Treble-winning Barcelona enter critical spell as presidential election nears
There is no such thing as a dull summer where FC Barcelona are concerned, and this year is already proving that point better than most. In just under a month the club has found time to win three trophies, renew the contracts of three players, sign Aleix Vidal from Sevilla and extend coach Luis Enrique's deal until 2017.
Those events are all linked to an even bigger occasion that has yet to come, however, one which we now know the date of. On Wednesday morning, Barcelona confirmed that elections for the club's presidency will be held on July 18 at the grounds of the Camp Nou, seven months after they were called.
Depending on the outcome, Barca could opt for a significant change in direction going forward, the last election in 2010 serving as evidence. Though the ongoing presence of Pep Guardiola ensured continuity on a sporting level, that vote led to a notable philosophical shift, with the Blaugrana moving from carrying UNICEF on the front of its shirt to a lucrative sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation.
Barcelona are owned by their 157,000-plus socis (members), and almost every one of them has an opinion about how the club has been run and should be run. Standing for the presidency offers a chance to make those opinions a reality. It also means being judged by hundreds of thousands of fellow supporters, not to mention the local and world media.
The names of those brave enough to take on that daunting task are now emerging in quick succession. Outgoing president Josep Maria Bartomeu is one of the highest-profile figures set to run and has wasted little time in attempting to win over voters. In the last days of his presidency he was a busy man; he convinced Pedro Rodriguez to sign a new contract amid rumours of an exit for England, tied Dani Alves down when the defender had gone public on his uncertain future and extended Luis Enrique's deal when the coach had failed to commit as recently as the Champions League final.
Opinion polls in March suggested less than a third of voters would opt for Bartomeu this summer; the FIFA transfer ban, as well as the ongoing Neymar tax case, have given him big headaches. Yet memories are short where football is concerned, and Bartomeu will hope that matching the feats of the best season in the club's history, as well as guaranteeing the future of some of its key figures, will be enough to change minds.
The man who came out best from those March polls is a figure already synonymous with Barca's success. Joan Laporta was the president who took the club from mediocrity in the early 2000s to domestic and Champions League glory, appointing both Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola as managers, as well as giving Luis Enrique his first coaching job when he made him Barca B boss in 2008.
Unashamedly pro-Catalonia, Laporta tends to encourage strong opinions and by the end of his spell at Barca he had attracted outright resentment from some sectors, barely surviving a motion of no confidence in 2008. Time is the great healer, however, and there seems to be a growing nostalgia for the ex-president's return, if the polls are anything to go by.
The former politician is currently playing his cards close to his chest. Though he is expected to run, he has yet to officially confirm his candidacy, the success of Bartomeu's last month perhaps creating a hint of doubt over just how straightforward displacing him will now be. Ironically, Laporta has much to lose if he wins. Building the finest team in the world is a difficult feat to achieve once; it may well be impossible to do twice.
Another well-known hopeful who has confirmed he will run is Toni Freixa, who launched his "we know what we're playing at" campaign on Wednesday. A former board member under Laporta, Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell, Freixa is an outspoken character who was removed from his last official position at the Camp Nou in October 2014 after falling out with Bartomeu.
While Freixa's popularity is up for debate, he does have the benefit of experience and after only 48 hours of campaigning, his strategy looks suitably well-formed. A lifelong amateur footballer who was once coached by former Barca boss Laureano Ruiz, Freixa has attempted to play up the sporting side of his character to differentiate himself from the businessman, Bartomeu. He will have to work hard to compete, but a legitimate sporting past combined with an opposition to signing a new sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways should go down well in some sectors.
Perhaps the most intriguing candidacies of them all are not ex-board members but two grassroots movements, the first of which is Som Gent Normal ("We are normal people"). Among their notable flagship policies is the pledge to replace the Qatar Airways deal with the word "Catalunya" on the front of the Barca shirt, while fellow supporters group and election hopefuls Origen FCB ("Origin FCB") want to reserve sponsorship for projects that represent disadvantaged peoples around the world.
- Moreno: Ramos would choose Barca before Man United
- Neymar out of Copa as Brazil drop appeal
- Laporta would scrap Qatar sponsorship deal
- Abidal lined up for Camp Nou return
- Tomas: Rakitic embraced his role and thrived
- Benedito: Barca won't pay €80 million for Pogba
- Spanish court to hear Neymar investor
The policies of both movements will appeal to romantics, but they may struggle to compete with the media attention other candidates who have previously worked at the club command. There is also the huge issue of finding the €77 million deposit required if you wish to run for Barcelona's presidency. For global figures like Laporta, that isn't necessarily an issue. For everyday supporters hoping to seize some power back, it could be. Both grassroots groups may need to look to outside funding to aid their election hopes as a result therefore, but that raises an obvious question over whether they would still be "grassroots," thus lessening their appeal.
Much can change between now and July 4, the date by which all candidates have to officially present their proposals along with a minimum of 2,534 signatures from club members. After that point, the real race between the remaining hopefuls will begin and unless something dramatic occurs, it could well be a two-horse contest between Laporta and Bartomeu. The caveat is that something dramatic can indeed occur. In 2003, Lluis Bassat had led the opinion polls for weeks in the build-up to elections, only for fresh-faced Laporta to take the presidency against the odds.
As a result, Bassat's plans to make a certain Pep Guardiola his sporting director never came to pass, and the midfielder instead opted to continue playing before taking coaching badges in 2005. The course of European football was altered by the outcome of that particular Barca election. In 2015, it could be once again.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.