Laporta favourite as Barcelona elect new president in shadow of a crisis

Sid Lowe
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Joan Monfort/AP</span>
Photograph: Joan Monfort/AP

The last time Barcelona played at the Camp Nou, three men sat together in the directors’ box; by the time they next play there, only one of them will be left. Last Wednesday, Victor Font, Joan Laporta and Toni Freixa were invited by the interim president, Carles Tusquets, to watch the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Sevilla. On Sunday, those three men aspire to be elected in his place when almost 90,000 members of the club finally go to the polls.

Elections were called after the former president Josep Maria Bartomeu was forced to resign in October. They close a week that began with police raiding the Camp Nou and Bartomeu spending Monday night in a prison cell in Les Corts, interrogated as part of an investigation into alleged corruption relating to the hiring of a social media company accused of defending him and defaming opposition figures and even players.

Related: Police arrest Josep Maria Bartomeu after raid on Barcelona's Camp Nou

Supporters cling to the hope they can also bring to a close the crisis, having successfully applied mechanisms that exist precisely to hold power to account and effect change at a club still owned by its members.

Font described Barcelona as “a train heading straight for a wall at 200kmh” and whoever wins will take over a club with a recognised debt of €488m (£420m) and a total figure closer to a billion, the need to renovate the Camp Nou and doubts over the future of Lionel Messi, on which everything else depends.

All three candidates say they want the Barcelona superstar to continue and, with greater or lesser conviction and credibility, have sought to present themselves as the man that can really convince him to stay.

Bartomeu, who came to power after Sandro Rosell had to step down because of the furore over the fee the club paid for Neymar and then won elections in 2015, resigned in October knowing he could not win the vote of no confidence brought against him. Initially, elections had been called for January but polling day was postponed until March because of the pandemic.

Of 140,798 members, 110,290 have the right to vote. For the first time, a postal ballot has been allowed, with 22,811 members requesting to cast their vote that way. The remaining 87,479 will be able to vote in one of six polling stations in Catalonia, plus one in Andorra. Turnout will, though, be limited by local lockdowns. Barcelona have a conservative constituency, with more than half of their members aged over 50.

Eight men initially declared their intention to stand. Emili Rousaud, who had been projected as Bartomeu’s successor but who resigned along with five other board members and accused someone of having their “hand in the till”, was one of five who failed to gather sufficient signatures to continue.

Freixa gathered 2,634, Font 4,431 and Laporta 9,625. Polls suggest Laporta is the favourite, with Freixa some way behind him and Font. The only one of the candidates not to have previously played a directorial role at the club, Font was the first to announce his intention to stand. He put together a structure and a programme that was broadly welcomed, becoming the early favourite, although that has diminished markedly during the campaign.

He and Laporta broadly occupy the same ideological space and the latter’s greater charisma has eaten into his support.

Doubts remain over Lionel Messi&#x002019;s future at Barcelona
Doubts remain over Lionel Messi’s future at Barcelona Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Freixa, who formed part of the last administration, has been seen as something of a continuity candidate. That might not seem like a winning ticket, considering the depth of the crisis but Freixa has a significant media presence and has sought to present himself as a third way between the classic sides of a long-term civil war at the club: Nuñistas on one side, Cruyffistas on the other. Support for him looks to be growing, but he is still considered an outsider.

The more significant battles have been between Font and Laporta. Font announced Xavi Hernández would be his manager and said Jordi Cruyff would join his candidacy. He has, though, backed away from his initial insistence that Xavi would coach the team no matter what Ronald Koeman did, saying Xavi would be a general manager.

Xavi and Cruyff have been reluctant to make a public declaration of their position once Laporta announced and in the ambiguity there has been a battle for ownership.

Laporta has made capital of Font’s inability to elicit an unequivocal statement of support from Xavi and Cruyff, poking fun at his opponent and saying they would return to Barcelona if he were to win.

Defeated following Barcelona’s treble in 2015, a fierce long-term critic and opponent of the outgoing regime, which he described as kidnapping the club, Laporta bided his time and allowed others to wear themselves out before announcing his intention to stand. Then, with a glint in his eye, he kickstarted his campaign with a banner covering a building right by Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu. “Looking forward to seeing you again,” the slogan ran.

On Sunday, Barcelona’s members will decide if they do.