Sunday Focus: What's behind the mess at Barcelona

Few soccer clubs are more associated with the city or region in which they located than FC Barcelona.

"Més que un club" is the Barca motto. "More than a club."

But Barcelona is a mess right now.

Saturday's 3-1 loss at home to Real Madrid was symbolic of all that ails Barcelona.

Lionel Messi is playing his 17th and surely last season at Barcelona. The only reason he didn't leave in the offseason was he didn't want to go through a messy lawsuit to get out of his contract.

Many of his teammates from the great Barcelona teams of the last decade are gone. Xavi, Andres Iniesta and most importantly, his close friend Luis Suarez, was told in the offseason he was no longer wanted.

FC Barcelona is one of the great names in soccer, renowned not only for Messi but its stylish soccer. It is the world's most popular club, according to a new Gilt Edge Soccer survey of U.S. fans.

But it is a club whose own members -- the more than 140,000 “socios” -- have lost confidence in.



'More than a motion.' A historic motion of censure against the Barcelona board of directors was declared on Aug. 31. Motions of censure have been attempted before against Barcelona presidents, Josep Lluis Nunez in 1998 and Joan Laporta a decade later.

The motion against Josep Maria Bartomeu, the club’s current president, was considered to have little chance because of just how difficult it is to vote. Socios couldn't simply go online and vote. They had to present themselves at the club's polling centers in Barcelona and around Spain with their national identification and Barcelona membership cards.

Barcelona management had so little trust in the vote that it enlisted the Guardia Civil -- the national police -- to verify the vote count. When it was complete, 19,532 valid votes were confirmed -- almost 95 percent of the total votes -- more than enough for the 10 percent threshold to set up a referendum on a motion of no confidence.

All Barcelona socios will be asked to vote in the referendum. If two-thirds or more vote for the motion, Bartomeu and his board will be forced to step down. If not, they will remain in charge until the next club elections in March 2021.

The "Més que una Mocio" movement (“more than a motion”) is confident that it will topple the Bartomeu regime, but it won't be easy. In 2008, Laporta opponents tallied 23,870 votes, but the motion of no confidence gained less than 61 percent and failed because Laporta received the support of 14,871 members.

Just when the referendum takes place remains to be seen. Spain has been hit hard by the second wave of COVID-19 cases, and FC Barcelona is awaiting approval from Catalan health authorities on a plan for the vote to safely take place.

Historic turmoil. What is different is about the current referendum is that it comes at a time of historic turmoil for FC Barcelona on and off the field. It's not only facing the end of the Messi era, but a growing governance crisis brought on by financial problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

FC Barcelona suffered a 14 percent drop in revenue for 2019-20 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a record loss of 97 million euros ($115 million) that pushed its outstanding debt to 488 millions euros ($589 million), but it expects a further drop in revenues of more than 30 percent in 2020-21. The Nou Camp stadium remains closed to fans this season and will be closed for the foreseeable future.

FC Barcelona is particularly vulnerable because of its ownership structure. Barca is a democracy. Its socios own the club and elect its president. They are its greatest strength -- they assure the club is not driven by corporate greed -- but also its great weakness -- too often running the club -- the making of transfer deals and hiring and firing of coaches -- becomes susceptible to political considerations.

Bartomeu got himself -- and the club -- in trouble by a series of disastrous signings, namely Ousmane Dembele and Coutinho in 2017 and Antoine Griezmann in 2019, and a bad coaching move, the firing of Ernesto Valverde in January after he led Barca to back-to-back LaLiga titles in 2018 and 2019 and had it in first place on the day he was fired.

'The Silicon Valley of sports.' Bartomeu started the Barcelona Innovation Hub, an incubator for sports start-ups in technology, innovation and research, with the eye on FC Barcelona becoming what the Innovation Hub dubbed "the Silicon Valley of sports.”

And FC Barcelona went out and negotiated a financing plan of 815 million euros ($967 million) with Goldman Sachs for the Espai Barca project, a plan to renovate the Camp Nou and develop the area around the stadium.

All with an eye on the future.

But did Bartomeu and his board bite off more than Barcelona can chew? Marc Ciria, one of Spain's leading economists, believes so.

Ciria, a former Barcelona executive, says the Goldman Sachs deal has everything to with Barcelona's exorbitant debt and nothing to do with the current COVID-19 crisis and fears that the investment firm will end up owning a good chunk of the FC Barcelona -- 30-40 percent -- when the club can't pay back its loan and destroying its membership structure.

"Goldman Sachs is not known for lending money, but for making entry operations in companies to then later get out of them by reselling the shares it has bought," he told the Spanish news agency EFE. "It is an investment bank, not a money-lending bank like [Spanish banks] La Caixa or BBVA. The appearance of Goldman Sachs means that Barcelona has not been able to go to national institutions to increase its debt."

Photo by Focus Images/Imago/Icon Sportswire

2 comments about "Sunday Focus: What's behind the mess at Barcelona".
  1. beautiful game, October 25, 2020 at 12:35 p.m.

    Bartomeu's tenure as el-presidente of Barca is a disaster from player acquisitions to its financial indebtness. Current Barca Board has turned a financially stable sports enterprise into a sinking ship while blaming the "pandemic" for its incompetence.

  2. R2 Dad, October 25, 2020 at 4:11 p.m.

    Ciria has it right. The GS involvement means the next 5 years post-Messi will result in poor performance on the pitch and prolonged turmoil off it. The pandemic is an anomaly but the socios have preferred performance over financial prudence--tough lesson to learn that will take a long time to rectify. 

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