Joan Laporta has guided Barcelona through choppy waters before and he is primed and ready to go once again. As he aims to win presidential re-election this year, he came with a stern message to the voters: elect me or Lionel Messi will leave.
Were Laporta to return to the highest seat in the Camp Nou boardroom, he wouldn’t inherit the same issues as before. While it is true that Barcelona are not nearly as far away from their peak in terms of league position or even quality in the squad as they were at the point of his first arrival in 2003, the issues this time around are more complex.
He is no longer the fresh-faced, brash businessman who swept all before him and implemented his plan to jumpstart the floundering Catalans, who were so disillusioned, so without direction and soul that they fell out of the Champions League, battling internally to find a way forward.
Joan Laporta was almost as devoted a fan as Johan Cruyff, the father of total football, Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ and, at least according to the former president, the man who wrote the rulebook on the club’s philosophy. He was 10 years old when Cruyff wore the Barcelona shirt as a player and has said that he modelled his hair on the Dutchman, such was his obsession with mimicking him.
His tributes became much more concrete in adulthood, though. After a second disappointing spell in charge for Louis van Gaal, and an equally forgetful six months for Radomir Antic, Joan Laporta arrived and instantly tore up the previous approach, demanding a Cruyff-based style of play and coaches and players who understood what was expected.
Through shrewd signings but, more often than not, youth products from their academy, La Masia and with the help of Frank Rijkaard, Ronaldinho, Pep Guardiola and eventually Messi, among others, Laporta laid the groundwork for and oversaw the early days of Barcelona’s most successful era to date. It was arguably the formation of football’s greatest ever club side.
He departed in 2010 before they truly reached their peak under Guardiola a year later, but there are those who believe that the club’s identity has never been quite as pure as when he was in charge. His replacement was former assistant turned nemesis Sandro Rosell before Josep Maria Bartomeu took over. Neither were Cruyff disciples like Joan Laporta, meaning Barcelona gradually lost the meaning of their own philosophy over time.
Even more alarmingly, the club’s business model and attitude became murkier. Bartomeu, who relinquished control only last year, was arrested recently and Rosell has spent time in jail. Barcelona’s role as the unique elite entity with the slogan “more than a club”, because it turned away from big money signings and corporate greed in the form of sponsorships, eventually emblazoning their shirts with the charity “UNICEF”.
Suddenly they were shrouded in hypocrisy after signing a deal with Qatar Airways, undermining La Masia and saturating their squad with overpriced and underwhelming recruits. Their very core belief, preceding the days of Laporta, was that they were different Real Madrid, who they saw as pompous and cold as opposed to noble and traditional, and it has been compromised. Now they are a pale imitation of their most bitter rivals.
Arguably the biggest collateral damage of the past five years or so in particular is Messi’s disillusionment and seemingly inevitable departure. It was, until last summer, completely unthinkable that the Argentine, a superstar forged in the depths of the academy from the age of 13, would ever walk away from Barcelona at the top of his game, just as it was that they would need to let him depart.
Now, even with Laporta’s potential intervention, both are known to be genuine factors when it comes to his future. Messi, exhausted perhaps by the erosion of values but irked by the treatment of some of his former team-mates — namely Luis Suarez, the club’s third all-time top goalscorer who departed through the back door for Atletico Madrid last summer — and infuriated by the club’s decreasing competitiveness, wants to leave and can talk to clubs abroad now, with just three months remaining on his contract. Barcelona, said to have debts of nearly £1bn, can scarcely afford his wages.
With no Champions League trophy since 2015, countless humiliating defeats in early knockout rounds since and another likely at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona have been declining through the majority of Messi’s ‘peak’ years. That makes all they have achieved together all the more incredible, but it also tinges what has longed been billed as football’s most beautiful player-club relationship with genuine sadness.
Joan Laporta attempted to wrestle his way back into power six years ago, when another Messi-related crisis last initiated elections. He failed, as Barcelona went on to win a second treble. His supporters were dubbed ‘cultists’ by some extreme critics, but you have to imagine he would have a more genuine shot at a second term this time around.
When software is broken, returning to factory settings is advised. Barcelona’s last great dynasty has turned sour, so on the face of it, it makes sense to hit the reset button. But the situation is much different now. Whoever comes in cannot simply wipe the slate clean and implement their own beliefs as Joan Laporta did, the debts will ensure that.
But while he may have been making a political comment with regards Messi, it is true that the very first step on Barcelona’s road to redemption is streamlining and returning to a sense of belief and direction. There is genuine evidence to suggest he may be correct in his assessment that only he can keep their talisman, and he has a track record of rescuing a football club. Could he do it once again? Cataluña waits with bated breath.
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