Wild Presidents: Joan Gaspart at FC Barcelona
Written by Alex Brotherton
As Joan Gaspart stood in the directors’ box, the look of resignation on his face said it all. Whistles and jeers rang out around Camp Nou, and as he made his way to the exit, he knew his time was almost up. His Barcelona side had just suffered a humiliating 0-3 defeat at home to Sevilla, a loss that left them 13th in the table, way off league-leaders Real Madrid with morale at an all-time low. 59 days later, he would resign as FC Barcelona president. His transition from long-serving, revered vice-president to detested president was an unparalleled fall from grace.
Joan Gaspart Solves was born in Barcelona in October 1944 to a family of entrepreneurs. Growing up he became involved in the family hotel business. His grandfather founded the HUSA Hotel chain, and by the age of 25 he was the director of the Hotel Oriente on Barcelona’s famous boulevard, Las Ramblas. In 1982, he was appointed CEO of the HUSA Group.
But aside from his many business ventures, there was one thing that captivated him; Fútbol Club Barcelona. His parents made sure their new-born son was enrolled at the earliest opportunity: member number 7,111. Ever since, Gaspart has lived and breathed the club. So, with his passion for Barça, Catalonia and his business connections, it only made sense he took a job upstairs.
In 1978, Gaspart was elected as Barça’s vice-president. For 22 years, he served under the presidency of Josep Lluís Núñez, and is widely regarded as the club’s best ever vice-president. During his tenure, Barcelona won 30 titles, including seven Spanish league trophies, six Copas del Rey and five Supercopas de España. He oversaw the golden era of Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’, one of football’s greatest ever sides that won four league titles and the club’s first ever European Cup. It is well documented how he coined the name Dream Team, as is the late-night swim he took with friends in the River Thames after Barça had lifted the 1992 European Cup in London. Perhaps the sweetest moment was hearing the Barça anthem ring out around the Bernabéu, after the 1997 Copa del Rey triumph at the home of Barcelona’s eternal rivals.
And perhaps thanks to his experience in business and negotiation, Gaspart was tenacious when it came to securing new signings. He simply would not take no for an answer. The story goes that when he travelled to Buenos Aires to sign Diego Maradona in 1982, local police feared that Boca Juniors fans, enraged at the prospect of losing their young star, would make an attempt on his life. He was driven back to the airport in a small tank.
His perseverance was similarly crucial in the signing of Ronaldo Nazário in 1996. A clause in the deal with PSV Eindhoven meant that the transfer would fall through if not completed by a set date, but Ronaldo was in Miami with his national side. Gaspart flew over to the States but found meeting with his target near-impossible; no-one was allowed near the players in the hotel. So, donning a waiter’s blazer and bow tie and carrying a tray of Coca-Cola, he blagged his way past the security guards. He delivered Ronaldo his beverage, and Barcelona their star man.
In 1997, he showed ruthlessness and guile to snatch Rivaldo from Deportivo La Coruña at the 11th hour, leaving the title contenders without a key player. Gaspart later admitted that things weren’t done in the right way, but as the saying goes, “desperate times call for desperate measures”.
It was a surprise to many then that Gaspart failed to show the same leadership, drive and success when he became club president. Elected in July 2000 as Barça’s 36th president, he was tasked with healing the fissures that had emerged within the club during the final year of Núñez’s tenure. On the pitch performances had dipped, while off it the growth of fascist and Catalonian nationalist factions within the club’s fanbase, in particular the infamous Boixos Nois, divided supporters. Gaspart’s public support of the group, once stating he was “one of them”, did little to help.
In sprucing up the struggling squad, Gaspart spent big, splashing €180 million between 2000 and 2001. Using the €60 million fee from the sale of fan favourite Luís Figo to Real Madrid, a move that angered many, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Gerard López were brought in. They, along with other recruits like Javier Saviola and Juan Román Riquelme, failed to meet expectations.
In Gaspart’s first season as president, Barcelona crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage and finished fourth in La Liga. The year after, another fourth-placed finish was sweetened by a run to the Champions League semi-finals, but in 2002/03, they scraped a sixth-placed finish in the league. Three seasons, four managers and a transfer outlay of almost €200 million had brought no silverware. Big fees and contracts coupled with reduced income left Barça on the verge of financial crisis. The accounts were in a such a mess that in 2002 Rivaldo was allowed to join AC Milan on a free transfer, so desperate the club were to avoid paying his €13-million-a-year wages, and, in 2003, Patrick Kluivert’s hefty salary was slashed in half.
La Liga Lowdown’s Román de Arquer, Barça fan and journalist, remembers Gaspart’s downfall well. “It was only a matter of time before fans turned on Gaspart. Let's not forget that Barça were a very successful team in the ‘90s, used to winning titles almost every season, so culés were demanding and had high expectations.”
By the end of his tenure, Gaspart’s relationship with the Blaugrana was beyond repair. He was often left alone in the Camp Nou’s directors’ box, drowning in a sea of whistles and boos, and there were even tales of fans chasing him through Barcelona’s airport. “It was common to see fans at the stadium waving their white handkerchiefs at him in protest”, Román recalls.
Gaspart’s presidency wasn’t without merit, however. He reformed the way the club interacted with and listened to members’ opinions and needs, improving the services available to them, and created a club ethical code. His crowning achievement was the construction of the Joan Gamper Sports Complex, a state-of-the-art training ground that houses the first team and La Masia academy.
But ultimately, football is a results business. In February 2003, with crisis looming financially, on the pitch and in the stands, Gaspart resigned.
German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said: “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Gaspart is rightfully acknowledged as FC Barcelona’s best ever vice-president, but he stuck around long enough to see himself, by his own admission, become the club’s worst president of all time.
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