Can former Barcelona president Joan Laporta win back that prized position?
Whenever an important British football club is suffering the torment of an especially convulsive moment, it's usually the case that I or other expatriate UK journalists in Spain will be asked about member-ownership/presidency situations, and whether the model at FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (among others) could work over there.
I hope that I've always argued that while the answer is a theoretical "yes" and while there are many benefits to such a system, it is very far from idyllic and that some need to be careful what they wish for.
The British fervour for such a concept probably reached its heights when the anti-Glazer feeling at Manchester United, the anti-Hicks-and-Gillett mood around Liverpool and the labyrinthian chaos at Rangers bit the hardest. But there have been other moments, and given that the human condition dictates that "the grass is always greener," I guess there probably always will be.
This is particularly true while foreign ownership of major English clubs is such a contentious issue, and as fans feel increasingly alienated by the correlation between vicious player-wage inflation and soaring ticket prices. Also, when a club like Portsmouth use a related version of fan ownership in order to save their very existence.
Two of the most dramatic occurrences in the entire history of fans or socios (basically, fans who pay to become members) who own major football clubs in Spain exercising their voice via the vote hit the world headlines in summer 2000 and then again precisely three years later.
The first was when Real Madrid President Lorenzo Sanz was unceremoniously thrown out of office despite overseeing the mandate that brought Los Blancos their seventh and eighth European Cups (or Champions Leagues). The former came after an agonising 32-year wait since their last such victory. While Sanz was punished for what the fan base felt was unreliability over financial matters, the voters were equally impressed by the promises of an ambitious construction magnate by the name of Florentino Perez.
The second was when Joan Laporta, who had been nothing more lofty than a socio-member himself seven years previously, won the Camp Nou presidency in 2003. Look what happened after that particular landmark.
People power? "Yes, please!" you might think. What became clear this week is that Laporta, who left the club in 2010 having used up the mandates permitted by Barcelona's statutes, will declare as a candidate to become president of the club again as of next month's elections. (He's statutorily able to do that having allowed another presidential mandate to pass.)
While as many as five or perhaps even six candidacies may be announced, there has been a widespread media and supporter (rather than socio) feeling that as soon as Laporta announces, he has as good as won.
MORE FROM GRAHAM HUNTER
- Barcelona, Real Madrid to battle it out again
- Spirit brings Barcelona UEFA Super Cup glory
- De Gea must decide and Barca's keeper battle
- How top Spanish clubs handle their transfers
- The end of the Iker Casillas era at Real Madrid
- Laporta's second shot at Barca presidency
- Cruyff's influence evident in Barca's CL win
It's an interesting concept. Part of Laporta's great cachet is that he catalyzed a return to the values and ethos of 1988-1996 when Johan Cruyff was the coach and philosophical guru at the Camp Nou. In football terms, even with the moribund late 2006 until mid-2008 period, 2003-2010 remains one of the all-time great presidential eras. Not just at the Camp Nou, but anywhere.
The theory is that he's going to be catnip to the voters for that success alone. But what some (although far from all) forget is that Laporta's reign degenerated into a dictatorial fiefdom within which players were spied on, allies deserted him, hedonism overtook utilitarianism, he had to survive a censure vote from the members and his vice presidents deserted him.
It's compelling proof that the member-vote-president model does not always provide some idyllic nirvana of democracy, accountability and harmony between club and fan base; furthermore, Sandro Rosell swept to power in 2010 with the biggest winning margin in the history of FC Barcelona presidential elections.
Rosell then made the club a hostile environment for Johan Cruyff. He made Pep Guardiola feel unsupported and isolated, helping cause the circumstances that led to his departure. Rosell's board showed Eric Abidal the door after promising that if he recovered from a cancer battle and played, he'd be given a new contract. He stripped UNICEF off the front of the team's shirts and replaced it with the backing of the Qatar Foundation.
Based on judicial verdicts, Rosell's accountants falsely accused the previous board of financial skulduggery. And finally, he signed Neymar in such a manner that it remains the subject of judicial investigation, while Barcelona may end up paying three times as much for the admittedly exceptional Brazilian as they originally claimed they had.
So bad was Rosell's situation that he walked away from the presidency in the middle of his term. When do powerful men and women walk away from the power they've always coveted? Yes, that's when.
Another factor in the imagined idea that Laporta will now be a shoo-in to the Camp Nou presidency is that he represents the anti-Rosell. Not only do the two men despise each other, but the outgoing president (Josep Bartomeu) was vice president under Rosell, therefore indelibly linked to him and, by definition, is Laporta's enemy.
There will be time in another column to think about Bartomeu's extraordinary time in charge, having stepped in as Rosell's deputy, and whether or not his achievements merit the reward of the Blaugrana voting public. But Laporta begs just as complicated a question: who is the father of success? Did Admiral Laporta demonstrate between 2003 and 2010 that he should be restored to the bridge now that the decks are clear?
In other words, is there something integrally important about Laporta and what he has to offer to that club? Or was he instead both a child of his time (2003) and, initially at least, the rallying point for a wide range of bright, determined, ambitious, adventurous, energetic men and women who, together, revived Barcelona so dramatically?
There should be around 110,000 of a membership (fans who pay annually to be socios) entitled to vote. When they consider Laporta and his manifesto, they would do well to sieve out the golden memories and to concentrate hard on what it is he brings to the table 12 years after his urgency, his clear campaign and his ability to build a cool gang won him a deserved mandate.
Who, from that time period, is still aligned with him? I'd say that while some I missed off this list were influential, there were about nine absolutely key figures behind Laporta's extraordinary reign.
Beyond those who were already at the club (Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, for example) they were: Txiki Begiristain, Ferran Soriano, Samuel Eto'o, Marc Ingla, Sandro Rosell, Frank Rijkaard, Ronaldinho, Evarist Murtra, Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova and Johan Cruyff. Of them, the vast majority are either past their prime or would not work with Laporta again under any circumstances. Cruyff (and perhaps Guardiola or Begiristain) is the standout exception.
Laporta is politically shrewd, nifty of brain and articulate in front of both audiences and microphones. Crucially, he also has a very clear football philosophy: leave it to Johan. Thus what's utterly vital for the Blaugrana electorate to understand, with crystal clarity, is whether Cruyff remains "involved" with Laporta's re-election campaign.
Barcelona's talent development has hit some obstacles -- the "Futbol base" requires a stern, structural and procedural reboot, for starters -- particularly in terms of how the budding talent is coached and how sternly the existing doctrine is inculcated. Not ripped up, just a reboot. Cruyff's return, involvement and consultancy would be valuable to FC Barcelona in that respect.
More so, with Victor Valdés, Carlos Puyol and Xavi all gone from the playing side and Andrés Iniesta moving toward veteran status, there will need to be a great deal of care, strategy, intelligence and experience applied if the era that follows is to be cogent, have equilibrium and if the philosophy that has largely governed that club since 1988 is not to dissipate altogether.
Does Laporta bring this to the table? He, and Cruyff, will need to make that clear. The people will decide. But let them first listen ... extremely closely.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.