The parallels between the two presidential elections to occupy my most recent world, in America and FC Barcelona, are fascinating.
— A corrupt, despotic regime
— Legal proceedings in the wake of the former president
— A riven supporter base
— Accusations hither and yon of media bias
— Massive debt and lots to do
— A new president that leaves supporters filled with hope
— Mail votes!
For the second time, Joan Laporta is president of FC Barcelona in what can only be described as a walk. In another parallel, heavy turnout drove the familiar candidate, the political veteran, to an easy victory in an election that was over before it began. Because when everything seems darkest, people want the reassuring tone of someone who knows, who has had previous success in the job.
But now comes the hard part.
This has been a fantastic week for FC Barcelona sporting teams, including handball, Fenemi, men’s first team and Barça B, almost as if the sporting projects were gearing up to celebrate along with the new president. But let’s not kid ourselves about the task facing Laporta. The club is facing a debt load of a billion Euros, too much of it short-term, the worst kind for an entity such as FC Barcelona. There is also a necessary rebuild of the crown jewel, the football team, a roster stuffed with half-crocked, aged players all on big wages. And that rebuild will have to take into account that the team also has the highest wage bill in football. There is also a stadium project, planned and agreed to by the now-gone weasels, which must be managed in the face of the reality that the Camp Nou is not the proper home base for a team with with ambitions of FC Barcelona. And oh yeah, a 20-year tax bill that suddenly came due last week.
That’s a lot. And no politician is perfect, even one who seems so in context.
And so, the biggest thing that Laporta is going to have to battle will be hope. And expectations. Excessive hope of people accustomed to years of corruption and neglect, in yet another parallel to the recent American presidential elections. When Joseph Biden assumed office, he had on his immediate agenda, a pandemic, debt, a wrecked economy and a nation divided. He got to work, just as Laporta will have to, and even if his job doesn’t carry the same significance. There will be people watching him, judging him, waiting for him to do the thing that isn’t the thing they think is most important, so that they can moan about how he isn’t getting off to a good start.
You would do well to ignore any person spouting about having reclaimed anything, or expectations of good things, or proper things, or anything, really. Politics makes hope easy, but hope easily built is just as easily dashed. FC Barcelona has a metric crap ton of shit to shovel, and just a tarnished spoon instead of a bulldozer. And reality is that from a technical standpoint technically who the new president is right now doesn’t matter a whole lot, because the basic tasks call for a limited set of reactions and options. Restructure the debt, reevaluate the stadium project, get Messi sorted, shed salaries from the team. Any of us as president would have the same set of options. What matters is what happens after that, the part that is human and feeling based, rather than technical. Laporta has always excelled at that. It was key to a beautifully run campaign. But what’s past is past, and the present is … brutal.
This is why the second biggest thing Laporta is going to have to battle is his own past success. Kicked the Boixos out of Camp Nou, won every trophy under the sun, did indeed have a world of puppies, rainbows and unicorns pooping soft-serve ice cream. His first presidential tenure was a thing of beauty, even if it didn’t get off to the best start when half the board resigned, setting off acrimony that manifested itself in the here and now, and colored actions of not only Sandro Rosell, but Josep Bartomeu, birds of a feather. He survived a vote of no confidence, and made the bold decision to go with, as a replacement for Frank Rijkaard, an iconic former player named Pep Guardiola. Nobody has to tell you what happened next. During the campaign, Font said that Laporta was just the person there while wonderful things happened, that the best Barça ever just happened during his watch, rather than him having anything to do with it. That’s just wrong.
A president of a club such as FC Barcelona sets the tone with how he manages it all, with the role he plays and with the understanding he has with the heads of the sporting projects that comprise the club. You do what you need, I will find a way to make it happen. The support of a president needs to be unwavering. When Guardiola came to Laporta and said, “I want Ibrahimovic in, and Eto’o gone,” Laporta made it happen. Did he have misgivings? Did he like Eto’o? That wasn’t his job. And he made it happen. Guardiola is happy, and renewed at Manchester City because that enviroment is set up to give him everything that he wants.
When Rosell took over Barça, he began by wanting to show Laporta’s hand-picked successor who was boss. So he sold Txigrinski, a Ukranian centerback that Guardiola asked for, and blew him out for peanuts, citing austerity. He slighted the club icon Johann Cruijff, and rolled into the beginning of his regime with an appalling lack of humanity, a managerial tone that was continued by his successor, Joesp Bartomeu. It was dark and ugly, and when Guardiola left it wasn’t a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention.
The last time Laporta ran, it was a hasty campaign that also had to wrestle with a football team that had just won a treble. And turnout was approximately half that of this current election. He lost to Bartomeu by more than 20 percentage points. But as with any good manager, Laporta learned from his errors. When this election came about, he managed it perfect, making all of the candidates react to him as he presented himself, in very much the same way Biden did to America, as the candidate who you want to turn to when everything is a mess. You want the person who has been there before. Biden was subtle, but made it clear that riding on Obama’s coattails, a successful presidency in the eyes of many, shouldn’t be forgotten. Laporta wasn’t as subtle, and didn’t make a direct appeal to nostalgia. But he didn’t need to. Laporta is synonymous with unprecedented success, trebles, the year of six cups, a club that played dazzling football.
But homecomings can be complex. Laporta should have been planning for this, for his victory. Just as Biden hit the ground running with a sheaf of excecutive orders, it’s a safe bet that Laporta has been talking to banks, lending agents and player agents, getting ready to set up his Barça. He will also have a massive decision in the club’s eternal talisman in Lionel Messi. You can’t be the president who lets him go, this player whose napkin contract is a part of club legend, like King Arthur and Excalibur. You can’t let him go. But an accepting that, you also accept that the team’s massive wage bill becomes much more complex to manage. Cuts, and painful ones, will have to be made. By making those cuts, is there a danger of damaging the sporting project to the extent that Messi tosses away another year if he stays?
Nostalgia can get you in trouble, if you aren’t careful. Those voting for Laporta because of what he has done in the past should reconsider. The club has never been in the situation that it’s in right now. In choosing a steward who has Been There, who understands who to call and what to do, who understands the FC Barcelona is too big to fail, voting members made what was, in reality, the only correct decision. The other options were an uncertain future in a candidate, Victor Font, who might have had better success were things not a complete, total, steaming mess. And then there was Toni Freixa, as close to a continuity candidate as there was in this round, a person who shouldn’t even be let into the Camp Nou to watch matches.
The choice was easy. But temper expectations. Rainbows, puppies and unicorns pooping soft-serve ice cream just isn’t going to be a thing this time. Guardiola inherited a hungry, angry team filled with players who are now legends, thought of as the best or among the best to play their position. Laporta won’t be as well-timed in 2021. We need to be patient as he dives in to solve problems, and be ready for setbacks. We need to be, just as we have been with every other president even when we knew better, calm and objective. This isn’t about the past. It’s about the future. Joan Laporta is the man chosen to lead FC Barcelona, the club, into a very uncertain future. You can go home again, but when you get there, nothing is as you left it.