, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two biggest teams in the country, control approximately 60% of the total TV revenue. This is fantastic if you’re a fan of either of those two teams, but if you follow minnows Levante or even the moderately sized Sevilla, you’re not guaranteed to see your team play on TV and your team is not guaranteed a steady revenue stream year-to-year.
The Barça brand became an international powerhouse with lucrative sponsorship deals from Nike, Audi, and Spanish beer giant Estrella Damm. Yet there was still a strong connection with the club’s motto, més que un club (More Than a Club), through a unique agreement with the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF, in which the club paid the organization for the right to put their logo on the team’s shirt in lieu of a paying sponsor. Laporta also ratcheted up the Catalan sentiment within the club and region. The senyera, the red and yellow striped Catalan flag, began to appear more frequently on the player’s jerseys and even on club press releases and documents.
Thanks in part to the Mediapro deal, ever-expanding membership ranks, and sponsorship deals, Barcelona’s long-term financial success appeared assured. In June 2010, however, Mediapro filed for bankruptcy and the effect on revenue threatened to be colossal. Still, with Laporta’s administration claiming large profits despite hefty transfer fees paid for players like Dani Alves and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there seemed to be no threat to Barcelona’s position as the selfproclaimed world’s greatest team. Barça’s membership smiled glibly and held their heads high as reports came in of other clubs looking at record debt levels while failing to win trophies.
FC Barcelona holds presidential elections every 7 years and in June 2010, the same month that Mediapro was sending a stinging reminder of the financial insecurity upon which the club had wagered its future, an election was held. Barcelona presidents are limited to just one seven-year term, forcing Laporta to run a successor in his stead while he himself turned to greater political aspirations. It was no secret that he planned to run for elected office in the Catalan Parliament and turn his sporting success into something more.
Into this mix stepped Sandro Rosell. Critical of Laporta whenever there was a slip up at the club and demurely silent during times of success, Rosell had become a vocal thorn in the administration’s side. He had overseen the beginning of the resurrection of the club and he ran for president on a platform of transparency and solid business ethics. Yet what had been an undertone of Catalan identity politics in previous years became the overarching theme connecting the 2010 political campaigns.
Former VP Marc Ingla ran on a motto of més català que mai (More Catalan Than Ever) while Rosell, speaking on Radio Marca during the campaign, suggested African players were taking youth academy spots from “our boys.”
The undoing of Laporta’s administration was swift and decisive. The election itself was held on June 13, 2010 and Sandro Rosell walked out with over 61% of the vote. Laporta’s hand-picked successor, Jaume Ferrer, came in dead last out of 4 with just 10.8% of the vote.
Backed by his enormous electoral victory, Rosell swiftly fired a broadside at Laporta when he declared, only days after taking office on July 1st, that Laporta had been cooking the books and what had been reported as an €11 million surplus for the year was really a €70 million loss.
The Laporta administration was accused of various indulgences with the club’s budget, including overuse of private planes, some €20,000 a game on catering to the presidential box, and almost €2 million in private investigations into players, coaches, and board members. Laporta’s treasurer, Xavier Sala-i-Martin, a professor of economics at Columbia University in New York, wrote a screed attacking Rosell’s numbers that he posted to Facebook, accusing the new administration of appropriating economic successes for their own budget and moving costs to Laporta’s prior budget.
The revelations that the books may have different “real” figures than the ones released earlier is no surprise, but it’s what has happened because of that discrepancy that is chilling. The annual members’ assembly in October 2010 held Laporta personally accountable for what was finally figured as a €48 million loss. It passed by just 29 votes, 468 to 439 with 113 abstentions.
Rosell presented the vote, but then abstained, drawing rolled eyes from some and attacks on his character from others, including respected Spanish journalist Santiago Segurola.
Rosell’s administration then promised that on November 2, 2011, they would release all the documents proving conclusively that Laporta had, indeed, cooked the books. It was a move billed as part of their open and transparent approach, but when the date arrived, only a short summary was released. It included no new information and was shown only to those who could personally show up at the members’ office in Barcelona.
A fundamental shift in the club’s approach to the outside world has occurred as well, with the Rosell administration introducing membership restrictions. The Laporta administration made a show of being open and welcoming to fans from around the globe through their massive membership drive, but now only current members, former members, direct relatives of current members, and those under 14 are allowed to be members. While not a particularly draconian set of membership requirements — anyone with a relative under the age of 14 can become a member, it just costs twice as much since you have to enroll them for a year—it is a fundamental shift in the club’s approach.
Despite these personal setbacks, Laporta managed to lead the Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència (Catalan Solidarity for Independence) party to minor parliamentary victory. He and three other politicians won seats in the 135-member house. He also turned his attention to defending himself in open letters, huffily calling the charges against him lies and suggesting that Rosell is in cahoots with Barcelona’s hooligan group, the Boixos Nois, who once threatened Laporta’s life for banning them from the stadium and went so far as to personally confront him in front of his house in 2004.
Fans can be fickle beings, of course, and whether or not Rosell’s attempts to “catalanize” and politically isolate the club succeed could come down to trophies won on the field, much as Laporta was banking on the team’s success to catapult him to regional office. If legacies are their aim, they would both do well to remember Josep Lluís Núñez, Barcelona’s president between 1978 and 2003. Despite his tally of 18 major trophies under his watch, Núñez is not a man well remembered by the Barça faithful thanks to political and financial troubles.
Given that Laporta managed 8 such trophies and Rosell has just 2 to his name so far, causing further uproar within the club could easily backfire on them, especially the current president.
What was merely a tiff between two rich businessmen has become a battle for the very soul of FC Barcelona. Members are aligning with one or the other, calling Laporta either a godsend or a travesty, leaving little wiggle room in between, and in the process changing the fundamental realities within the club.
A team founded by a Swiss, with an Argentine — Lionel Messi — as its star and spokesperson, its jerseys made by an American mega-company with a Qatari non profit foundation emblazoned across those shirts, has closed many of its doors to the outside world. It has chosen instead to reverse the expansion of the last several years and fight a battle on nationalist turf. This dichotomy, of being both international yet closed to that very fan base, has caused a rift in a time of massive sporting success and threatens to break Barcelona apart just as they are on the cusp of the unthinkable: being branded the greatest club of all time by everyone.