This article is dedicated to Jimmy Burns, the man who inspired me to read and write football, and whom I consider to be the ultimate authority on all things Barcelona.
‘I open at the close’: Breaking Barcelona forever
After their humiliating 8-2 loss against Bayern Munich, Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu appeared before the press. With an unshaven grey beard and creases on his forehead, there were obvious signs of him feeling the strain. Even his beautiful sky-blue shirt and navy-blue suit could not save him. He looked careworn, defeated.
Just six days later, club captain Lionel Messi would send him a burofax at 7:20pm in the evening, a legal notice of his decision to leave the club where he had spent twenty years. Shockwaves were sent across the world, and a long, legal battle seemed to be on the cards.
Speculation was rife among fans and journalists, with most believing that a reunion with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City was on the cards. This would have also meant working alongside Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, people whom Messi knows well, and who have shown him of their ability to create winning projects in the past.
It would have been a huge loss for Barcelona. Of course, he is now 33 about to leave the Nou Camp in the near future anyway. But nobody could have ever envisaged a situation quite like this; an end quite as painful.
The 40th Barcelona president will always be remembered as the man who pushed the club’s greatest ever player to the brink. But how did it come down to this? For that, we must look at the recent past of FC Barcelona and how Bartomeu’s philosophy differs from his predecessors, and indeed from the core foundational tenets of the club in general.
When Lionel Messi joined Barcelona as a 12-year-old, the Catalan giants were not the global brand that they are today. It was a time when footballers were given time to develop; a time when 17-year-old players did not have their own Instagram accounts and there were no YouTube videos comparing their achievements with their peers.
Life was simpler and managers were allowed time to put their long-term visions into fruition.
It was also a time when Real Madrid were famously on top. The newly appointed Florentino Perez made it his mission to assemble a team of global superstars who would skyrocket the brand value and marketability of Los Blancos.
Perez targeted former Barcelona players. In came Ronaldo and Luis Figo. Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos and other illustrious ‘who’s who’ of world football put on the famous white shirt with pride.
With Zidane’s famous cracking bicycle-kick at Hampden Park in 2002, the message was loud and clear. This was Real Madrid and they were the champions of Europe. They were here to dominate.
That night also marked the tenth year since Barcelona had won their last European Cup with another memorable goal from Ronald Koeman. So, things were far from ideal for the Blaugrana at the turn of the century. They had last won the league in the 1998-99 season, while the Copa del Rey trophy came a year back.
Historically, Barcelona have always been the underdogs. It seems unthinkable today that teams such as Aston Villa (1982), Nottingham Forest (1979, 1980), Celtic (1967) and even Steaua București (1986) had won the European Cup before Barcelona had managed to win it for the first time in 1992.
When the Catalans won the Champions League in 2006 without spending a single extra euro, it was a momentous occasion for the club. But a collapse the following season saw Frank Rijkaard shown the door. However, having tasted success, Barcelona were no longer content to be second best.
Developing young players: Barcelona’s pre-Bartomeu masterplan
2006 was also a time when a core group of players were emerging who would go on to assume important leadership roles in the coming years. Xavi Hernandez, who made his debut in 1998 had already spent ten years at the club. He would later become a prime exponent of possession-based holding midfielder.
Important Barcelona players such as Pep Guardiola also came from the youth system, having joined La Masia as a 13-year-old. He was much loved by Cruyff himself.
Young players are best utilised when they come in clusters. One promising youth cannot usher in a new generation of success. There has to be a bunch of promising youngsters whose growth and timing must coalesce for clubs to reap any real benefit from their talents.
For example, Manchester United fared well in the late 1990s because Sir Alex Ferguson was blessed with the Class of 1992, with youngsters such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.
In Barcelona, too, a cluster of young academy players (Messi, Pedro, Bojan, Busquets) joined forces with a cluster of more seasoned La Masia graduates (Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta, Valdés). Gerard Pique was brought back from England. Others such as Cesc Fàbregas, who left Barcelona for Arsenal at 16, also decided to come back.
They also had the likes of Thiago Alcantara, who of course went to Bayern Munich later. Barcelona were lucky because their most successful years, from 2008 to 2016, coincided with the rise of their best academy graduates.
Social media and brand-building
Under Guardiola, Barcelona went on to win the sextuple, an incredible haul of six trophies in his first season itself.
