Behind the boardroom war at Barcelona: Club in deadlock with deep unrest among key players and heavy burden of debt
30 April 2020
Behind-the-scenes issues are not new. The club has often appeared on the brink of internal conflict.
The timing of this latest crisis could not be worse as football awaits a return to a more normal environment.
President Bartomeu will step down next year, so things won’t alter in the short term. But some are calling for immediate change.
The club may come under serious financial pressure that needs attention now, which may herald a return to more prudent times.
If Barcelona were currently playing football, the turmoil behind the scenes would not be afforded the same amount of forensic investigation.
True, Barcelona and their rivals are often embroiled in political intrigue, but in a time when unity and the spirit of "we’re all in this together" is the popular narrative, someone seems to have forgotten about it at the Camp Nou.
Call it "Barca gate" or another cliché, but the latest episode in the Barca story also has a touch of disbelief about it. The Catalan giants supposedly have financial issues, a vaguely ridiculous situation given they are the world’s richest club in terms of revenue generation.
With football suspended for around six weeks, for a club of this size and economic influence to be struggling within a relatively short timeframe, indicates something is wrong and the in-fighting and constant subterfuge only adds to the malaise.
Barcelona are a club that has always been mired in politics, whether it be their links with Catalan independence or the gestures of reigning or would-be presidents. As one journalist commented, the club always seems on the brink of civil war, but the latest “game of thrones” affair is so ill-timed it is more than just a minor irritation.
But it is also so typical of life at the club, where presidential elections are almost as intense as political polls. The role of president almost appears to be thankless and all-consuming and sometimes, lands individuals in deep trouble – two of the past half dozen Barca presidents have served jail sentences.
There has been no football to distract the media or fans, but let’s be clear, it has been a very dispiriting few months for Barca and their president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, who is now in his final stretch. He steps down in 2021 and there has to be some doubt whether he can last that long.
Bartomeu cannot stand again, so his time will come to an end, but he seems to be trying to clear the decks to ensure his remaining months at the helm are comfortable. He sought to persuade four members of the board to resign, but he cannot sack anyone under the statute of the club. His strategy and autocratic style does not work anymore and his relationship with board members and key players has deteriorated.
This is not the first time this type of walk-out has occured, Joan Laporte, who presided over a glorious period of trophy collection in his seven years at the top, experienced multiple resignations on two occasions.
Bartomeu was also blamed for hanging onto coach Ernesto Valverde for too long, eventually releasing him in January 2020 without a successor lined up.
Sporting Director Eric Abidal pointed the finger towards the players, claiming they had not worked hard enough for the coach, an outburst that moved Lionel Messi to call for Abidal’s head. Bartomeu received a couple of body blows when Ronald Koeman and public favourite Xavi – an acolyte of presidential candidate Victor Font - both rejected the chance to take the coach’s job.
While nerves have been fraying, the Coronavirus pandemic has, to a certain extent, exposed the surprisingly fragile nature of Barcelona’s finances and could also deny the club a moral-boosting Champions League triumph which could deflect pressure on Bartomeu.
Prickly social media comments
The club’s wage-to-income ratio is around 60 per cent with total salaries over half a billion euros. The club may have generated more than € 990 million in revenues in 2018/19, but a sizeable slice of that is derived from matchdays, a stream that has, temporarily, dried up.
Commercial income will also have been compromised in the lockdown period and there may yet be adjustments to media revenues. Most importantly, the club has a very high level of debt – fine when the money is rolling in to service it. Frustratingly, the Espai Barca plan, aimed at refurbishing the Camp Nou and add other facilities to the Barcelona estate, is behind schedule and now on hold.
The squad has taken a pay cut of around 70 per cent, and has contributed to the club’s non-playing staff receiving their full wages, but the whole process was clumsily managed by the club and came to a head after Messi made some very prickly social media comments.
Tension has arguably been building since 2017 when the club lost Neymar and appeared to be bullied by Paris Saint-Germain. The departure of the Brazilian was a mini soap opera in itself and dovetailed with the awkward renewal of Messi’s contract.
In 2019, Bartomeu tried, unsuccessfully, to re-sign Neymar. On top of that, Barca’s January 2020 transfer window was a damp squib, culminating in the hasty acquisition of Martin Braithwaite, continuing a series of panic buys that have included Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann.
"Hands in the till"
The social media scandal, in which Barca are alleged to have paid a lot of cash to improve the image of certain club officials and players, also provided more fuel for the Bartomeu sceptics. And things haven’t been made easier by the former heir apparent to Bartomeu, Emili Rousaud, declaring somebody at the club has had their "hands in the till."
Barca have issued a threat of legal action on Rousaud, who has said he can substantiate his claim.
All of these incidents have weakened Bartomeu’s role as board members criticised the way he has been running the club. He has very few allies remaining, hence he tried to remove some dissidents as he has become tired of important information being leaked to the media.
The subsequent resignation of half a dozen board members can be interpreted as an attempt to oust Bartomeu by public pressure, but also a very clear vote of no confidence. This is not the first time this type of walk-out has occured, Joan Laporte, who presided over a glorious period of trophy collection in his seven years at the top, experienced multiple resignations on two occasions.
All the signs are that Barcelona may be coming to the end of a cycle, one that has seen them dominate Spanish domestic football, win four Champions League trophies since 2006 and continue to grow commercially, but the combination of an ageing team, succession issues on and off the pitch – who replaces Messi, for example? – and crisis-induced financial concerns could mean the club will exist in a state of flux for the foreseeable future.
If nothing else, it should keep journalists occupied, but Barca must be praying for the return of La Liga action. But with the Coronavirus likely to change the face of top flight football, that might not be enough to deflect attention on the boardroom.
Neil Jensen is a freelance business and football writer and editor of the Game of the People website.