Lionel Messi is scoring goals for fun, Ronald Koeman is successfully reconstructing FC Barcelona’s first team, the Blaugrana dramatically overturned a 2-0 deficit against Sevilla in early March to reach this season’s Copa del Rey final and so, as Joan Laporta starts his first week as Camp Nou president since he vacated the role in 2010, there’s little wonder he’s surrounded by a temporary state of heady euphoria.
But during that first full week (back) in the job, Messi, Koeman & Co. will be eliminated from the Champions League in the round of 16 for the first time since 2007; the Dutchman still doesn’t know whether he’ll be asked to fulfill the second year of his coaching contract; Messi may not declare whether he’s leaving or staying until the season is over; the club’s previous president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, appeared in court last week after a night in prison, pending corruption charges, and the club is suffering under the crushing weight of massive short-, mid- and long-term debt.
Therefore, that euphoria is likely to be as durable as friendships quickly made when you win a few thousand euros on the lottery — effervescent and fun in the moment, but evaporating the moment that reality bites.
So what lies ahead of Joan Laporta Estruch, a 58-year-old lawyer who, in his first spell as president, brought a phoenix-like resuscitation of his club from the ashes of what he inherited in 2003, is a period of the most intense, threatening, demanding and no doubt entertaining, dealing, statesmanship, corporate aggression, debt renegotiation and football empire rebuilding imaginable. And simply because the Catalan is a messianic character whose every breath exudes a heady tonic of confidence and bravado, the words “potential failure” shouldn’t automatically be excluded from that list of what’s in store for the new Caesar of Camp Nou.
To assess what the 30,000+ Barca socio/members who voted for him (out of 55,000 total votes cast) will get from their new “Presi” when the euphoria dies down, plus what’s in store for the coach, the superstar the books and Laporta, let’s break it down.
Who is Laporta, and how did he get here?
If you let Laporta tell it his way, he’s the kid who fell in love with Johan Cruyff when the Dutchman moved to Camp Nou from Ajax in 1973, an era in history where Spain was still a dictatorship and Catalunya (where Barcelona exist) felt like an unloved, oppressed north-eastern province. Laporta will talk about how Cruyff choosing Barca over Madrid instilled pride and brought international attention to the Catalan capital; it felt, Laporta once told me, like the city had genuinely claimed a significant win over the hated Dictator General, Francisco Franco, who had oppressed and banned Catalan language and culture since the 1930s.
Laporta will talk about kids in the playground, him included, combing their hair the “Johan way,” trying to mimic every flick and turn his aesthetic majesty produced for club or country. From that day to the present, Cruyff gave Laporta purpose.
That this rumbustious, colourful and voracious Catalan somehow transformed himself from an adoring kid, gazing in awe at a foreign superstar, into Cruyff’s friend, lawyer and someone who successfully restored the great man’s importance to FC Barcelona during the final 12 years of his life, before he succumbed to cancer in 2016, is already a warning to Laporta’s enemies and opponents. Of which there are many.
Things seem to happen around Laporta — special, unusual things. Educated in a priests’ college, he originally intended to become a missionary. Abandoning that position, he was expelled from the college because he rebelled against a physics teacher who’d suspended his entire class during the first part of an academic year. Laporta’s “Robin Hood” retort was to acquire some test answers and share them with all his classmates.
Nor did Spain’s compulsory military service, back when Laporta was young, manage to squeeze the rebel out of this man with a cause. Posted 2,600 km (1,600 miles) south of Barcelona in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, instead of near his home city, he complained that the army was serving its recruits camel meat and he was punished with two weeks’ solitary confinement.
New FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta is confident the club can encourage Lionel Messi to stay.
The best story from his larger-than-life youth is that with a couple of months still to serve in the army, Laporta decided to go AWOL with a girlfriend on holiday to Egypt. Returning refreshed and ever further from his missionary fervour, he expected harsh punishment, only to find that his pals in military service had, somehow, conned their senior officers regarding Laporta’s absence by roaring ‘Present!’ in various voices whenever his name was announced at the morning roll-call.