Most people do not truly understand the implication of this and the impact it had on Barcelona and how the club would be viewed henceforth. From being an underachieving club, Barcelona went on to win two Champions Leagues in the first decade of the 21st century.
We must also understand that this was the time when social media was beginning to flex its muscles. The Catalan giants were lucky because their rise and success coincided with the growth of social media and digital consumption.
Facebook was emerging as a big platform. Twitter, founded in 2006, was quickly attracting more users. Barcelona was also helped by the fact that for the first time in history, the goals, highlights and matches of a football club were being uploaded on YouTube regularly.
Most prominent journalists joined Twitter in 2009 or 2010, enabling them to ‘break’ Barcelona news quickly. HD television also interestingly played its part in raising the club’s global craze. Barcelona, therefore, became the first club to ride the social media wave.
It was only after their ‘new media’ successes post-2007 that Barcelona truly started leveraging their brand value. This was unprecedented in the club’s history, and it proved to be a key factor in their global following.
What prevented Barcelona from becoming a marketable brand before?
Since their formation, Barcelona have had the image of a social club. The club, therefore, has the motto of Més que un club or ‘More than a club.’ Their core philosophical values have always been rooted in socialism and so the capitalist idea of building themselves as a marketable, sellable product never occurred to them
This is where their great rivals Real Madrid have played differently. Unlike Barcelona, who suffered greatly during the Spanish Civil War and had their president Josep Sunyol murdered in 1936, Los Blancos enjoyed the patronage of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
Politically supported and secure, Real Madrid found success on the pitch easy. On the contrary, Barcelona had its club bombarded which destroyed large portions of their silverware.
Later, Madrid’s success in Europe where they won five consecutive European Cups from 1955 to 1960, spearheaded by the great Alfredo di Stefano, only cemented their imperious reputation.
Real Madrid were the glamour-club, backed by dictators and wealth and royal accreditation from Spanish kings. They had European Cups to boast.
Therefore, who should land a kit sponsorship with Adidas but them? The German sports company reached an agreement with Real Madrid in 1980; a sponsorship deal that was renewed over the years and a partnership that goes on even today.
Zanussi, an Italian company dealing in home appliances, became their first shirt sponsor. All this began in 1980 for Real Madrid.
Later, other illustrious names such as Parmalat, Hummel, Kelme and Teka would land sponsorship deals with Real Madrid in the 1980s which continued until 2001. The new century would bring even more lucrative deals for the Santiago Bernabeu outfit.
In stark contrast, FC Barcelona found it difficult to enhance their image across Europe and build a marketable brand for themselves. This was chiefly down to their socialist approach, but a lack of continental success also played a part.
José Luís Núñez: Stabilising Barcelona through La Masia
Even after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona were still in the shadows of the dictator Francisco Franco. Once, while presenting the Generalissimo Cup to the victorious Barcelona captain Joan Segarra in 1963, Franco is reported to have said: “Don’t forget, this cup is named after me.”
It would take years for the club to rebuild itself, despite domestic success in the short term during the fifties with players such as the Hungarian forward László Kubala in their ranks. Only after the death of Franco in 1975 could Barcelona symbolically free themselves from the ravages of history. It marked a new beginning of sorts for the club, a period that afforded them the chance to ameliorate decades of misery and hurt.
President José Luís Núñez played a key role in the rebuilding of FC Barcelona. During his long and illustrious twenty-two-year tenure from 1978 to 2000, he undertook many crucial steps to sustain Barcelona’s future.
Núñez’s first objective was to secure the financial future of the club. He was notorious for not giving in to players who demanded exorbitant wages. Once, he even refused to offer Diego Maradona, the best player in the world at the time, an improved contact. This, coupled with Maradona’s torrid time at Barcelona, compelled him to move to Napoli.
José Luís Núñez reckoned that in order to sustain Barcelona, there had to be a way of acquiring players without having to pay eye-watering transfer fees. He set up the La Masia academy in 1979, his first important step after becoming president. La Masia literally means ‘The Farmhouse’, as the school was built on a lea adjacent to the club.
Under coaches such as Laureano Ruiz, who invented the rondo, Barcelona’s vision of the Dutch-style possession football began to take shape. Johan Cruyff also played a major role in that, having been a player for the club from 1973 to 1978. Along with the famous Ajax Academy, it was Barcelona’s La Masia which became the chief producer of technically gifted young footballers.
