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Meet the candidates of the 2015 Barcelona presidential election

Ah, Mr. Bartomeu, we meet at last. On Wednesday night at the Camp Nou the stage was set for the big debate of the 2015 FC Barcelona presidential elections. There had been debates before, but this one, broadcast in prime time, was the first that the current president Josep Maria Bartomeu had agreed to attend. It will also be the last. "Shall we do it again?" someone said at the end. They all knew the answer: "no." Bartomeu had avoided all the debates until now and he was not going to be drawn into another one.

They asked part in jest and perhaps because an opportunity had passed them by, although the other three candidates interpreted the night as successful. Bartomeu was always expected to be the least impressive when it came to the debate. Joan Laporta, in particular, was expected to rip into him not least because, as one of the other candidates Agusti Benedito put it, they really hate each other.

But Laporta didn't really. There were a couple of moments, sure, but mostly he seemed to be consciously taking a step back, as if believing that the voters he chases now are those undecided, conservative members of the electorate who would be more easily won over by a calmer, more measured man. Benedito and Toni Freixa, the two outsiders in what has always felt like a Bartomeu-Laporta head-to-head, stood out, probably because they are the outsiders -- at least in theory.

Bartomeu himself started on the offensive and pulled out the electoral brochures of his rivals, noting that Laporta's was rather thin and scoffing "a bit basic, Joan," but mostly he just resisted. The favourite and the incumbent, it naturally became a three-on-one and it wasn't always easy for Bartomeu. A couple of times he looked pleadingly at the moderator Bernat Soler to rescue him, acting hurt at not being able to talk. But his opponents did not move in for the kill as might have been expected. And so it ended with what Bartomeu most wanted to happen: debate over, with no major casualties.

Maybe expectations were misplaced, but the sensation after two hours was that there was little that might change minds or votes. No knockout blows, no dreadful mistakes, no surprise witness called into the courtroom. No news, either, not really -- just the revelation that not only are Qatar the club's shirt sponsors but they have the right to match any future offer from any other sponsor.

The debate had been set up to be decisive but it was not. Shall we do it again? No. On Saturday, four men go to the polls seeking to be the next president of FC Barcelona.

The incumbent: Josep Maria Bartomeu, 52

"I like to build bridges," says Bartomeu, who has made a living of it. His ADELTE company constructs the walkways that connect terminals to airplanes and he has used it as a metaphor for his style too. "I am defined by reducing the tension, pacifying."

And yet the sociopolitical tension has not reduced under him, even if he is generally seen as more likable than his predecessor, Sandro Rosell. Not least because there is a difference between what he says and how he says it, and what tends to actually happen. Bartomeu started with Laporta's election-winning group in 2003, just as all these candidates did, but he was the first person to resign and has since been part of the bitter battle. From media tribunes considered close to him and Rosell, with whom he remains close, the divide continues and the attacks on Laporta, Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola have been constant and often nasty.

Within seconds on Wednesday night, Bartomeu had used the magic word: "treble." "Tridente" was not far behind. When he called elections in January it was as an attempt to lessen the tension around the club, and himself, in the midst of a crisis. Back then he must have thought that his chances of winning were slim. Now, having won La Liga, the Copa del Rey and Champions League, he is perhaps the favourite. For him resisting is winning and in the debate he applied a similar, defensive tactic. In power, it had been different.

"While he was president he acted like a candidate; now that he is a candidate he is acting like the president," Benedito said, quite aptly.

Josep Maria Bartomeu became Barcelona president following the 2014 resignation of Sandro Rosell.
Josep Maria Bartomeu became Barcelona president following the 2014 resignation of Sandro Rosell.

Success on the pitch has been his best card and one that, unsurprisingly, Bartomeu has played repeatedly. In fact, it has made for strange elections: all four candidates agree that they will stick with Luis Enrique, the coach he stuck with in January. Back then, no one else would (and nor would Bartomeu if results had not improved). For the other candidates, it is harder to argue against a Treble-winning team. Barcelona's FIFA transfer ban has also meant that bombastic promises of signings have been fewer.

