Joan Laporta, elected as Barcelona’s president with an emphatic majority on Sunday night, came to his coronation with ready-made symbols.
He and his allies wore orange face-masks, in tribute to the late Johan Cruyff, of the Netherlands and, for so many years, inspirational player and coach of Barca.
Laporta had his diary a notable anniversary, too. “Twenty years ago, there was a kid who made his debut for the Barcelona boys B team,” noted Laporta in his victory speech, having won almost 55 per cent of the 55,000 votes cast by the club’s member supporters.
That boy was Lionel Messi, now 33, who had turned up at Camp Nou earlier in the day to cast his vote in the secret ballot, accompanied by his son Thiago.
“To me, seeing Leo come and vote proves what we have been saying throughout this campaign – that Leo loves Barcelona,” smiled Laporta. “The best player in the world loves Barcelona. We hope that helps with the decisions that have to be made in the future.”
The big Messi decision had dominated the lead-up to the elections and the long hiatus since the previous president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, stood down in October.
Messi’s current contract with the club where he has spent his entire career expires in June, and the gesture of his voting – as registered ‘socios’, or members, all Barcelona players are entitled to but not all do – will be widely interpreted as a show of his affection for Barcelona.
Laporta revealed he had received a congratulation message from the captain. “I think he wants to stay,” said the new boss.
Messi, hostile to Bartomeu, tried to leave last summer. If he wants to again, he knows he can count on many suitors at clubs in better health than Barca.
But he will listen intently to the persuasions of Laporta. The new president had cited his close relationship with Messi in his campaign. “If another candidate wins, Messi will certainly leave,” Laporta had forecast. Around the Camp Nou stadium, the main polling station, on Sunday some fans had chanted ‘Messi, Stay!”
The player himself has said only he will make a decision at the end of this season, a season which began in open confrontation with Bartomeu. The now ex-president, citing the €700 million buyout clause in Messi’s huge contract, blocked Messi leaving. That was one of his last executive acts. Bartomeu was gone in a matter of weeks.
Laporta will bring charisma and a long list of past glories to the role. He knows Messi well because he served as president when Messi rose from the club’s academy to the first team.
Laporta’s first mandate, between 2003 and 2010 turned out to be a golden era, with two Champions League titles, twice as many as the club had ever won before, and some bold choices, notably the appointment of Pep Guardiola as manager when Guardiola had no senior experience as a coach.
Granting Laporta his second stint, Barcelona fans voted emphatically for more of that Midas touch, for his clear association with the admired Cruyff, whose ideas about how football should be played have become so influential at Barcelona, and for his bond with Messi.
But the challenges are huge. “The first thing we must do is a thorough audit,” said Laporta yesterday before heading off to talk to the players and manager Ronaldo Koeman at the club’s training ground.
Barcelona have an overall debt of close to €1.2 billion, and although they last year recorded the highest revenues of any football club, that income has been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. Fans have been restricted from entry into the 98,000 capacity Camp Nou for almost a year.
On the field, standards have fallen. In 2019-2020, Barcelona finished without a trophy last season for the first time in 12 seasons. Their best hope of silverware in Laporta's first few months is the Copa del Rey, whose final they reached thanks to last week's stirring comeback in the semi, from 2-0 down to Sevilla after 90 minutes, to 3-2 winners in extra time of the second leg. That was well timed for Koeman: No would-be new president was likely to speak of possible new managers after that display.
In la Liga, Barcelona are second, trailing Atletico Madrid, who could go six points clear on Wednesday, the same night Barcelona are in France, likely to confirm their elimination from the Champions League. They are 4-1 behind after the first leg of their last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain.
It means Laporta’s first night back in the front seat of a VIP section, will be in Paris, and a stark reminder of how times have changed. Back in 2006, he watched his Barcelona win a European Cup in the French capital. In the same city, he must see them confront the PSG juggernaut already three goals down, the clear underdogs.