Barcelona’s presidential election on 7 March is the most important in the recent history of the club.
Their Champions League dismantling, at the hands of Paris St-Germain in the first leg of their last-16 tie, is the latest low point for a club which not so long ago boasted of being able to count on a record income of 1bn euros (£865m).
But hiding behind the big numbers were unsustainable costs, in particular the biggest wage bill in world football.
The club is on the verge of bankruptcy with an obsolete stadium that needs renewing and the end of the Lionel Messi era on the horizon.
In a global era when talk of a European super league seems to be gathering pace and the season-ticket holder’s influence is being reduced everywhere, Barcelona want to remain in the hands of the fans who will vote for the next president. There are huge companies willing to buy a bit of the club but any talk of making it available to them is heresy in the Catalan press.
The three presidential candidates offer similar visions in many things but have very different personalities.
Joan Laporta, the favourite, won the 2003 election, modernised the club and changed a very negative dynamic, winning two Champions Leagues as well as six trophies in one year. His charisma is indisputable and he is independent of big media conglomerates or ‘big money’, but he has not come forward with many names – of players or directors – or detailed policy, as he feels he does not need to. It is the other two who need to catch him.
Victor Font, a successful businessman, has been floating his ideas longer than any of the three candidates, since announcing his intention to become president in 2018. He prefers the project to the names, he is less personality orientated than Laporta and has confirmed that Xavi will join him as football general manager if he gets elected. The same with Jordi Cruyff. Neither Xavi nor Cruyff have confirmed it, but the former midfielder will return if he is offered a job.
Toni Freixa was a Barcelona director for two years under Laporta and also joined the board under Laporta’s enemies, his successors at the helm Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu. He represents continuity to what has been done in recent times but with clear improvements, especially on the financial side of things. He likes to say the club is bigger than anyone, and accuses the previous board of not taking the big decisions like selling key players when needed, which has created this difficult situation they are in now. He is a strong personality and has the backing of an important side of the media.
I spoke to the three men who could shape the future of one of the world’s biggest clubs and asked them five key questions.
What is your position regarding Lionel Messi, whose contract expires this summer?
We will make him an offer that is economically interesting. I know Messi is not thinking just about money. He needs to know Barcelona can offer him the opportunity to play in a side that is competitive enough to be winning tournaments like the Champions League again.
This is my priority and I will do the very best so we can to continue with the next chapter of the love affair.
For us the relationship with Messi is strategic both in the short and medium term, because we obviously believe keeping Messi is key.
Having the best player in the world and the best in history in your team is a gift so we will do everything we can to retain him. But also from an institutional perspective it is important to find a way to keep this association between us even at the time Messi retires.
Messi himself has been telling us that these two objectives can be achieved because, despite the events that happened last summer, he has always said he would love to retire at Barcelona and he has even told us what he needs for this to happen, which is a competitive sports project.
He has even said that in the long term he would like to be associated with the club and he wants to live here in Barcelona with his family so I believe we have all the ingredients to make it happen. We will have to be creative.
Messi is the best player in the history of football and we would be proud for him to stay with us for the rest of his career.
However, we know that his contract finishes at the end of the season so we need to be able to offer him the framework of a good deal, a good atmosphere from within the club, and a deal that has economic conditions that are sustainable.
So we would expect to sit down with him and offer him terms that will make him decide to stay with the club for a long time and we are optimistic we will be able to count on him for the future. We believe he realises the situation at the club so we hope it won’t be difficult to reach an agreement.
Are Barcelona on the verge of bankruptcy? What is your solution?
Barcelona, like most clubs in Europe, are going through a difficult time economically. Our plan is to work hard to reverse this situation.
We need to control the expenses, to restructure the debt and to generate new revenues. In football these days there are very big opportunities and we have a team in place that can ensure Barcelona is one of the best-managed clubs in world football.
Technically we are. We owe a lot of money and a big chunk of that is short-term debt. We are at risk of losing that very unique trait, which is the ownership of the club by 150,000 members.
