Copa del Rey offers Barcelona a lifeline amid chaos on and off the field

Catalans must focus on semi-final second leg against Sevilla as presidential elections and judicial investigation hog limelight

Seated in armchairs, with the backdrop of a sun-kissed Camp Nou behind them, the three candidates to be the next Barcelona president set out their manifestos on the dominant issue of the campaign – the future of Lionel Messi.

Messi, warned Joan Laporta – the favourite in Sunday’s election – “would not stay on [at Barca] if another candidate wins.” Laporta, on the other hand, has ”an affectionate, respectful relation with Messi.”

To the surprise of nobody among the television audience watching Monday evening’s live candidates’ debate, Laporta’s rivals disagreed. Messi, whose contract expires in June, “must stay, no two ways about it,” declared Victor Font, the businessman who has promised that ex-Barcelona captain Xavi would be part of his management team. “With our project headed by Xavi, we can offer Messi a lifetime commitment.”

Toni Freixa, deemed the outsider in the race, sounded a little vague about how exactly Messi would be convinced to remain at a club in deep debt and suffering clear symptoms of decline. But Freixa felt certain he could talk him into it. “Our sporting ideas are the ones he likes,” claimed Freixa, “and I have an excellent relationship with the Messi family.”

The key of course will be what Messi, come June when his contract expires, makes of what presidents and executives tend to refer to loosely as the ‘Barcelona family’.

At the moment it could hardly seem less stable. Earlier in the day that the three would-be presidents aspiring to win most votes from the club’s members debated on TV, police had raided the club’s offices and the home of the former president Josep Maria Bartomeu. He was among four past office-holders detained in an investigation into so-called ‘Barca-gate’, a scandal that came to light a year ago.

epa09045912 Candidates to be the next president of FC Barcelona soccer team Joan Laporta (L-R), Victor Font and Toni Freixa pose prior to their TV debate at Catalonian channel RAC1 in Barcelona, north-eastern Spain, 02 March 2021. Elections to the presidency of the club will be held upcoming 07 March.  EPA/Alejandro Garcia

Bartomeu, who stepped down in October, is alleged to have presided over a social media campaign, carried out by a company contracted by Barca, to discredit past and current players – including Messi – and other critics of the way the club has been run. Police raiding the various premises on Monday were investigating possible corruption related to aspects of 'Barca-gate'. Bartomeu spent Monday night in a police-station cell, before being released pending possible charges on Tuesday.

An unknown future; a past under judicial investigation. The melodrama that is modern Barcelona could scarcely be more destabilising to a squad and a head coach, Ronald Koeman, preparing for what looks more and more like their most charged fixture of the season so far – Wednesday's Copa del Rey semi-final second leg, at home to Sevilla.

Barca trail 2-0 from the first leg, and given their predicament in the other two competitions – five points shy of Liga leaders Atletico Madrid; a 4-1 deficit in their last-16 Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain – the Cup represents their best chance of avoiding a second successive season without a trophy. The club has not gone two years on the trot without fresh silverware since 2004 – the year Messi was elevated to the senior squad and ushered in a glittering era.

Fail to overturn Sevilla’s two-goal advantage, and all eyes will be on Messi. His frustration at falling standards, as well as mistrust of Bartomeu’s board, motivated him to ask to leave last summer, when he was thwarted by Barcelona enforcing a prohibitive €700m buyout clause that runs out in June 2021.

Koeman, appointed by Bartomeu and currently hearing all three presidential candidates make no long-term commitments about the head coach’s position, will also be under scrutiny.

But Koeman and Barca’s iconic captain have some grounds for hope. Barca beat Sevilla in the league, 2-0, at the weekend. “Nothing is impossible,” said the head coach, “but we have to do even better than we did on Saturday. We think we can, and if we do achieve the comeback it will be a big boost for the immediate future.”

As for his future, Koeman, appointed last August, knows events of the next five days, on the field and at Sunday’s presidential polling may well shape it. “We have to wait to see who comes in as president and what their plan is,” he said. “Life is about ups and downs, challenges and opportunities. I knew when I accepted the job it was at a difficult time for the club.”

He admitted he had been ‘stunned’ to learn that members of the board who appointed him had been detained by police.

Why, Koeman was asked, did Barcelona always seem to be afflicted by off-the-field dramas? “It’s because it’s the biggest club in the world,” he reckoned. It may seem to him like the biggest, but it is a long way from being the best.