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How Will Josep Maria Bartomeu's Presidency at Barcelona Be Remembered?

Written by Ruairidh Barlow

Arms aloft, Joan Gaspart’s son walked into a Barcelona gym celebrating: “we are no longer the worst presidents in history!”

Or so the story goes. An anecdote told by Marc Duch, one of the leaders of the vote of no confidence against recently-departed Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Whether it’s true or not, it’s comical enough to retain a place in Barcelona folklore now. How exactly is it though, that a president who oversaw some the most brilliant periods in Barcelona’s history is now known as the worst to ever do the job?

In many ways, it was an accident that he ended up in charge. The club was in crisis when he took over in 2014. Previous president Sandro Rosell was embroiled in a fraud case, he stepped down and handed the reigns to vice-president Bartomeu. Things improved little on or off the pitch for Barcelona. Despite the dismissal of Tata Martino and the arrival of Luis Suárez, it looked equally bleak. Eighteen days short of a year in office, elections were called for the summer of 2015, ‘to calm tensions’.

And then the greatest accident in azulgrana history took place. Barcelona won the treble and in scintillating style. Rarely, if ever, has there been a frontline with so much verve and audacity as that Messi-Súarez-Neymar trio. Everything clicked, fell into place and ran so smoothly nobody else could keep up. What was a struggling, arthritic team, in which much heavy breathing was involved in order to win any match, had annihilated everything in its path six months later.

Six weeks after they romped to the second triplete in club history, Bartomeu did the same in the elections. How could he not? What could other candidates possibly offer to improve what had just happened?

The truth is though, Barcelona have seen as much crisis as they have success with Bartomeu – the players bailed him out with the treble. Yet it is they with whom the relationship has become most strained. Scarcely has a squad been so united against its own president as this one. The volley of public missiles that have been aimed at Bartomeu from the players was five years in the making. This year was merely the breaking of the dam.

When then-sporting director Eric Abidal gave an explosive interview in February, claiming that player discontent was part of the reason for Ernesto Valverde’s sacking, the players responded. Publicly and with no desire to hide their ire. To the man they formerly considered a friend and a hero. Barcelona’s beloved, cancer-surviving, Champions League-winning hero. Who was given the armband to lift the European Cup for several of the same players he was criticising. Later it would transpire that the interview was Bartomeu’s idea.

“Las formas [the manner],” declared Luis Suárez to Cadena SER after his departure this summer, “is what hurt most. What hurts most.” Certainly there was a need to freshen up the squad, something the Uruguayan himself recognised previously. But there is a way in which to say goodbye to the third-leading goal-scorer in the club’s history. It’s the culmination of an “inability to keep the players onside and respectful,” according to Graham Hunter, who over the course of eighteen years in the Catalan capital has become an authority on all things Barcelona.

The dysfunctional relationship with the players – but also the rest of the staff - has been a hallmark of Bartomeu’s leadership. Earlier this year six of his own board members, including his intended successor, resigned over the running of the club. Even Andrés Iniesta, who always stood out on the pitch but was almost allergic to the spotlight off it, categorised las formas as being “a little ugly” when asked about Valverde’s sacking.

Part of this estrangement comes from the long-term culture of blame as seen in Abidal’s interview. Club legend Andoni Zubizarreta was the first sacrificial lamb when Bartomeu initially felt the pressure and called elections in 2015. “A predictable sacking,” Hunter termed it, citing Bartomeu’s need for a scapegoat. Just one of four sporting directors who saw the consequence of any pressure reaching the president. Ronald Koeman is now the fifth manager too.

Although at times he has appeared tone-deaf to the entire outside world, at others Bartomeu has acted the populist. Based in Barcelona, Román De Arquer has witnessed the entirety of his spell from close quarters and suspects Bartomeu’s decision-making is liable to waver depending on the temperature.

“I’m sure Bartomeu was perfectly aware of what was going on around him, he’s always been quite the crowd-pleaser as we’ve seen with his big-name signings. Or when he decided to cut Valverde loose halfway through the season to bring in Quique Setién,” De Arquer gave in evidence.

Said estrangement wasn’t aided by the ‘Barçagate’ incident, a scandal remarkable on so many levels.

Barcelona had contracted I3 Ventures to monitor social media trends for the club. Yet it became apparent that the same company was responsible for a number of Twitter bot accounts, tasked solely with disparaging former and current figures at Barcelona. It seemed, some even assumed, this might topple Bartomeu. From presidents to managers to players, nobody was spared. “Strange” was the word that Lionel Messi used, and the rest of the world agreed. Conveniently, all of these figures were perceived as opponents or threats to Bartomeu’s power. Conveniently, Bartomeu knew nothing about it.

