Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu calls early elections
Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has called a presidential election for the coming summer to try and lift the negative "tension" currently around the club, while also denying that the reported recent falling-out between coach Luis Enrique and the team's talisman Lionel Messi could see either leave the club.
Besides heavy speculation in the local papers that Luis Enrique and Messi had a series of rows around Sunday's 1-0 defeat at Real Sociedad, recent days have also brought the firing of sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, and the resignation of his assistant and club legend Carles Puyol.
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This follows a turbulent 12 months at the Camp Nou, which has also seen former president Sandro Rosell resign due to the controversial signing of Brazil star Neymar; FIFA impose a 12-month transfer ban due to irregularities in signing youth players; and the previously all-conquering team fail to win any trophies.
The Blaugrana chief told a news conference at the Camp Nou that his intention had been to wait until the set date of 2016, but all the "noise" had persuaded him to call a vote for the coming summer.
"I wanted to complete the mandate until 2016, but over the last weeks the level of tension has not been right for the club," Bartomeu said. "The pressure did not fit the reality. We wanted to lower the tension, which does not correspond to the reality of the situation. This is a way to remove the tension, so that we can focus on the most important -- the team, players, coaches, and support them as much as possible."
Reports have suggested that Messi has threatened to leave Barca next summer should Enrique continue as coach, but Bartomeu repeatedly tried to play down their falling-out, without ever denying something along those lines had happened.
"I have had contact with Leo and Luis Enrique," he said. "Things are working and working well. These questions are for Luis Enrique and Messi. The dressing room is a sacred space, many things happen there, but they stay there."
The uncertainty has led to speculation that Messi might be tempted away from the Camp Nou next summer, something which Bartomeu did not completely rule out even when pressed repeatedly.
"Lionel Messi has a contract, signed just months ago, an agreement until 2018," he said. "So we are very relaxed. We are undertaking a deep rebuilding of the team around him. Watching him on the pitch this season you can see he is happy. Everyone in football knows that Barcelona does not want to sell Lionel Messi. Saying what would happen if a club pays his [250 million euro] release clause would be to speculate. I will not do that."
Asked if he thought it was an issue that Messi's personal mood seemed to determine so much of what happened at the Camp Nou, Bartomeu denied Barca had just one superstar.
"Messi is the best player in the world, and we have him here," he said. "We also have other stars, Neymar, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic... Messi is the leader of the team, he has the trust of everyone, but the whole life of the club does not revolve around him."
Bartomeu also denied that the apparent issue with Messi would cost Enrique his job as coach.
"Luis Enrique is working on the team, with the players," he said. "There is no doubt that he is the best person for the job he has. That is why we chose him. It will also help the team for there to be elections, and the tension to drop."
There was less certainty over why exactly Zubizarreta was fired this week, although Bartomeu did confirm it was not directly related to the FIFA transfer ban.
"I am a firm defender of Zubizarreta, we have worked elbow to elbow together for a long time," he said. "But it is true that in the last weeks there has been a loss of confidence, and in the end it was better to make a change. I would like to clarify that Zubizarreta had no responsibility for the FIFA ban. He did not authorise the signings of the kids involved."