Josep Maria Bartomeu’s accession to power was not a clean one. He became the Club President in 2014 after the resignation of long time friend and colleague Sandro Rosell. Rosell was embroiled in the Neymar transfer fee controversy and after judge Pablo Ruz ordered an investigation into the matter, the then Barça President stepped aside.
The investigation was initiated over the reported transfer fee for Neymar and focused on the skewed figures of Bartomeu and Barça. Originally claimed by the club to be €57.1 million, it was later revealed to be actually €86.2 million. Bartomeu began his presidency with the accusation of tax fraud while his predecessor was facing a charge of misuse of funds.
Not wanting to admit wrongdoing, Rosell tried to deflect by saying “His signing has caused envy in our adversaries”. No matter how true that statement was, no club forced the board to hide a fee of €29.1 million and the episode was symbolic of the less-than-squeaky-clean reputation of Rosell. Forward to 2017 and the ex-president is currently detained having been investigated for laundering €7 million through the sale of image rights for 24 friendly matches of the Brazilian national team.
During his term, Rosell became the epitome of a murkier water Barça. Despite achieving their most successful period in their history, it was Rosell’s work behind the scenes that took Barça further and further away from the “mes que un club” model and the values that come with it.
“Money is secondary. Before anything else there should be principles, values. Barça has lost them.”
Johan Cruyff, 2015
Barcelona prided themselves on the values they emitted. A focus on youth, a choice of style over function, being a symbol of the Catalan community, these were entwined with the club’s motto, “more than a club.” In an ever-growing money led sport, Barça remained pure. The accession of Pep Guardiola from top player to world-class coach was made all the more sweeter as he was a child of Cruyff.
Despite the increasing riches in football, Barcelona earned unprecedented success all the while sticking to their core values. Ignoring the offers of sponsorship deals and instead offering their shirt to Unicef. In 2010, it all changed. €170 million was the price of Barça’s pride as they agreed to display “Qatar Foundation”, Unicef being shoved to back.
Rosell claimed it was necessary for Barça to continue to compete on the world stage but it was another step towards commercialisation and away from “mes que un club”
Upon the announcement of Rosell’s resignation many fans were glad to see the back of him but if they had hoped for change, the incoming Bartomeu was unlikely to provide it. Bartomeu was a strong ally to Rosell and was likely privy to the below board dealings his predecessor was endorsing. The commercialisation of Barça was a slippery slope first trod upon by Rosell’s board but has continued ever since.
Barça and Bartomeu have looked to extend their global reach, opening offices across the globe in an attempt to expose the Barça brand to as big of an audience as possible. While the board continue to focus their eye abroad, troubles at home have been brewing. The once heralded La Masia has been overtaken as Europe’s premier talent producers. The youngsters coming through are having their heads turned elsewhere by more attractive projects such as Manchester City’s which is headed by ex-Barça director Txiki Begiristain. City’s rise has been parallel to the downfall of Barça.
Begiristain was director at a time of great success for Barça and left along with Joan Laporta in 2010. The clear, established direction offered by Begiristain at City is one of the main factors behind City’s youth improvement. Barcelona, meanwhile, look lost. What once was a clear path of progression up the youth levels and into the first team has become disjointed. Academy talents are now more likely to be sold and then repurchased at a premier rate rather than being nurtured in-house.
It is an approach that has long been adopted by Barça’s biggest rival, Real Madrid. The Galatico ethos is very much the polar opposite of what many Barça fans believe their club stands for. Ignoring the development of a player and instead purchasing a finished article. But even Los Blancos don’t solely rely on this anymore. They now target promising youth and look to promote from within.