Bartomeu already signed the players he promised to sign -- albeit one of them, Arda Turan, was officially, and controversially, signed by the theoretically independent temporary committee running the club during the electoral period. He has not yet named his sporting director for the post-election era, either, having sacked Andoni Zubizarreta in January. Intriguingly, he says he has a sporting director but, "given the way the campaign is," it is best not to name him. Maybe he knows it will not help his cause.

The FIFA ban is one thing; then there is the debate around Qatar's sponsorship of the club (Bartomeu said it was the only option; now he says there is an Asian company that could take over). Bartomeu also insisted that "the Neymar thing," which has led to the prosecutor asking for prison sentences for him and Rosell, is "not a big deal." He was never elected president but instead took over from Rosell when the scandal broke. The question is what weighs more heavily: off-field scandal or on-field success?

The front-runner: Joan Laporta, 52

"My relationship with [Lionel] Messi is great. We're telepathic," Laporta said. When Bartomeu was told that, he replied: "I'm not; I pick up the phone." The president between 2003 and 2010, Laporta has made much of the fact that it was under him that Messi came through and that the Argentinian has not been happy with the current administration, as was shown by his outspoken words about director Javier Faus. Laporta has also claimed that the Rosell/Bartomeu regime contemplated selling Messi and conducted a survey to see what the supporters' position would be on the issue. He insists that he is the best guarantee that "Messi will always be happy."

The way that he has talked about Messi reflects his position more widely: Laporta has sought to claim part ownership of and agency for Barcelona's current success, arguing that it was he who laid the foundations. He says that he is proud of the club's latest Treble ... and of the Treble they won under him in 2009, too. He also claims that more than 10 players from the current squad have privately sent him messages declaring their support.

Laporta has been less dynamic and more measured during this campaign than in the past. He has been less aggressive, less passionate, seemingly quieter, and appears to be trying to project a moderate agenda. His convictions remain steadfast, though, and he is the only candidate who says, as president, he will use the club to support Catalunya's independence cause. He is far more ideologically/idealistically driven than Bartomeu, although there have also been attacks.

The candidates have been focused, naturally, on the Neymar case and also on what Laporta calls the "destruction" of La Masia -- although Bartomeu claimed that the figures for academy debutants in the senior side and players who become established first-teamers are the same under him. Then there is the Qatar sponsorship. Laporta would remove Qatar from the shirt, instead seeking indirect sponsorship to return UNICEF to the front instead. Indeed, Laporta has long summed up his ideal as: "Catalonia, Cruyff, cantera [youth system], UNICEF."

Joan Laporta counts former Barcelona manager and club icon Pep Guardiola as an ally.
Joan Laporta counts former Barcelona manager and club icon Pep Guardiola as an ally.

Laporta says a club cannot have a president who is charged with fraud as is Bartomeu and that he would not have stood had he been in the same position. (The man who is set to be his director general has a charge hanging over him too, though.) He has also, of course, been critical of the club's pursuit of a civil suit against him for allegedly leaving the club in debt and says, not without justification, that they have reacted toward him with resentment and bitterness. By contrast, he says he would not undertake civil action against Rosell or Bartomeu.

Laporta says that the key to signing Paul Pogba is the player's agent Mino Raiola, and that he holds that key, but he has not promised the signing. First, he would ask Luis Enrique. Or more accurately, Eric Abidal would. The Frenchman, whose departure from the club in 2013 after a battle with cancer was widely criticized, would be Laporta's sporting director: a hugely symbolic signing for a campaign that is very strong in terms of its emotional appeal. When Laporta was a kid he grew his hair long, Cruyff-style, and the Dutchman remains his inspiration (as well as a key figure in the civil war, going back decades now). Guardiola has also backed him.

The outsider: Agusti Benedito, 51

When Barcelona's interim committee signed Turan it was Benedito who said that he would exercise the clause that allowed a winning candidate to send him back to Atletico Madrid. Not because he does not like the player but because, he claimed, the temporary board should not be signing players and to do so was "an attack on the democratic principles of the club." Now he says he will keep Turan too, but Benedito has still been the most vociferous, animated critic.