Núñez ensured that La Masia began to produce players who would go on to become important members for the senior team. This would enable him to avoid buying established stars from other clubs at high prices.
Joan Laporta: The antithesis of Bartomeu
Joan Laporta, club president from 2003 to 2010, oversaw the beginning of Barcelona’s greatest ever period. In many ways, Laporta was a spiritual heir to Núñez and would incorporate many of the positive attributes of the latter, namely an emphasis on La Masia and the retention of the club’s unique Catalan identity.
It was under Laporta that the Blaugrana achieved their first league success of the new century, in 2004, and success in Europe also came in 2006.
The problem with Barcelona is that here it is not enough simply to win. You are expected to cater to a certain style of football. A manager can win titles and silverwares but may still not be appreciated by Barcelona purists, people who want to watch tiki-taka.
Luis Enrique knows this quite well. Despite winning major trophies, he was still not appreciated because he deviated from the club’s core philosophies. He turned Barcelona into a hybrid counter-attacking side. In fact, Enrique’s Barcelona decimated Pep’s Manchester City 4-0 in a Champions League tie in the 2016-17 season. Yet, some grumbled at Enrique’s style.
Whatever the case may be, Barcelona’s great appreciation of Pep Guardiola was not just about winning trophies. It was also about playing a certain brand of football, a style enmeshed in their core values.
Joan Laporta brought in Guardiola, a relative novice, when the safer option would have been José Mourinho, an experienced manager with a more impressive résumé. But because Laporta was an admirer of Núñez, he aligned the club with its core foundational values by putting the right people together. He combined Pep Guardiola (disciple of Cruyff) with a crop of La Masia graduates.
In other words, Laporta’s vision of Barcelona was how the club had always envisaged itself. It was the pinnacle of Total Football. The club had finally managed to achieve the unthinkable. Guardiola not only delivered trophies and success, but the silverware was won by playing a brand of attractive, attacking football.
Even after entering the 21st century, Barcelona did not have a shirt sponsor. However, when Laporta did decide to have one, it was not Sky Bet or Bwin, but the children’s fund UNICEF.
It was an unprecedented move, and it endeared FC Barcelona to the world’s eyes. Instead of financially profiting from their shirt sponsorship, Barcelona in turn committed to pay UNICEF €1.5 million a year. This gesture was the ultimate embodiment of ‘more than a club.’
What becomes clear therefore is that Joan Laporta had a noble vision. But it was not all rosy for him at the club. He neglected the club’s financial growth, a fact that led to his departure in 2010.
Rosell and Bartomeu: Corruption and Capitalism
Sandro Rosell took over from Laporta, and what became instantly clear was that his ideology was in stark contrast to the latter’s. Rosell, and later Bartomeu, wanted the club to head into a new direction. The club now prioritised financial incentives through lucrative sponsorship deals over humanitarian, socialist causes. They wanted to financially capitalise upon the club’s sporting success.
Rosell’s decline and imprisonment after the Neymar transfer scandal put Josep Maria Bartomeu at the helm in January 2014. He was the vice-president under Rosell, and the two men shared similar visions.
Bartomeu wanted to stamp his own unique mark on the club. Like Rosell, he deliberately veered away from the Laportan model by focusing on building brand Barcelona. He wanted to turn Barcelona into a financial behemoth, a superclub with their economic future secure.
The Barcelona president was not content only with winning silverware on the football pitch. He also wanted to see generous profits in the yearly financial statements. His main objective was to emulate the Galactico project of Florentino Perez; to sign big-name stars, achieve quick success, and then find deep-pocketed investors.
This trend was of course begun by his predecessor with the Neymar deal. However, buying Neymar was not the problem. Barcelona had always attracted the big names – from Maradona to Ronaldinho. But it was how the deal was struck that was telling.
The Neymar deal of 2013 was a symbolic moment for Barcelona. It showed ambition, yes, but it also revealed the dark underbelly of the human mind. In their Faust-like ambition, Barcelona chiefs were now prepared to assume the path of corruption and shady deals. They were prepared to dish out bribes to players’ fathers.
In his own image: The Barcelona of Josep Maria Bartomeu
Bartomeu was not interested in building the club intrinsically. He was not interested in long-term projects. In his greed to turn Barcelona into an attractive brand, a financial powerhouse, he aspired quick success, which in turn would land more lucrative deals.