As he tends to be, Gerard Piqué was slightly more direct: “It’s barbaric that the club spent money criticizing its own players,” he said. In an interview with RAC1, Bartomeu did at least accept responsibility for contracting I3 Ventures. Sort of. “I didn’t know the history of the company,” claimed Bartomeu, which had previously done similar social media hatchet jobs. Yet he knew enough that “it seemed to me the one [company] that gave me the most confidence.”

Advisor Jaume Masferrer was the stooge this time – “he was in charge of it, he has complete autonomy,” insisted his president. Quite aside from the fact it appears incumbent on a president to know exactly who they’re paying €3 million to, it’s an unprecedented stretch to suggest that this company undertook extra, malicious work of its own accord. Especially if they were not paid more to do so. “And later you see that the person responsible (Masferrer) is still working at the club,” a clearly disgusted Piqué told La Vanguardia. Masferrer was only dismissed after Bartomeu’s resignation last week.

Naturally, nothing is black and white in football and still less in Can Barça. “It’s important to point out things which are true, even if they become dwarfed,” says Hunter. Undoubtedly, Bartomeu is in the top three of the most successful presidents the club has ever had. Alongside that treble were another two league titles and another three Copa del Rey victories, a record any president would be proud to boast.

It’s also true that there were some memorable achievements within those triumphs too. The Neymar transfer to PSG seems to mark a watershed moment for the club, but it's easy to forget that the following season the Blaugrana still won the league by 14 points without him – an improbable thought at the start of that campaign. Before that, it would take an incredibly mulish cynic to deny that they enjoyed watching Luis Enrique’s Barcelona. Appointed by Bartomeu, of course.

Within the failures, doubtless the Anfield match was a sliding doors moment for the entire club. Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé, the two most expensive signings in club history, were a missed chance away from potentially vindicating themselves and by proxy, the board. Bayern this year was a destruction, but Barcelona came far closer to a treble in 2019 than history will care to admit.

That Barcelona would see a drop-off in sporting results was to a point natural. Key players needed to be replaced, but replacing Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Suárez, Dani Alves, Xavi Hernández, Neymar, is not easy. They were all players who defined an era; replacing any one of them with a player of the same quality is unlikely, doing so for all of them is impossible.

Some of the replacements leave a lot to be desired, some have already been replaced themselves. On the other hand, Frenkie de Jong was a universally lauded signing. In Marc-André ter Stegen, they found a goalkeeper as good as any over the last half-decade. Before his injury issues, Samuel Umtiti looked like the perfect partner for Piqué. In the end Ivan Rakitic was criticised but for many years, he was critical.

Still, despite the conditions and caveats, the success and the near misses, it is still hard to feel that an objective look at Bartomeu’s reign would leave him much of this credit. At times, it has even felt as if some if the success on the field was in spite of him.

At his heart, more than anything else, Bartomeu has been a true politician of his time, prepared to sacrifice all and any to maintain power, determined to hang on until the next news cycle. Backed by the Godó Group, a media conglomerate which rules a significant section of the sports media roost in Catalonia, the coverage of Bartomeu in the media echoes that which surrounds the contemporary political climate.

That involves a certain ‘presentation’ of facts, the placement of particular stories, a very deliberate selection of opinion pieces – all of which contribute to the divisive atmosphere across the fanbase similar to that seen across nations around the world, where it seems impossible to us that so many people could see things so differently. To all intents and purposes, depending on the media they consume, they live in a very different world to the one you do.

The warping of the narrative had helped sustain the contumacious Bartomeu. Four years after he left, it was a trap Guardiola was still coming across. Referring to Mundo Deportivo journalists, he said to the Guardian that “if they don’t believe me, well they have a good relationship with the president, Mr Bartomeu, and they have his number so maybe they can call him and he can tell them the story better than I have.”

Alongside an alternative narrative, Bartomeu has his own facts too. Perhaps symbolic of the culture shift at Camp Nou was the sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways. When asked about renewing that deal in 2015, he had the temerity to claim that the situation in Qatar was ideal beforehand – “now there are social and political aspects which were not there when we signed.”

On top of that, fake social media accounts abusing the opposition was too good a gift to the comparison, straight from the playbook of controversial politicians. In this aspect at least, Bartomeu was up with the latest trends.

In Machiavellian fashion, there were several savvy political moves too. Not only was appointing Abidal sporting director a quick way of lending the board some of the Frenchman’s prestige, he was also the man Joan Laporta promised to install in the 2015 elections. Similarly, the ‘cornerstone’ of presidential candidate Victor Font’s project was Xavi, who was very publicly pursued by the club in January, a move which would have robbed Font of his figurehead and much of his messaging about a long-term project.

