The group of veteran footballers who all wear shirts with Johan Cruyff’s No 14 on the back play each Saturday morning overlooking the Mediterranean south of Barcelona. Last Saturday, they unfurled a flag before the game.
“Joan Laporta. President,” it read, in Barca’s colours. Most of the team which plays for all 52 weeks of the year in normal times posed with the flag. Most are Barca fans, most Catalan. The group were close to their hero Cruyff and close too to the former Barca president Laporta. He came to visit last month as he toured as many of the 109,531 Barca socios as possible, like a politician hoping to secure their vote.
The club’s latest presidential election came about because 20,000 petition signatories demanded an autumn vote of no confidence on president Josep Maria Bartomeu as their club sank into an institutional and financial crisis.
In the latest twist of negative news lines, police raided the club offices and also arrested Bartomeu as they investigated allegations that club monies were being used to silence critics on social media.
Laporta, who oversaw the most successful era in Barca’s presidency between 2003-2010, put himself into a crowded field and soon became favourite. He ran for president in 2015 but was well beaten by Bartomeu in the year Barca won the Treble.
On Sunday, Barca’s members voted – by proxy and in person as thousands of them came to Camp Nou. Lionel Messi was one and voted for the first time, before taking one of his sons into the towering, tiered stands for a view of the pitch he himself never sees. Former captain Carles Puyol voted too – as did the three club presidential candidates.
The mood was optimistic and enthusiastic amid the pandemic gloom at the end of a week of cloudy weather. Fans talked of hope and a brighter future. They'd been dismayed by results on the pitch, at the way the club's debt crept towards €1 billion ($1.186bn), as well as Messi's treatment which caused him to demand to leave soon after the 8-2 hammering by Bayern Munich. There were many other areas of contention including the way Neymar was allowed to leave and how the record transfer fee received for him was squandered.
Charismatic, popular and not backward at coming forward, Laporta is a populist and separatist who wants Catalonia to be independent from Spain and briefly served as a politician in 2010. In this club campaign, he traded on what he brought to the club last time – a second European Cup, Lionel Messi, league titles.
He’s a genuine fan too. A lawyer, he was part of a supporters’ group which wanted to disrupt the established order in the late 90s. That ultimately led to him becoming president in 2003 on a ticket to bring David Beckham to the club.
Beckham joined Madrid's Galacticos and had no intention of joining Barcelona but Laporta nicked Ronaldinho out of the clutches of Manchester United. The Brazilian had already told friends he was going to Manchester. United didn't think Barca, who were facing financial problems, had the money.
They didn’t count on the club’s strong connections and credit lines to pre-2008 economic crisis Catalan banks. Barca has long been supported by Catalonia’s business class.
Ronaldinho revolutionised the club, Messi inherited his mantle and Laporta made bold moves such as pushing for Pep Guardiola to be first team manager in 2008 when others on his board wanted Jose Mourinho. Laporta called that right.
Football is emotion and Laporta, 58, played on that brilliantly. When he won the well-contested election with 54 per cent of Sunday’s vote (second place Victor Font reached 30 per cent) he and his team sang Barca’s anthem like fans. His predecessor Bartomeu never looked more than a grey bureaucrat with a greater love for basketball than football. Pep Guardiola and the Cruyff family were among those who congratulated Laporta.
Football is tribal too. Soon after Laporta announced his intention to be president again, he paid for a huge billboard close to Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium saying he was looking forward to seeing them again.
He meant Barca fans who lived in the Spanish capital but also, of course, Real Madrid fans for whom he’d caused so many problems as Barcelona, who’d only won one league title between 1974 and 1991, became football's pre-eminent force. None of his rivals marketed themselves as well.
Barca fans hope he can make their club the best in the world again. Laporta wants Messi, 33, to stay but he has to get the club out of a financial hole which saw player wages cut and paid late but also, in his words, “to again make Barca a reference point in the football world.”
He has to do that in a pandemic when Barça have suffered more than any other club from a loss of fans who visit for games (average crowds are 78,000) and the international tourists who snap up expensive match tickets and fill the club’s museum and shops.
On Monday, Laporta went to see current manager, Ronald Koeman, who has overseen 13 wins in the last 16 games and has led the team to close the gap at the top of the table to just three points.
Laporta, never passing up a media opportunity, was wearing a face mask with Cruyff’s number 14 on it. When Koeman, who was signed by Cruyff, scored the goal which won Barca’s first ever European Cup in 1992, Laporta was there as a fan.
Laporta has talked of the team coming back from the 4-1 defeat to PSG this week, but just keeping the club's head above water will be progress this time.