But we are working hard to find a solution to make sure this is avoided and the club remains in the hands of the members, and that we remain competitive. We need a talented team, people with strong track records.
Barcelona are at a critical point but it is no different to previous situations we have been through. When I joined the board in 2010 under Sandro Rosell we found a club that had an income of 400m euros and a debt of 560m euros. We overcame that situation and now we will have to do the same.
We need to reduce our expenses, especially wages and we have to renegotiate our debt.
We will have to sit down with the players and I think they are aware of the situation at the club. I hope that together we can find a solution to the situation. It’s a critical situation but we are not in bankruptcy.
Are you in favour of a European super league?
In order to answer this question properly, we need more information. I am sure a European super league without Barcelona would not be the best super league. If I become the next president I will be open to hearing about the proposal.
At the moment I don’t know the details so I can’t really give you a strong opinion one way or another. Conceptually we believe in the need to strengthen the current Champions League model but without killing the national championships. I think that is important.
This is something that is just an idea at the moment. In this initial and uncertain phase of this league we are against it because we need more information.
We believe that in everything we do we need to count on the consensus of the national federation, the rest of the clubs and the world of football in general.
How difficult will it be to become as competitive as in the past decade? What is your sporting plan?
We experienced the same thing in 2003. We were losing, had a huge debt and were having to pay too many expenses and income was lower than revenue. The situation today is very similar and my formula to get out of it is very simple. We need to control expenses, restructure the debt and work to generate new sources of income.
We will also look to find new ways to underline the strength of Barcelona as a brand, a new method of pursuing sponsorship deals, revamp the club’s digital channels and look closer at the world of esports.
We need to go back to our roots. In charge of our sporting organisation we need to have those who know our style of playing, the thing we want to preserve and strengthen, and this is why we have selected Xavi to be at the helm and why we will build a sporting team with different pieces that complement each other very well.
This is more than just bringing in a new coach and thinking that everything will be solved, but about creating a sports structure with guys who believe in the academy, something that is critical, not just from an economic point of view but also because these youngsters, if they have the talent, will have been with us for many years and they will know our style of play and can be more competitive. And they also have the commitment and attitude which is sometimes as relevant as talent.
Barcelona have won eight out of the past 12 leagues so we are still playing at a high level. What we have lost is our style. Our dream is to become once again that team that dominates European football with our style. A style that we have to apply not only with our first team but also with our youth teams.
Our sporting plan goes with Lluis Carreras, who was a former player coached by Johan Cruyff and was a team-mate of Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova. He is someone who believes absolutely in the style of football that makes us different, that everyone recognises. We need to count on young players coming through our system as well as going to the market for new players but only within the economic conditions currently in place and only those that are sustainable.
Do Barcelona have to sell to outside investors – even parts of the club – to continue being at the top?
My main motivation in becoming president is to keep Barcelona as a club that belongs to its members.
The members are the owners of the club and this is an association we would like to maintain. We need to underline the importance of Barcelona retaining full control of the club and think long-term rather than looking for short-term easy fixes like the selling off of assets.
I know we can lift Barcelona into becoming a reference for other clubs once again and this is our main motivation. That, and to bring the smile back to the faces of our members.
Our Barcelona project believes that to sell 49% of certain assets we have in exchange for much-needed funds is a concept that makes sense.
Bringing in strategic partners to help us develop different parts of the business with a plan to incorporate millions of fans around the world can bring capital into the club. It makes sense and we have been working on similar ideas for the past couple of years.
What I don’t think needs to be done is to rush things so that you sell 49% of assets for very little money just because of the need to bring in short-term cash.
Not at all. We are totally against any action that places us close to becoming a limited company. This idea to bring investment inside our management structure within the club is very dangerous. We must of course generate more revenue, commercial income, but not to attract investors that could obtain management powers at the club that could potentially jeopardise our ownership model.