Ironically for Barcelona, Luis Enrique’s Champions League exploits of 2015, along with other domestic success, seemed to temporarily cover up many of the unsavoury aspects that would soon reveal themselves.
Bartomeu’s biggest sin perhaps was to shift the club’s focus away from La Masia, an institution that had sustained Barcelona for so long, and which brought about the club’s most glorious era.
Under his reign, promising youths such as Xavi Simons and Takefusa Kubo left the Nou Camp. The latter, Kubo, joined Real Madrid of all teams. It could be another di Stefano narrative waiting to unfold.
Going a step further, he shipped out La Masia graduates Carles Aleñá and Carles Pérez, two youngsters who could have added youth and dynamism to the Blaugrana squad at a time when most of the players were on the wrong side of thirty.
They were first sent on loan, and while Aleñá has returned after his spell at Real Betis, AS Roma were overjoyed to make Pérez’s move permanent, signing a 22-year-old right-winger for just Є11 million.
Bartomeu’s Barcelona is a hollow Barcelona. It all looks glamorous and rosy from the outside, but has little to no substance on the inside. The bond between the players and the club chiefs are at an all-time low in the history of the institution. The 57-year-old has built a glass menagerie, a shining but fragile glass cage inside which he was ultimately destined to suffocate.
Barcelona’s astonishing capitulations to Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern (8-2!) symbolise a deeper rottenness. It goes beyond the realms of football and reveals a lack of spine, leadership and strength at the board-level.
In this age of social media, stocks rise and fall quickly, and reputations are always on the line. Far from building and enhancing the image of FC Barcelona, his reign has seen the club reduced to a laughing stock before the world.
What makes Bartomeu a bad president?
Clubs with character and leadership such as Liverpool and Bayern Munich have exposed the weaknesses of Barcelona. These clubs are run differently, with different sets of philosophies.
This is where Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of Bayern Munich deserve praise. Bayern Munich are the most intelligently run club in the world. When PSG splashed €222 million on Neymar, Rummenigge said that he would prefer to build a stadium with that kind of money.
John Henry of Liverpool similarly is an intelligent owner who has devised an ingenious scouting network, landing world-class players at low transfer fees with zero competition from other clubs.
This is what separates them from the Bartomeus and the Al-Khelaifis. What the Barcelona and PSG chiefs do not realise is that high spending does not always correlate to great achievements.
Simon Kuper in his book Soccernomics explains:
‘Unfortunately, much of the money thrown around on the transfer market is wasted. In fact, the net amount that any club spends on transfer fees bears little relation to where it finishes in the league.’
‘In short, the more you pay your players in wages, the higher you will finish, but what you pay for them in transfer fees doesn’t seem to make much difference.’
Bartomeu not only acquired players from other clubs at high prices, but he was also willing to pay them generous salaries. This put an even bigger financial strain on the club. It was an unsustainable structure, something that José Luís Núñez or Joan Laporta would have understood at the very beginning.
In order to build an alluring Galactico brand, Bartomeu targeted Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann at prices far beyond their real value. Reports have emerged that since he ascended the presidency, he has spent a billion pounds on the acquisition of 32 players. Most of them have been underwhelming.
So, in essence, Bartomeu sold young academy players who had been ingrained in the Barcelona way since childhood, and instead brought in foreign recruits who had to adapt to their new conditions.
Some of these recruits were not as technically gifted, while others did not have the requisite quality to play for a club such as Barcelona. André Gomes and Jérémy Mathieu are two such examples.
‘More than a club’? Perhaps no more
In chapter three of his book Barça: A People’s Passion, Jimmy Burns quotes a fan who reflects upon the connection between the club and being Catalan:
‘To be a cule is to express a sentiment that goes beyond sport. It has to do with a feeling of community, of shared culture, of patriotism… I think this is what makes Barça such a special club… the profound sense of being Catalan.’
Since its inception, FC Barcelona has been the symbol of Catalan resistance, and the Camp Nou a hotbed of Catalan political expression. However, after assuming office, Bartomeu gradually began to strip Barcelona of its Catalan essence.
This facet manifested itself in 2017 during the heights of the Catalan independence referendum. In a match against Las Palmas on 1 October, Barcelona were instructed to play behind closed doors, with no people in attendance.