In some ways, he has even led the campaign: certainly, many of the more interesting moments have come from him. Being an outsider perhaps has enabled him to do so with more freedom. A veteran campaigner and a sharp orator who was a member of the Laporta-led "Elefant Blau" pressure group that went after former president Josep Maria Nunez, Benedito was part of the club's structure after the 2003 elections but walked out because of Laporta's involvement with Uzbekistan, which saw him accused of financial irregularities in dealing with clubs. Now it is Barcelona's relationship with Qatar that most occupies him.

During Wednesday's debate Benedito tore into Bartomeu over the shirt sponsorship, insisting that it was one of the most shameful episodes in the club's history and claiming that Barcelona were effectively supporting ISIS.

Benedito also rounded on Bartomeu after Bartomeu had said that the Neymar case was "not much". Benedito insisted: "It's fraud!" Although he is a committed Catalan independentist -- he was the only one to sign off with a "Visca free Catalunya!" -- Benedito says that the club will not be used politically because "we have to respect that we have fans who do not feel the same way."

Agusti Benedito, considered a long-shot to win, could sway the race by pledging last-minute support to Joan Laporta.
Agusti Benedito, considered a long-shot to win, could sway the race by pledging last-minute support to Joan Laporta.

Benedito says that he would like to sign Marco Verratti from Paris Saint-Germain, that the youth system needs to be strengthened and restructured, and that he wants his sporting director to be Monchi from Sevilla. Those powers of persuasion will not be tested, which may well be the point: Benedito will almost certainly not win the election.

Laporta has tried to encourage him to give up the race, in the hope of benefiting from those supporting him; after all, they are not so far apart on many issues. At one point during the debate Benedito noted: "That's the second time I agree with Laporta." To which Laporta replied: "Vote for me, then."

The candidate of change: Toni Freixa, 47

"I didn't expect this ... actually, yes I did" said Freixa as Laporta and Bartomeu turned on each other. The youngest of the candidates, Freixa insists that if either wins the elections, the "civil war" will continue and he has presented himself as the man who can prevent that, calling himself "the third way." "This is a war of -isms," he says.

If that suggests he is totally divorced from those battles, think again. Like all four candidates, Freixa was part of the winning candidacy in 2003. He departed then as that administration crumbled into acrimony and returned in 2010 under Rosell. Spokesman for the board, his job to justify what Rosell did, there is something incongruous about watching him stand alone now, criticise Bartomeu, present himself as different from the two warring factions, or attack the Neymar deal which he defended before corruption charges followed. Laporta has accused him of being Bartomeu's "submarine."

Toni Freixa once served as the spokesman for the Barcelona board.
Toni Freixa once served as the spokesman for the Barcelona board.

Slowly, though, the message appears to be getting through. Freixa says that he did not know what Neymar cost and insisted that the contracts were never shown to the rest of the board. Bartomeu did not pick him up on that during the debate, suggesting it is probably true. Freixa has accused Bartomeu and Rosell of acting unilaterally, of adopting a presidential system that effectively cut out other board members, and he says he did not speak to Rosell for a year.

Back then there was occasionally even something a little unpalatable (and unconvincing) about Freixa's media appearances as spokesman for the board, but during this campaign he has performed well, appearing far more credible than before. Put bluntly, he is more likable now. The suggestion that he is just another face for a Rosell/Bartomeu-style regime does not seem as secure as it would have once done. But still that doubt remains: it is his previous role rather than his present one that may count against him.

Freixa has attacked Bartomeu for not being able to capitalise economically on being the "best team on the world with the best player." But he says that the secret is not solely better management of marketing and image, or better sponsorship deals, but to make the sporting project part of that economic model: he says they should not be signing "galacticos" but bringing more players through the youth system which he considers to have been largely abandoned.

When Laporta suggested that he would sign Pogba, Freixa's response was that he was too expensive. He also suggested that Barcelona had overpaid on both Suarez and Turan, even though they are players he says he likes. "Our style is the Cruyff style," he says, and former players Jose Maria Bakero and Miguel Angel Nadal would serve as his sporting director and technical secretary, respectively.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.

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