Fear and loathing in the time of Barcagate

BARCELONA’s offices raided by the Mossos d’Escuadra in a week when the club’s presidential elections are taking place. Call me sceptical, but was the timing and staged drama strategically designed to distance candidates from the Bartomeu era, giving an advantage to anyone who was a fierce opponent of the previous president?

Barcelona’s multitudes must be wondering how much worse it can get for the club. On three counts, Barca are in trouble – on the field of play they are in decline (by their own lofty standards); their bank manager is getting more anxious by the week; and the club’s reputation is taking a battering on a daily basis. Spanish football’s grandees and UEFA may also be getting a little nervous, for Barca are a systemic club. Their position in the game is significant, from their transfer dealings to the perpheral businesses that rely on Barca. Take them out of the equation and it’s the proverbial deck of cards collapsing, or at the very least, listing. 

It would seem unlikely that Barca’s current predicament will lead to such a problem, but the walls seem to be closing-in on the club. Like so many clubs, succession has not been well planned, in this case it is not a manager or even president, but the departure of the player who has been the pivotal figure in the modern Barca story, Lionel Messi. 

Because they are more than a club (they tell us frequently, after all), Barca are front and back page news and anything that hints at a scandal is always going to get blanket coverage and capture the attention of the entire population of the Catalan city. Therefore, any transgression will have consequences. It’s a little like a major bank getting raided by police in London or Frankfurt, helicopters whirring overhead. The scale of the raid and its visibility is choreographed to send a message reminding the public who is in charge. 

Barca need to keep people sweet, if only as a form of insurance should they need a government or state bail-out in the future. The pandemic may have pushed Barca close to the abyss, but it is clear they have been paying out too much money and they’ve been rather careless in the transfer market. As the pandemic creates hardships for the working man and woman, leaked news such as details Messi’s € 55 million contract, is not necessarily well received. 

While scandal and intrigue are no strangers in Spanish football, Barcagate (every scandal has a gate these days) is very much of its time, an attempt to slur the names of certain players and officials through social media. Notwithstanding the moral aspect of this story, money has also been sloshing around and has created a set of suspicions, including overpayment for services. Hence, former president Josep Maria Bartomeu and three others were detained by police. 

Some sections of the Spanish media are accusing Bartomeu of destroying a major football club over a five-year period. Since their UEFA Champions League triumph of 2015, Barca have been involved in some disastrous capitulations, have seen Neymar snatched by Paris Saint-Germain and have built up a huge pile of liabilities that includes a frightening amount of very short-term debt that has to be serviced by the end of June.

The election takes place on March 7 and there are three candidates: Messi acolyte Joan Laporta; lawyer Tony Freixa; and Victor Font, the CEO of investment firm Delta Partners. While Laporte claims Messi will only stay at the club if he is elected, Freixa has openly said he will try and sign Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé should be win the vote. Font, meanwhile, is an advocate of the legendary Xavi returning to the Camp Nou as coach, which in turn might keep Messi happy.

Promises of luring big names to Barcelona may be somewhat foolhardy in this time of covid-19, especially as their debt will surely prevent them from borrowing cash. Barcelona need a period of prudence and austerity – not the sort of boast that wins presidential votes, but the club cannot expect to sign the top players with such a burden. Unless, of course, they unload some of their costly employees. What president would want to do that?

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