For all those of you who support a club owned by some billionaire foreigner, or by someone who feels that listening to or caring about the club’s life-long fans is unnecessary, what Laporta managed to do with the dominating passion of his life must make you bilious with anger.
When, in 1996, President Josep Nunez and Vice President Joan Gaspart combined to let imbecility reign, summarily sacking Cruyff as Barcelona coach (with one match remaining that season), Laporta, then 33 years old, was so furious and so energised by the injustice, that he formed an active protest group (“Elefant Blau,” or “Blue Elephant”).
But consider this for “fan power.” Within seven years, his activist opposition had earned him the Camp Nou Presidency and precisely nine years, 364 days after Cruyff was sacked, Laporta, as president, sat in the Stade de France watching the team he and his board had assembled, with Cruyff acting as their unpaid “Professor of Football,” win only the club’s second Champions League trophy via a 2-1 defeat of Arsenal. He went from zero to hero, quite literally, in unbelievably rapid time.
What followed after 2006 was a constant, compressed, explosion of boom and bust, the pendulum swinging crazily from one extreme to another.
Ronaldinho and Frank Rijkaard, the principle architects of the first Laporta “boom” era, lost their way, both professionally and privately. Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi flowered and began to mark out their places in the club’s all-time pantheon as, under the influence of Txiki Begiristain, Pep Guardiola was appointed and Barcelona’s first ‘Treble’ was won.
Meanwhile, former friends and allies deserted Laporta’s board in droves, a motion of no-confidence went against him and was ignored so that the “golden era” from 2003 to 2010 ended with a feeling of greatness on grass, but division and debauchery in the boardroom. So much so that Laporta’s sworn enemy, anti-Cruyff fanatic Sandro Rosell, immediately won a landslide victory to replace Laporta as president. Laporta had given “the people” a historic measure of glory in a magnificent seven-year era, but once his mandate was up, the voters screeched disapproval at him by electing an outright enemy who stood on diametrically opposed principles. It was a truly remarkable turn.
Why is this election win significant for Laporta, and why should we care?
Notwithstanding all that aforementioned euphoria, reality will bite soon enough. Even though the club’s finances were a mess when Laporta first came to the presidency 18 years ago, it’s still true that FC Barcelona’s financial situation has never been worse than it is now. And irrespective of the fact that Koeman has discovered that the cupboard marked “talented players” is not in fact bare, the first team still requires some serious restorative surgery.
Koeman has discovered true greatness in the shape of young Pedri and has galvanised by far the best Barcelona have seen of France forward Ousmane Dembele (signed from Borussia Dortmund in 2017) and Dutch midfielder Frenkie De Jong (signed from Ajax in 2019). He has restored Antoine Griezmann’s glow after endless speculation as to his future at the club. Koeman’s also teased impactful performances out of Trincao, a speculative long-term signing, and showed that Ronald Araujo, Ilaix Moriba and Oscar Mingueza — all products of the club’s once-revered “La Masia” youth academy — are ready for action.
Yet the aggregate 10-2 home thrashings by Real Madrid, Juventus and PSG in the Champions League this season, on top of the brutal humiliation by Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League quarterfinal, indicate that astute, highly specific purchases of established quality, experience, athleticism and power are paramount. They need direct reinforcements in defence, at centre-forward, at the tricky “pivote” role in midfield (the deep-lying playmaker) and left-back at bare minimum — perhaps also at centre-half, too.
Laporta is now the man charged with steering Barcelona away from their calamitous €1.1bn ($1.3bn) global debt, paying or delaying the short-term debts of some €750m ($890m), and doing it while simultaneously renewing the (expensive) contracts of Dembele, Ilaix Moriba and Mingueza, buying a clutch of four or five top talents – including his dream ticket of Erling Braut Haaland — and also both convincing and paying Messi to stay.
