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Barcelona's Bartomeu era ends with shame but shows the struggle of club's presidential model

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Published in Soccer
Thursday, 29 October 2020 07:58

Josep 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 impeachment vote he would almost certainly have lost.

One, perhaps superficial, reading is that this is a triumph for democracy -- or, at least, the version that governs Futbol Club Barcelona. Bartomeu was elected, his actions displeased voters, and there was a mechanism in place for him to be recalled. Enough public pressure was exerted from both within (Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi) and without (parts of the media, former presidents) that voters took action.

This is an option that fans of other clubs with unpopular leaders do not have, and however imperfect Barcelona's setup might be, there's a voice for supporters beyond the usual boycotts and voting with your wallet.

The old maxim is that democracy is the fairest system of government, but dictatorship is the most efficient. There's some truth to that in football. If you have absolute power indefinitely (or until you decide to sell up), you can do what you like. If you're continually freaking out about polls or reelections, your natural tendency will be to think short-term.

Bartomeu will be remembered for many things, perhaps chiefly for the fact that the greatest player in the club's history tried to leave the club this past summer, slamming the door behind him. But, in fact, the Lionel Messi crisis is nothing more than another example of the difficulties encountered when trying to balance short-term and long-term thinking.

Under Bartomeu's watch, the club came within a whisker of becoming the first sports franchise to break the one billion Euro ($1.17 billion) mark in revenue, something made possible in part by taking their merchandising, retail and licensing activities in-house and pursuing an aggressive and successful sponsorship strategy. That was the sort of short-term move that took guts and foresight: You sacrifice short-term guaranteed cash from partners for long-term growth and revenue.

The problem is that a football club isn't a retail brand; it gets judged every week by what happens on the pitch, and in the department of weekly, short-term results, Bartomeu came up desperately short. That's not so much when it comes to results on the pitch, which were mixed -- in his nearly seven seasons at the helm, they won four Liga titles (good) and four Copas del Rey (also good), but they advanced past the quarterfinals of the Champions League just twice (not so good) -- but, rather, in the actions he took to keep the team competitive.

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Bartomeu made, or enabled those around him to make, a raft of poor decisions, most of them reacting to short-term needs. Neymar accepts Paris Saint-Germain's offer and walks out after exercising his €222m buyout clause? Let's blow the whole fee (and then some) on Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho, gambling that one or the other will fill the superstar gap.

Dembele is injured all the time? Cool, let's blow another €41m on Malcom and then give him only six league starts because, well, he's not good.

Coutinho doesn't live up to his €145m superstar price tag? No problem! Let's spend another €120m on Antoine Griezmann, even though he has zero chemistry with Messi and Luis Suarez and made us look silly the year before, when he did a 180-degree turn after all but agreeing to join us.

We need a backup center-forward? Let's sign Kevin-Prince Boateng, who is 31 years old, has scored 10 or more league goals just once in his career and, perhaps most importantly, is not a center-forward.

Obviously, Bartomeu wasn't making footballing decisions, but the buck stopped with him, and the spending had consequences.

The wage bill continuously ballooned under his watch. In 2018-19, it stood at €529m ($620m), which was already more than twice as much as all but eight other clubs in the world and €98m ($114m) more than the second-highest wage bill in football (Real Madrid). Last season, it was set to rise by another €100m ($117m) before wage deferrals and cuts as a result of the coronavirus pandemic took out some of the sting.

One of the side effects of all this is that debt also grew significantly before the pandemic and then, obviously, grew even further after the pandemic, to the point that it's now close to half a billion Euros. It's also worth noting that in cash terms, the situation is far from rosy: According to the financial blogger @Swissramble, Barcelona's habit of paying for transfers in installments means they'll need to fork out a further €168m ($197m) in net terms over the next few years.

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Most will remember Bartomeu for the fact that the unthinkable -- Messi announcing he wanted to leave the club -- happened under his watch. We're not privy to the details of their relationship, so apportioning blame would be unfair. What we do know is that most of what Bartomeu did in his handling of Messi backfired badly, whether it was facilitating the Eric Abidal interview calling out the dressing room (which prompted a rare Messi statement) or the salary-cut negotiation (another Messi riposte) or simply saying that he was 100 percent certain Messi would stay, which culminated in the burofax and Messi telling the club he wanted to leave.

All of the above were short-term reactions to short-term issues. All of them he got badly wrong.

That's the downside of Barca's "democratic" model. You want to think long-term for the good of the club, but you end up acting short-term to react to immediate concerns -- or what you think are immediate concerns. It's hard to be good at both, and Bartomeu certainly came up short in the latter.

What's next? Elections in a few months, of course, but most of all, a chance for those who starred on the pitch in Barcelona's latest golden era -- and who, directly or indirectly, had a hand in Bartomeu's departure -- to make their mark.

I'm referring to Messi, of course, but also Pique, Xavi, possibly Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. Some will continue playing, for a while longer anyway, some will not, and others have already quit. But they defined the most glorious period of Barcelona's history (from Pep Guardiola onward), and they are the descendants of the second-most glorious period (the Johan Cruyff years).

It's easy to forget, but this is a club that, prior to 1990, had won 10 Liga titles in 61 years. (They've won 16 in the past 30.) These men have earned the right to a voice in shaping the club's future, and they will exercise it either directly or indirectly by backing candidates and programs at the next election -- and, in the case of Pique, perhaps by running for president one day.

That's the Barcelona version of democracy. Yes, it's imperfect and can lead to debacles such as the end of the Bartomeu Era, in which you're stuck between present and future and make poor decisions. Sure, if the goal is simply to amass silverware and break the billion-Euro revenue mark, then they'd probably be far better off if they were owned by an enlightened multibillionaire who could hire smart people to make cold-blooded long-term decisions without endless consultation.

But that isn't the goal -- at least, not for the organization that calls itself "more than a club."

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