Jose Maria Bartomeu is no longer president of Barcelona. He resigned Tuesday after facing tons of public pressure – including, he says, threats and insults – and a de facto vote of indictment that he would almost certainly lose.
A superficial lecture is probably the triumph of democracy, or at least the version that runs the Futbol Club in Barcelona. Bartomeu was elected, his actions aroused dissatisfaction among the voters and a mechanism was put in place to recall Bartomeu. Both from the inside (Gerard Peak, Lionel Messi) and from the outside (part of the media, former presidents) sufficient public pressure was exerted to make voters active.
It is an option not available to fans of other clubs whose leaders are not popular, and no matter how imperfect the environment of Barcelona is, the voices of the fans are heard in the usual boycotts and backroom voices.
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The old saying goes that democracy is the fairest system of government and the most effective dictatorship. There’s some truth in football. If you have absolute power for an infinite period of time (or until you decide to sell), you can do whatever you want. If you are constantly on the campaign trail, you naturally have a tendency to think in the short term.
Bartomeu will be remembered by many, perhaps especially because the greatest player in the history of the club last summer tried to leave the club by slamming the door behind him. But in reality, the crisis of Lionel Messi is just one example of the difficulties encountered in reconciling the short term with the long term.
Under Bartomeu’s leadership, the club smiled and became the first sports franchise to exceed its billion euro ($1.17 billion) turnover, partly because it took over its merchandising, retail and licensing activities internally and pursued an aggressive and successful sponsorship strategy. It was such a short-term measure that required courage and foresight: You sacrifice the guaranteed short-term money of your partners for long-term growth and income.
The problem is that the football club is not a retail brand, it is judged every week on what happens on the field, and on the department of weekly short-term results, Bartomeu is out for a desperate short term. It’s not so much the results on the field that are mixed – in seven seasons they’ve won four league titles (good) and four Copas del Rey (equally good) at the top, but it’s only twice (not very good) that they’ve reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but rather the steps they’ve taken to keep the team competitive.
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Bartomeu took, or had his entourage take, a number of bad decisions, most of which met short-term needs. Neimar accepts the offer made by Saint-Germain de Paris and leaves for EUR 222 million once the ransom clause has been implemented? Let’s increase the total amount (and a few others) of the bets of Usman Dembele and Philippe Coutinho to fill the void of the superstars.
Is Dembele permanently traumatized? Cool, let’s let Malcolm lose another 41 million and only give him six starts in the league, because, well, he’s no good.
Cutiño can’t stand the price of his 145 million euro superstar? No worries. Let’s spend another 120 million euros on Antoine Griessman, even though he doesn’t have chemistry with Messi and Luis Suarez and he made us look like idiots a year earlier by making a 180 degree turn but agreeing with us.
Do we need a rescue centre in advance? Take 31-year-old Kevin-Prince Boateng, who has scored at least 10 goals only once in the league and, more importantly, is not the midfielder.
It is clear that Bartomeu did not make any decisions in the field of football, but he could no longer cope with the situation and the costs had consequences.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Bartomeu’s decision to resign before the resignation vote means the club can look to the future now, but his presidential model is likely to raise similar questions for future leaders. Noelia Denise/Urbanandsport/Photo only on Getty Images
The payroll was constantly blown up under his watch. In 2018-19, it was more than twice as much as any other club in the world, with the exception of eight, with 529 million euros (620 million dollars), and the second highest salary in football (Real Madrid) with 98 million euros (114 million dollars). 100 million ($ 117 million) before delays in salary payments and cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic made it possible to remove some steel.
One of the side-effects of all this is that the debt increased significantly before the pandemic, and apparently even more, to the extent that it is now approaching half a billion euros. It is also remarkable that the situation is anything but rosy in monetary terms: According to financial blogger @Swissramble, Barcelona’s habit of paying for money transfers in installments means they will have to buy back another 168 million euros (197 million dollars) net in the coming years.
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Most people will remember Bartomeu because the unthinkable – Messi’s announcement that he wanted to leave the club – happened under his supervision. We don’t know the details of their relationship, so it would be unfair to apportion blame. What we do know is that much of what Bartomeu did in his treatment of Messi turned out to be bad for him, whether it was to facilitate an interview with Eric Abidal, in which he demanded the wardrobe (which provoked Messi’s rare statement), to negotiate a pay cut (another of Messi’s objections), or simply to say that he was 100% sure Messi would stay, which led Burofax and Messi to come forward and tell the club that he wanted to leave.
Read the latest news and reactions from ESPN’s main author Gabriele Marcotti.
All this was a short-term response to short-term problems. You’ve all made a big mistake.
This is the downside of Barca’s democratic model. You want to think long term in the club’s interest, but ultimately you act short term to address immediate problems – or what you consider an immediate concern. It is difficult to be good in both cases, and the last Bartomeu is missing of course.
What happens then? The election will of course take place in a few months’ time, but it is above all an opportunity for those who have been on the field during Barcelona’s last golden age – and who contributed directly or indirectly to shaping Bartomeu’s farewell – to make their mark.
I mean Messi of course, but also Gerard Peak, Xavi, maybe Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquet. Some will continue to play, at least for a while, others will not, and some have already stopped. But they defined the most glorious period in the history of Barcelona (from the Pep Guardiol and beyond), and they are the descendants of the second most glorious period (the years of Johann Cruyff).
It’s easy to forget, but this is a club that won 10 titles in the competition in the 61 years before 1990. (They have won 16 victories in the last 30 years.) These people have earned the right to vote by shaping the future of the club, and they will do so directly or indirectly by supporting candidates and programs in the next election – and in the case of Peak, perhaps one day by running for president.
This is the Barcelona version of democracy. Yes, it is an imperfection and it can lead to obstacles such as the end of the Bartomeu era, where one is trapped between the present and the future and makes bad choices. Of course, if the goal is simply to get the silverware together and earn more than the billion dollars, it would probably be better if it was owned by an enlightened billionaire who could hire intelligent people to make cold-blooded, long-term decisions without endless consultation.
But this is not a goal – at least not for an organization that calls itself more than a club.
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