Written by Nibodh Minikumar
FC Barcelona, one of the biggest sporting institutions in the world, now finds itself under what seems to be a mountain of debt. While fans easily point fingers towards Josep Maria Bartomeu (and rightfully so) very few realize the fact that it was the culmination of a destructive political rift in the club that started almost a quarter of a century ago.
The year 1989 was one of many celebrations for FC Barcelona. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff was appointed the manager of the club. Cruyff’s time at Barcelona was incredibly successful, as Barcelona won four consecutive league titles and a European Cup among other trophies while playing in a style that was given the name ‘total football’. Cruyff’s total football and the Dream Team revolutionized football tactically, cementing Cruyff’s place in the history of the sport. However, serious doubts were cast on his ability following the 4-0 humbling of FC Barcelona by AC Milan in the European Cup final of 1994. Cruyff eventually left the club in 1996, but not before making serious positive changes in La Masia, the club’s academy. Cruyff remained an advisor to the Barcelona board after 1996.
Fast forward to 2003, the Presidential elections of FC Barcelona were taking place. Joan Laporta, a young lawyer was elected the President while Sandro Rosell was elected Vice President. Laporta and Rosell had a big task at their hands. The club hadn’t won a major trophy since 1999 and had to deal with the exodus of many important players, most notably Luis Figo and Ronaldo Nazario who complained about a lack of respect towards them from the then board. Barcelona’s finances weren’t well off either, and the booming success of arch-rivals Real Madrid under Florentino Perez made Barcelona’s image worse. Laporta and Rosell started their work with the appointment of Frank Rijkaard as head coach. The club then managed to sign Ronaldinho, after their other targets David Beckham and Thierry Henry declined Barcelona’s offers. Rosell’s acumen and connections brought in Deco and Samuel Eto’o to the club to join a new-look FC Barcelona. La Masia, meanwhile, produced players like Xavi, Puyol, Valdes, and Iniesta, all youngsters who grew up learning Cruyff’s way of the game.
Despite initial criticisms and a poor 2003-04 season, Barcelona won the league title in 2004-05. In June 2005 however, Rosell resigned as vice president, stating that Laporta was being too authoritarian and no longer adhered to their combined plan for the club’s growth. This rift would light the slow-burning fuse to the downfall of Barcelona. Laporta was re-elected as president in 2006 as the club secured another Champions League title.
By this time, Rosell had become a vocal critic of Laporta and Cruyff but refrained from contesting in the elections in 2006. In 2008, Laporta barely survived a censure motion, which he accused Rosell of bringing up. The year saw Rijkaard’s dismissal and the appointment of the relatively inexperienced Pep Guardiola as head coach, a decision made by Laporta as per the advice of Cruyff. The decision turned out to be the right one, as Guardiola’s Barcelona swept Europe away winning all available trophies that season, which boosted Laporta’s image among the socis of Barcelona. Laporta’s run would come to an end in 2010 when Rosell was elected President.
Sandro Rosell’s first decision as President was to strip Cruyff off the title of Honorary President, a move that created much backlash among the fans and socis. However, the team’s performance on the pitch silenced his critics. Guardiola departed in 2012, bringing an end to a glorious era.
The dark side of Barcelona’s financial deals started with the signing of Neymar in 2013. What had been initially considered a crowning jewel in Rosell’s presidency turned out to be his downfall. After weeks of evading questions about the transfer fee, Rosell told the media a figure of €57.1 million. Intense scrutiny followed, and Rosell resigned in January 2014 after judge Pablo Ruz ordered a hearing to investigate Rosell over the accusations of misappropriation of funds. Josep Maria Bartomeu took over as President, following which the actual figures of the transfer were finally found. Of the €57.1 million, only €17.1 million had gone to Santos, the club Neymar was signed from, while the rest went to the company N&N owned by Neymar’s father. It was further revealed that other payments were made in connection with this transfer, bringing the total money spent to a total of €86.2 million. Rosell was jailed without bail for misappropriation of funds in 2017. The investigation spread over to Bartomeu, but he managed to come out unscathed and solidified his position as club president.
The signing of Luis Suarez in 2014 and the treble win of the 2014-15 season were positives for Bartomeu. However, performances of club legends Xavi and Iniesta were declining. Xavi left the club in 2015. The 2015 title win would also prove to the last time Barcelona would win the prestigious trophy. Barcelona’s exits in the following seasons were met with intense criticism of the team’s performance and the board’s management.
In 2017, French club Paris Saint-Germain, backed by the financial might of Qatar, paid the €222 million release clause of Neymar Jr. Facing heavy criticism and now armed with a huge sum of money, Bartomeu attempted to strengthen the squad, but the lion’s share of the money, €105 million, went into the signing of French winger Ousmane Dembele. However, Dembele spent a majority of his time injured and unavailable, driving Bartomeu to find another replacement for Neymar. In January 2018, FC Barcelona signed Brazilian attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho for €142 million, but the move was criticized by many since Coutinho wouldn’t fit the team tactically, and neither was he a proper replacement for Neymar. Barcelona’s troubles in the Champions League continued, and Bartomeu once again went into the market and signed Antoine Griezmann, a move that was met with criticism once again and exposed the inability of the board to make good sporting decisions.
Meanwhile, the club’s finances had also taken a hit due to the mindless spending by Bartomeu and the extremely high wages various players were on. The club has now accumulated over a billion euros of debt. Bartomeu was eventually jailed for a defamation campaign against Messi, among various allegations of tax fraud, leaving behind a broken Barcelona.
As of today, Laporta is back as president, and Barcelona seemed to be moving in the right direction with the signings of Aguero, Depay, and Garcia, following a €500 million loan from Goldman Sachs. However, Bartomeu’s poor financial decisions have caught up with Barcelona. As per La Liga rules, Barcelona must reduce its annual wage budget by about €200 million to register the new signings, and more importantly, renewing the contract of Messi.
Barcelona’s predicament has often been compared to that of AC Milan, and it certainly does seem to be the case for the Blaugranas, at least for the next few years.
Nibodh Minikumar is an engineering student at Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore. He likes to spend his time writing short stories and essays on sports and history among other things.