Many, including his challengers, believe Bartomeu has robbed Barcelona of its values too. Very little has been sacred for Bartomeu and in 2018, he proposed a rebranding of the club badge. Granted, the ‘values’ debate is one which lives in the hearts and minds of fans more than anything else. Beyond the sentimentalism though, there have been numerous attempts to circumvent club statutes. During the Barçagate scandal, the subsequent Price Waterhouse Cooper enquiry cleared the board of corruption, but did conclude that the payments to I3 Ventures had been deliberately divided into smaller payments so as to avoid needing approval from the board.

Following the successful motion of no confidence, there were then several attempts to prevent the required referendum from going ahead. At various points Bartomeu tried to involve the police, the judicial system and even the regional government to annul, invalidate and delay the final vote, all of which he was entitled to do, but fighting tooth and nail to prevent the course of democracy is never a good look. “He only has to ask the Pope for clemency,” quipped Jordi Farré, the man behind the motion itself. Perhaps the most damning indictment of the loss of values was when the CEO of the airline stated that “Qatar Airways and Barcelona share the same values.”

There is no doubt he was trying to avoid the referendum. De Arquer agrees: “He did seem to be ignoring Barcelona members when they were asking for his resignation. I think it all came down to his urgency in having to ensure Barça’s economy would look tidy for the upcoming assembly, which in the end he won’t be holding as president. He was focused on that to avoid being personally responsible in the future.”

Running parallel to all these institutional fires and fights was the transfer business which has shaped the end of his mandate. Neymar’s transfer fee is still eye-watering today and widely considered the day the market went mad. But it was also the day Barcelona went mad. An impulse Dembélé purchase was the quick fix to the Neymar debacle; €130 million euros for a player who himself pointed out that this was only his second season as a professional.

Just six months later they acquired the ‘heir to Iniesta’, Coutinho, for €145 million. Never mind the fact that neither Coutinho nor Dembélé played in the same position as the players they were replacing. Two summers later Antoine Griezmann cost a further €120 million. His problem was that he wasn’t replacing anyone at all. In fact, his position didn’t exist or at the very least was already occupied. Like Coutinho and his compatriot before him, he was forced to play and fail on the left. Only with the emergence of Ansu Fati do Barcelona look like they finally have someone to occupy the position Neymar left.

“It doesn’t mean that any of the three of them are bad players, but they were bought with an eye to marketing,” states Hunter, ‘bought with an eye to the same sort of impact that the galáctico theory at Real Madrid was meant to engender. It is one that works, it’s just wholly different, 180 degrees different to what’s been done at Fútbol Club Barcelona for the last 18, 19 years.”

The spiralling financial situation was worsened by the pandemic but by no means unforeseeable. The growing debt, which is most likely the inspiration behind Bartomeu’s reluctance to relinquish office, was as confusing for De Arquer as it was bizarre to the rest of the world.

“With Bartomeu in charge, Barça were always boasting about how their earnings were peaking and how wealthy the club was. But the truth is that despite their high income, their expenses were almost as high.” Why they didn’t address it earlier, De ’Arquer can only rationalise as a shirking of responsibility. “The only explanation I can find to him not doing anything beforehand is that he was simply expecting the next president to take on the burden, because the symptoms were quite evident,” he continued.

It’s telling that without prompting, Hunter alludes to the very same idea as De ’Arquer. “If you look at Bartomeu’s concept of what money should be for, what La Masia should be for and his often-announced obsession with becoming the first billion-dollar-turnover football club, instead of that being an objective which showed the health of the football club, it became an objective in itself. It put a magnifying glass on the fact that he had very little concept of what the role of the board and the president should be.”

And all of this without touching upon the Messi issue. A two-week war waged between the president and the best player in the club's history. Messi’s earthquake interview was maybe the definitive nail in Bartomeu’s coffin, as the Argentine revealed how he was ignored and deceived. Naturally, a war waged in silence, through media leaks and political games, only ended when Messi broke his silence and openly accepted his position as a hostage.

It was put to Hunter what the legacy of Bartomeu will be as the years roll by. “He has to be talked about in terms of being utterly inappropriate for the job, unable to do its major functions well, self-satisfied, unable to learn, assimilate and change.”

“I think that debt and the losses are going to leave the club in a horrendous position for not just years, but perhaps a generation to come.” It’s a final diagnosis which echoes into the abyss of the future, the magnitude, the brutal repercussions of Bartomeu’s presidency suddenly clear.

In all of the above, there are two sides to every story. In each individual case of Bartomeu’s errors or actions, you could be convinced into giving him the benefit of the doubt, appreciating the ifs and buts of a difficult job. However, in the context of the years that Bartomeu has been in office, he relinquished that right. A web of poor decisions, poor treatment of people, lies and political maneuvers finally trapped him. Bartomeu did achieve one thing that neither most politicians nor his predecessors didn’t: across political battle lines, he united everyone, against him. It wasn’t just what he did that make him the worst president in Barcelona’s history, it was the way he did it. Las formas.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news or you really need to know what Philippe Coutinho does to have such pearly white teeth - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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