You would think that “the biggest club in the world,” which is leading La Liga, has won the league the last two years, four of the last five, and eight of the last 11 — which also contains the best player in the world (and possibly the best ever) — would be a model of organizational harmony.
If you think that, you’ve never known anything about F.C. Barcelona.
While their on-field success continues, off the field, Barca have always looked like an abstract interpretation of the war room scenes from “Dr. Strangelove.” That’s what happens when you have a constantly changing board of directors, with their own interests and alliances, constantly vying for more power and the president role. At times, Barcelona must pine for the more common single-owner model that runs most sports organizations.
To understand how this club can always be a such an organizational mess, it’s important to remember that Barcelona is owned by all of its members.
Usually the only way to get into this cabal is to be related to someone who already is, but you can apply to be one after years of being a member of the club with no benefits. There are more than 140,000 members of Barcelona, who vote on important club matters, like electing the president of the club. You see how this can go sideways in a hurry, but it’s how they’ve done things for their existence since 1899.
The latest controversy started in February when it was leaked that the Barcelona board had hired an outside company, I3 Ventures, originally to help current president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s image. But that expanded to smearing other presidential candidates, club legends, and current players through various social media accounts as well. There are a lot of layers to it, none of them smell good, including fake accounts attacking the likes of Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi, perhaps the club’s biggest pillars. There’s also some funny accounting on this, where payments to I3 were split up to avoid financial controls the club has.
The fallout from all this keeps spiraling, with various directors resigning or being asked to. The latest maneuvers have led to six board members quitting and a restructuring of the board, including vice president Emil Rousaud, by Bartomeu as he seeks to consolidate his power before next summer’s elections (in which he can’t run for president again). Bartomeu was even more incensed when negotiations with the players over a wage-cut during the coronavirus were leaked. After Rousaud quit last Thursday he couldn’t leave without lobbing the bomb that someone in the board of directors was embezzling money out of the club, which Bartomeu is now suing him over. This only adds to the circus that is going on in the Catalan club.
All of this followed crisis talks with Messi in the winter brought on by sporting director Eric Abidal criticizing the star after the firing of manager Ernesto Valverde. Abidal had hinted that some players had given up on Valverde without naming names. The usually reserved Messi didn’t hold back in his response, demanding Abidal name names or essentially shut the fuck up. This was somewhat quieted with crisis talks between the two, but needless to say Abidal was pretty well chastised.
Hanging over all of this is the fact that Messi, due to a clause in his contract, can simply walk out on the club this summer if he so chooses, even though his contract runs until July 2021. It’s never been hinted that Messi wants out, but he also hasn’t extended his contract either, and certainly the calamity with I3, Abidal, and the current situation with the board isn’t helping. Even if this summer comes too soon for a Messi exit, with his contract up next year, the clock will definitely be ticking loudly, and no one can exert more pressure than Messi.
It also doesn’t help that Barcelona has become increasingly reliant on an aging Messi, and it didn’t go unnoticed that while three players left the club in the winter transfer window, none came in to replace them.
That followed the failed pursuit to bring Neymar back to the club last summer, as well as the essentially failed use of the money they received for selling Neymar to PSG in the first place. Phillipe Coutinho has been essentially stepping on legos since he arrived and was shunted off to Munich on loan this season. Ousmane Dembele can’t go seven minutes without something falling off of him or going, “TWANG!”
The falling out between Rousaud and Bartomeu smells particularly foul. Rousaud, after the I3 leaks and mess, asked that the elections for the board be brought forward from summer 2021 to this summer (conveniently, he was seen as the most likely to be voted in and ascend to the presidency). It’s hard to ignore the residue of Bartomeu lashing out at another board member who had eyes on ending his job early.
All of it leaves the club in serious turmoil and without any on-field results to placate the rest of the members of the club or fans. The devastation that COVID-19 has caused in Spain will keep this out of the major headlines for a while, but Barcelona has some major cleanup to do when that subsides. And if Messi were to decide he had enough, they might not be able to clean it up at all.