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?

Bartomeu’s bad exit and the debris left behind

JOSEP Maria Bartomeu left some scorched earth behind at Barcelona, a strategic move by the former president that does him little credit. Indeed, as the celebrations among Barca fans circled the globe, Bartomeu’s departing salvo, confirming Barca had agreed to join a European Super League, was a little like a sulking child taking his ball away. In doing so, Bartomeu positioned his club as part of the scheming gang of elitists who have little regard for the overall health of the great game. This was not a graceful exit by any means.

Bartomeu was due to step down in March 2021, but the tide had turned against him to such an extent that he was expected to be voted out of office – a humiliating experience in itself. 

The consensus says he should have gone earlier. He stubbornly held on with the walls closing in on him, perhaps influenced by his counterpart at Real Madrid. Ironically, it all happened in the days following the Clásico, a 3-1 defeat for Barca at their Camp Nou home – a meek surrender if ever there was one.

Javier Tebas, the head of LaLiga, was understandably angry about Bartomeu’s declaration of mutiny, saying it was a “regrettable mistake” and a sad end for a club president who showed “serious ignorance of the football industry”.

Under Bartomeu’s presidency, Barca won four league titles, four Copa Del Reys and the Champions League. At the same time, the Barca team lost influential figures like Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol, key players who have never really been replaced. 

After Pep Guardiola departed in 2012, Barca have also laboured through a series of coaches that have delivered trophies but have lacked the charisma of their ground-breaking old boy. AS newspaper said that with the loss of Xavi and Iniesta, the basic functionality of the team was diminished. 

Barca, meanwhile, went close to their target of generating € 1 billion in revenues, but the club finds itself in a precarious financial position during the pandemic. “Financially, the club is a disaster,” said Spanish football expert Guillem Balague in his BBC column.

Certainly, the club’s record in the transfer market over the past couple of years doesn’t look good, even though the wage bill has become rather swollen. Huge outlays on players like Coutinho, Griezmann and Dembele have yet to live up to expectation and there are others that do not appear to be good investments. When Lionel Messi said he was thinking of leaving, it must have shaken the club to the core. The little Argentinian has repeatedly said there has been “no clear project” during Bartomeu’s reign. 

Barcelona’s problem is living up to the extraordinary high standards that have been established in the Messi era. As Gabriele Marcotti said for ESPN, the club won 10 titles in 61 years but lifted 16 in the past 30 – expectations are stratospheric. In the back of the Barca board’s mind – interim or otherwise – must be the fear that the club’s financial condition could spark a sharp decline and seriously compromise their position as one of Europe’s premier clubs. Barca would not be the first club to fall from the pedestal – AC Milan provide a very good comparison. 

Football Espana reported that a number of Barcelona’s players feel liberated by Bartomeu’s resignation. They have started their UEFA Champions League very well, a 5-1 win against Ferencvaros and a comfortable 2-0 victory in Turin against a Ronaldo-less Juve. In LaLiga, they have already lost twice, against Real and Getafe. Messi has yet to score a goal in open play, his three goals this season have all been penalties. 

Where, then, does the European Super League idea fit in? Tebas suggested that Bartomeu is merely echoing the heartfelt ambition of Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez, who has always cherished the idea of a continental league led by his club. “Barcelona had its own voice when dealing with the league, but for the past three years, it only repeats what Real Madrid says,” remarked Tebas. 

It could also be simply self-interest on the part of Barcelona, who may see the concept of a US$ 6 billion-backed league as a solution to their own current economic situation. If that is the case, then Barca’s accounts may be more worrying than we are led to believe. 

Others are as concerned as Tebas. Fernando Gomes, the president of the Portuguese League, said: “The world is currently experiencing its greatest challenge, at least for the last century, and the last thing it needs is the exacerbation of selfishness and greed.”

Bartomeu’s statement could have been the start of a civil war among European football. Not only has he angered officials from various leagues, but he has also let the cat out of the bag and nailed his [former] club’s colours to the mast. Most of the football world had its suspicions about the motives of the “big picture” and the European Super League, Bartomeu effectively confirmed what we already knew. 


Photos: PA