Jason Pettigrove talks to the Barcelona presidential candidate hoping for re-election and to return the club to lofty heights on and off the pitch...
Just over a month ago, former Barcelona president Joan Laporta announced his intention to stand for the top job once again.
Since the video message which opened his 'Pel Barca' (for Barca) campaign, Laporta and his team have been steadily increasing the pressure and upping the ante on the other presidential candidates, most notably the outgoing unelected Josep Maria Bartomeu.
With his swarthy mediterranean good looks, confidence and the nous of someone that has seen it all before, Laporta has once again been hitting all of the right notes in the lead up to today's election.
A first round of supporting signatures that saw Bartomeu with twice as many as his opponent has slowly, but significantly, been eroded to the point where we now see that Laporta is in a slight lead according to local polls in Barcelona. As with any race it’s all about momentum and there’s little doubt that Laporta is coming up on the rails at just the right moment.
A promise to bring Unicef back as the main shirt sponsor - ground-breaking and popular during his first tenure - restoring a largely ignored La Masia to its former glory and a desire to once again lean on the genius of Johan Cruyff has brought some familiarity to his manifesto. The addition of the hugely popular exemplar Eric Abidal as his sporting director is potentially another masterstroke. But will it be enough?
We are proposing to recover Unicef as our shirt because to me Unicef has been the best non-sporting decision that we have taken
At Camp Nou on Saturday, the rank and file of Barca's socio membership will cast their vote. But this isn’t expected to be a very well supported election in the locale. Despite leading the way on the football pitch, Barca still haven’t caught up with the technological age as far as their voting processes are concerned. Even a vote by general mail is invalid. Only those members that arrive at the ground in person between 9am and 9pm will be eligible, and Saturday isn’t necessarily the best day to persuade an often indifferent membership to exercise their right to vote.
In any event, Laporta was in confident mood on Thursday evening at his headquarters at Provenca, just a minute's walk from one of Barcelona’s most important business and shopping avenues, Passeig De Gracia. Italian football legend Demetrio Albertini, Laporta’s Director of Institutional Relations should he be elected, was in attendance along with a smattering of ex-Barca players willing to stick their neck out for Laporta.
La Masia mission
They were joined by a tired, emotional but happy campaign team and supporters in full voice. “President, president, president” rang out in unison as Laporta made his way to the stage to address and thank everyone in turn. After a brief chat with a massed throng of local media, Laporta was ushered to a private room downstairs and spent time exclusively answering FourFourTwo's questions…
It was clear that the resurrection of a workable La Masia plays a major part in his desire to be re-elected: "La Masia is one of our pillars. In our model we have a genuine style of playing football from Johan Cruyff.
A style of football that has been recognised and admired by all the world. La Masia is our academy. It's our dreams factory. When a kid arrives at Football Club Barcelona at nine years old he has a dream, and we have the coaches that try to make real that dream.
"And the dream is real when the player, the young guy, does well after a long process and arrives to the first team," Laporta explains. "This is a process, there are a lot of people involved in this process - coaches, teachers - because first we try to educate young people. And then they have to be good players."
I think that it is much better for the club to have La Masia as a pillar of the model of managing the club than to have another system that continues to go to the market
His depth of feeling towards this element of the club was clear and he shuddered when reminded of 'Galactico' type signings under the Sandro Rosell/Josep Maria Bartomeu presidencies, such as Neymar and Luis Suarez.
"Well it's a different model. One of my opponents is changing our model and this is the reason why I am 'running' to the elections.
"We think that the best model is a model that has La Masia, our academy, as a system to make the club sustainable. Not just sportingly, economically as well. In my opinion these opponents decided to extinguish La Masia.
"For them it was easier to go to the market than work very hard in order to create players like Valdes, Pique, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Busi, Pedro and of course Messi. This takes time. It takes a big effort to develop this system and it’s a long process. I think that it is much better for the club to have La Masia as a pillar of the model of managing the club than to have another system that continues to go to the market."
Shirt sponsorship remains another bone of contention, and not just between the candidates for election. Supporters are split by the need for commercialisation against seeing their beloved Blaugrana tainted, for want of a better phrase, by a corporate sponsor. Laporta is adamant that Unicef will return to the front of the shirt and believes he has the tools to achieve it, if elected.
