Six days after a police raid on its offices led to the seizure of files and the arrests of four club officials, F.C. Barcelona appeared poised to elect Joan Laporta as its new president on Sunday.
Laporta, a lawyer who previously served as Barcelona’s president more than a decade ago, was on track to defeat two rivals in what he labeled “the most important elections in the history” of Barcelona, one of Europe’s most decorated clubs.
He led his closest rival, 57 percent to 31 percent, with 50 percent of the vote counted late Sunday night, and in video broadcast on the club’s television network the two challengers, Victor Font and Toni Freixa, appeared to concede and congratulate Laporta in a show of unity.
But his reward — a billion-dollar organization facing tough decisions about some of its most popular players and a looming financial crisis made worse by the coronavirus pandemic — hardly seems like a prize.
Laporta faces an inbox bulging with immediate challenges that include navigating the biggest debt crisis in European soccer, currently more than $1.3 billion; lowering the team’s salary bill, at the moment the highest in Europe; and avoiding the loss — perhaps as soon as this summer — of Lionel Messi, the club’s greatest player.
Perhaps his biggest challenge, however, will be leading a club once revered for elevating modern soccer into high art out of an era of infighting, dirty tricks and red ink. The series of unfolding crises have turned Barcelona from a model of commercial and sporting success story into, at times, the punchline of a bad joke.
The new president’s predecessor, Josep Maria Bartomeu, had resigned with his entire board in October, just ahead of a vote to remove him. By then, more than 20,000 of Barcelona’s 140,000 members had hand-signed forms seeking his ouster, and last week he was detained by the police as part of its investigation of the team.
But on Sunday, Bartomeu still lined up — along with everyday fans, team executives, former Barcelona players and coaches and even a handful of members of the current first team, including Messi and his young son — to cast his presidential vote. Despite the current turmoil, the turnout represented the kind of one-fan, one-vote ethos on which Barcelona prides itself.
If his lead holds, Laporta will have defeated two rivals for the presidency, Victor Font and Toni Freixa, in an election delayed by the ongoing repercussions of the pandemic. Restrictions on mass gatherings required Barcelona to change its voting process by spreading polling stations out across Catalonia, and by allowing mail in ballots for the first time in its history. But thousands of the club’s roughly 140,000 members still turned up in person to hand in their ballots during the 12 hours the vote was open on Sunday.
The club said more than 55,000 votes were cast; members chose not only a new president but also board members who will serve until 2026.
In choosing Laporta, Barcelona members appeared to have opted for a candidate who many remember fondly from a previous term as president. As Barcelona’s president from 2003 to 2010, he ushered in the start of a golden decade of success for the century-old club.
More recently, Barcelona has become synonymous with negativity, with the bad news arriving in waves. Since June, the team has had to contend with outsized impact of the coronavirus on its finances; a scandal involving a club-financed social-media campaign that targeted Bartomeu’s rivals, including several popular players; a historic and humiliating Champions League exit; a public falling out between Messi and Bartomeu that almost led to Messi’s departure before the season; and then, most recently, last week’s raid on Barcelona’s offices which resulted in the arrests of four team officials, including Bartomeu.
With Barcelona facing the most urgent short-term debt crisis in European soccer, the new president immediately faces the twin challenges of keeping the club afloat while also following through on promises to keep it competitive with not only domestic rivals like Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid but also deep-pocketed foreign challengers like Manchester City, Paris St.-Germain, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, many of them bankrolled by Gulf nation states, Russian oligarchs or American billionaires.
As a member-supported club, Barcelona does not have that luxury. Laporta will have to decide whether or not to forge ahead with a plan put together by the club’s executive team and Goldman Sachs to raise 250 million euros (almost $300 million) by selling a basket of club-owned assets to external investors. The move would be unusual and likely contentious — and it would require the backing of a membership fractured by the recent crisis.
Under Bartomeu, the team became Europe’s biggest cash generator but also one of its most profligate. Its salary bill — which was already eating up almost 80 cents of every dollar brought into the club — will need to be slashed, and high earners offloaded into a market in which teams battered by the coronavirus continue to be sellers rather than buyers.
The new board also will need to recalibrate supporter expectations, and reverse course from a management style — including by Laporta during his previous tenure — that has drawn criticism for prioritizing short-term rewards, in the form of lavish spending on popular (and expensive) signings, over long-term financial security.