One of Bartomeu’s main critics is Joan Laporta. The Barça President from 2003 to 2010 is always available for a quote on how Bartomeu is destroying the club. The 2015 elections were pivotal. Laporta ran against Bartomeu on the principles of returning to the values of “mes que un club”. A return to “Catalonia, Cruyff, cantera and Unicef.” He stacked his campaign with iconic idols of Barça’s recent past, Eric Abidal was his sporting director, and presented the campaign as the Barça of old vs the new, corporate Barça of Bartomeu. However it was the incumbent president who won the election, picking up 54.63% of the votes.
Laporta claimed it was the older, conservative voters who had kept Bartomeu in power and that the young was on his side. Regardless, Bartomeu retained his position.
Defining what makes a good president can be difficult. Florentino Perez provides the cash injections most managers crave but his overwhelming influence both within the dressing room and the press room can be suffocating. A more reserved president allows a manager to flourish but if they do not have the weight or reputation to acquire the players the coach asks for, it is just as hard as the first scenario.
Under Bartomeu, the club has shown a willingness to spend money but it has often been misguided. Last summer, they made a concerted effort to strengthen their bench and spent a combined total of €119 million but the new signings made a total of 74 league appearances with only Samuel Umtiti establishing himself as a regular.
The signing of Andre Gomes in particular has proven to be a polarising one with some fans asking for more time while others have already declared him not good enough for the Barça shirt.
With the overall quality of the squad decreasing, Barcelona have become more and more unbalanced. Having to rely on their front three, in particular Lionel Messi, to save them time and time again this season. Of course, a front three of Luis Suárez, Neymar and Messi can be relied upon to score goals due to their immense talent but against Europe’s elite, they will struggle to do it all on their own. The first leg tie to PSG in Paris was an example of how a younger, fitter midfield can overcome Barça’s and cut off the supply line to the trident. Juventus then showed how to defend from deep and nullify MSN by crowding them out.
The lack of quality in the squad is a board problem. Either they are the ones picking who to sign and have got it wrong or they are listening to Luis Enrique but he wasn’t the right man for the job when it comes to strengthen the squad.
Fast forward to this summer and it is a similar story. Marco Veratti was the clear target of Barça and after weeks and weeks of seemingly getting nowhere rumours circulated that they were investigating a plan b. The only problem was their plan b was Saúl Ñíguez of Atlético Madrid who is arguably harder to sign than Veratti is.
Another summer of ifs and maybes will be catastrophic to Barça’s future chances. A club with the statue of Barcelona is hardly likely to slip into the abyss but the longer they allow their opponents to get ahead of them, the harder it will be to get back on top. There are genuine issues within the squad that have needed addressing for a while.
An ageing Andrés Iniesta, a Messi who for the first time in his career was putting serious thought into leaving, a lack of academy products in the first team. These have all been bubbling under the surface for a while and Bartomeu has shown an insistence not to focus on them but instead to sell Barça to the world as the ideologically perfect club. Ignoring the problems at home in favour of selling their souls abroad.
The growing ineptitude of Barça’s board has left a bitter taste in many members’ mouths. Perhaps the final straw that will break the camel’s back came this week when it was alleged that Barcelona lied to their socios. Catalan TV channel TV3 investigated 10 matches which showed Barcelona were charging a premium rate for some seats under the Seient Lliure policy, a policy which allows season ticket holders to split the price of resale if they can not attend the matches. TV3 claims Barça did not inform the socios of this increased price and instead pocketed the extra cash. Barça Vice-President Jordi Cardoner moved quickly to pour cold water on the issue saying the club acted correctly but the latest alleged wrongdoing is another milestone in a long history.
It is testament to the current board's efficiency that during the writing of this article, they announced another controversial decision with the hiring of Josep Segura, a man who in the past has suggest Barça sign tall, physical players instead of than technical ones.
The “mes que un club” motto is simply not one that fits the current regime. Gone are the days of a favouring of youth but instead there is a desire to fix gaps in the team with €50+ million players. No longer is Barcelona a symbol of “the right way” but is instead just another brand willing to sell their shirt to the highest bidder.
More than a club? no. More like just another club.