"Of course it is possible but the difference we have is talking about the models again. My model is to keep producing players in La Masia, playing under this genuine style of football.
"And Unicef. They [Bartomeu] prefer Qatar, they prefer to sell practically most of our assets to Qatar because it's not only the sponsorship of our shirt, under that contract, there are more assets. If you go to the club you'll will see that Qatar is everywhere.
"We are proposing to recover Unicef as our shirt because to me Unicef has been the best non-sporting decision that we have taken. It was in my time as a president that I took that decision and I think that the project with FC Barcelona... we were pioneers in social corporate responsibility of football clubs.
"We were launching a message to the less fortunate that they are not alone, there is a football club, the name is FC Barcelona, a club that was born in Barcelona, in Catalunya, and that we have a special sensibility in order to take care of the less fortunate, especially vulnerable boys and girls. It's not difficult. And can I say that this statement 'Mes que un club' [more than a club] - we have to demonstrate it," states Laporta. The former president who hopes for re-election then further explained about potential ties with Unicef and how that business model is sustainable. "We left the club [in 2010, at the end of his previous mandate] with the new board of directors, the possibility to sign a contract with Etisalat and another one with Herbalife. These companies were paying around €20 million in order to keep Unicef in our shirt," he says.
More than a club?
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That was then, but would the same companies still be willing to pump money into Catalunya’s finest to see another name splashed across the front of the shirt? Evidently yes:
"They will do it, they will do it for sure," he explained. "I'm convinced that if I talk to the members and I explain this history... Bartomeu and company, they convinced the members to put Qatar on our shirt because they said that without Qatar Barca doesn't exist, because they need money. That was not true.
"I'm sure that I could convince the members of FC Barcelona to be linked in this image of having Unicef on our shirt."
Senor Laporta also remained keen to speak about the misinformation coming from the Bartomeu camp. ESPN and Spanish media outlet AS reported back in October that Judge Jose Manuel Martinez Borreguero found in Laporta’s favour, absolving him and his fellow directors of the need to pay back €46.7m that Rosell/Bartomeu had suggested was as a result of Laporta’s financial mismanagement of the club.
"The judge, the resolution, gave me the belief that we managed the club in the correct and right way."
Laporta discussed, too, the 'Espai Barca' project: the development of a new Camp Nou, basketball arena and other surrounding areas including the re-siting of the Miniestadi, where Barca B play their home games, to the new Masia complex at Sant Joan Despi just on the outskirts of town. Laporta's proposals, via Sir Norman Foster, which were agreed by the locale were canned by Rosell and Bartomeu, who have now presented their own 'Espai Barca' project. This remains unworkable because the entire scheme has yet to be approved by the municipality, according to the former president.
Then there is the recent bad publicity that Barcelona has received in recent years off the pitch... "Bartomeu, Rosell and these kind of people - they are being processed for corruption, tax evasion, and for fraud. And specifically because of their positions, FC Barcelona is processed as well for corruption and tax evasion.
Bartomeu, Rosell and these kind of people - they are being processed for corruption, tax evasion, and for fraud... It's another reason why I think that he [Bartomeu] is not the right person to proceed in FC Barcelona
"It's another reason why I think that he [Bartomeu] is not the right person to proceed in FC Barcelona."
Aside from being a 'Barcelonista', Joan Laporta is also an immensely proud Catalan and there is simply no escaping the politics that intertwine the club and Catalunya. Go to any match at Camp Nou or watch via satellite, and at precisely 17 minutes and 14 seconds from the start of each half, the cries of “independencia” rise up accompanied by the showing of the Estelada, Catalunya’s national flag. It was precisely this action in Berlin at the Champions League final that has landed the club in hot water with UEFA. Not that it concerns Laporta who will fight tooth and nail to uphold the club’s proud Catalan traditions:
"It's our flag, shouting for our freedom, and it's linked to the Barcelona flag. I'm sure that I will talk to UEFA in order to build new bridges in order that they understand very well that Barca represents Catalunya. I will do my best and make my best efforts to convince UEFA to cancel this.” Forthright, to the point and always with the clubs’ best interests at heart. Barca’s members have a decision to make on Saturday...