A board from the 1960s, or even Joan Laporta, would have opted not to play the game in the spirit of Catalan solidarity. Bartomeu’s Barcelona chose to play instead, in an empty Nou Camp. They went on to win 3-0.
The saying ‘more than a club’ may not hold true any longer. Barcelona has shifted away from its socialist identity into a more capitalist outlook. Although it is still owned by socios, there has been a marked paradigm shift in the thinking of the club’s hierarchy.
In truth, this shift in mentality had revealed itself from 2011 itself, when after taking over from Laporta, Sandro Rosell shifted the humanitarian UNICEF at the back of Barcelona shirts, replacing it with Qatar Foundation.
In a five-year shirt sponsorship deal worth Є150 million, Barcelona would get an annual sum of Є30 million every season. This was the first profitable shirt sponsorship deal in the club’s history. The deal came under Sandro Rosell, which Bartomeu later built up.
Selling Barcelona’s soul
Somehow, Sandro Rosell’s decision to shift UNICEF at the back, under the shirt number, was almost an assault to the club’s soul.
It was the first time when the club shifted away from its socialist, humanist approach into a more capitalist outlook. Bartomeu has continued this trend further with sponsorships with Beko, a Turkish electronics manufacturer, Qatar Airways and Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce giant.
The 57-year-old has turned Barcelona into a capitalist organisation focusing only on monetary profits. There is no room left for altruism, socialism, humanitarianism. In short, anything that does not bring money is not welcome.
Bartomeu’s vision to build a profitable, money-spinning beast out of Barcelona took his focus away from the things that made it a great club in the first place. People fell in love with Barcelona’s attractive, stylish, beautiful brand of football, not with names of other companies plastered over their shirts.
Barcelona fans will probably have their best memories from the time when UNICEF was still their main shirt sponsor. Certainly, the 2009 and 2011 Champions League titles will always be special for them.
Brand-building is necessary, perhaps even integral for the survival of a football club. Profits are vital to keep a club going strong. But Bartomeu pursued these brand-building projects by sacrificing everything the club stood for. Jonathan Wilson similarly looks at the appointment of Andrea Pirlo at Juventus as the Bianconeris attempting to become a more marketable brand.
Another problem with Barcelona, as Graham Hunter perceptively pointed out, is that none of their main board members are football men. They are politicians and businessmen, but a football club needs a football brain at the top.
Eric Abidal was brought in to perform that role as sporting director, but like Ernesto Valverde, he too was a ‘yes man’, nodding his consent at everything the president decided and had little say on the overall proceedings. Maybe Ramon Planes can change that.
Bartomeu wanted to create a more sellable product, but he has only worsened the quality of the product while chasing buyers (investors). Far from making profits, he ironically has to swallow huge losses for the upheaval created in the football business due to the pandemic.
Yet, shockingly but in typical Bartomean fashion, his move to save the club has only damaged it further: it was reported that in May 2020, he cut more than half of Barcelona’s scouting network to save money in wages.
Lionel Messi: A legacy tarnished for eternity
The Lionel Messi transfer saga is the last bit of destruction that Bartomeu has yet to deliver. Even his resignation, of which he has intimated, will not undo his numerous faux pas. It will still not undo the fact that his capitalist schemes have ruthlessly backfired. Nor will all the money he squandered buying useless players magically find their way back into the coffers.
The loss of Lionel Messi would have been not just a matter of an important player leaving a club; it is about creating an indelible blot upon the history of Barcelona. That the club’s greatest ever player should leave with such a bitter taste in the mouth is nothing but a scar upon FC Barcelona. It is worse than Real Madrid’s treatment of Iker Casillas. It is in fact incomparable.
Lionel Messi is Barcelona, a rare instance of a player who is as big as the institution; a man who truly embodies the essence and soul of the club. Without him, the Blaugrana would never be the same. This is Bartomeu’s last jab, one final kick before his inevitable departure from the hot seat. For now, Messi stays, but Bartomeu will forever be remembered as the man who threatened to ruin the legacy of the club’s greatest ever player.
Bartomeu will be remembered as the president who corrupted Barcelona from the inside out. His reign has been a failure on all levels. With only months remaining since the election, it is a wicked end, an unprecedented and unfathomable consequence of heaping one bad decision upon another.
Bartomeu undid everything the previous Barcelona presidents had worked so hard to build. His diametrically opposite philosophies have only ruined the club and have taken the Blaugrana to a place far removed from their most cherished ideals.