On paper, it’s an impossible, Herculean task, but impossible isn’t a word in Laporta’s vocabulary. If you don’t want to see one of the few fan-owned, non Petro-dollar clubs on its knees for a generation, you need to care about whether Laporta does or doesn’t prove to be the right president amid a profound crisis.
What does Laporta’s win mean for Messi and the squad?
For the squad, there will be improvements no matter what. However he manages it — and I’d not be at all surprised if Laporta has a pre-arranged, nine-figure credit line aimed at staunching immediate existing debt repayments, renewing crucial contracts and making star signings — Laporta will treat it as a primary task to make Barcelona competitive in Europe again. And, based on the green shoots this season, Spanish champions by 2022 at latest.
Messi’s future, however, is a different ball game. Sunday’s jigsaw of media images and soundbites — Barcelona’s captain taking his son to the Camp Nou to vote in the presidential elections, Laporta’s pre-election promise that a vote for anyone else was likely to reduce the chances of Messi staying, and the new president’s claim that Barcelona’s superstar then called to congratulate him on Sunday night — all hint that it’s not going to be “adios, then” to their magical Number 10.
Alejandro Moreno credits Barcelona for securing three important points despite a lacklustre performance.
But, of course, it’s not that simple. There’s no question that both Manchester City and PSG still want to acquire Messi, and they’ll produce persuasive, lucrative offers. If you’ve been watching the greatest player in Barcelona’s history over the past few months, certainly since December/January, you can’t fail to have noticed that he’s energised, happy, involved and scampering around again. His interplay with Griezmann, Dembele, Martin Braithwaite, De Jong, Jordi Alba and, most particularly, Pedri, whom he treats somewhere between a little brother and a winning lottery ticket, has been superb.
Perhaps most startling of all is the fact that Koeman, not a man known for his diplomacy or love of “star player” culture, has unquestionably won respect and a good training attitude from the best player he’s ever coached or played with. Which is quite a list. If Koeman’s staying with Laporta as president, there are well-selected new talents on the way and a decent financial offer available (thanks to new credit) that Laporta has brokered, then almost all the criteria needed to make Messi happy and ambitious will be fulfilled. Draw your own conclusions.
What is the biggest issue Laporta faces in the job?
The list is long. But whether you, personally, think the biggest issue is Barcelona’s debt, Messi’s future, rebuilding a tired team, choosing whether it’s time to retain Koeman as manager or bring Xavi back to the club from Qatar, rebuilding or renovating the slightly crumbling Camp Nou… here’s my take.
Laporta is the man who put the hutz In chutzpah and the “swag” in swagger. Even when he stripped to his underpants in Barcelona airport to protest at the security guards insisting on him going through the scanners over and over again (something he now admits to regretting), Laporta is Mr. Charisma. He’s bright, persuasive, connected and handsome, and his resume reads well. He’s enormously ambitious, too.
But, in 2003, when he laid the foundations for his fame (and for this current lust by the FC Barcelona “members” to return to the good times), Laporta was a conduit. He played the part of leader but, above all, he was a lightning conductor.
He did not, under any circumstances, achieve the successes of 2003-2010 on his own. From start to finish, Laporta had the guidance of a true genius: Johan Cruyff. He had Begiristain (now at Manchester City) navigating the club through a largely stellar time in the transfer market. He had “Mr. Fixer,” Sandro Rosell, on one side of the throne, plus two extreme heavyweights of modern European commerce and footballing intelligence in Ferran Soriano and Marc Ingla on the other.
Both Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola hit excelsior form as part of Team Laporta, too. But right now, none of those resources are available to Team Laporta 2.0.
Above all Cruyff, the genesis genius to whom Laporta owes everything, is lost forever. Thus for all the vast range of challenges now facing President Laporta, the biggest one is him ensuring that autocracy doesn’t surface, that second-class minds aren’t introduced into the problem-solving groups, and that his judgement about when to delegate, and to whom, is either as brilliant or as lucky as it was during most of his first reign.
Be you friend or foe, buckle up for the ride; this won’t be a dull journey.
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