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Tussle behind closed doors at Barcelona FC

Barca sits top of La Liga, topped its Champions League group but things are a bit more complicated in the board room.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2014 10:37
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Barca had little to worry about on the field, despite Messi being out of action for almost two months [Getty Images]

An outsider looking at Barcelona’s season so far will think there is little to worry about at the club - the team has won the Spanish Supercopa, it sits top of the La Liga table, topped its Champions League group and has lost just two of their 30 games to date.

Still, many fans and pundits in Catalonia are not happy.

Coach Gerardo Martino’s tactics have been widely questioned. Defender Martin Montoya, midfielder Andres Iniesta and even talisman Lionel Messi have reportedly considered leaving the club. Directors have come under fire with reasons as diverse as sponsorship deals, transfer transparency and charging youngsters to attend matches.

So even when everyone at and around the Catalan club should be buoyant - results have generally been good with a new coach and revenues of over €500m announced in September - a mood of negativity and pessimism hangs over the Nou Camp.

Such apparent paradoxes are no surprise to keen followers of Barca's unique history, says Ramon Besa, who has followed the club for Spanish newspaper El País for a long time.

“Barcelona often works in a double way - like its colours 'blau' and 'grana',” Besa told Al Jazeera. “There are many currents within the same faith of barcelonismo. Just like a religion with various branches.”

Club history

To really know what is going right now, you must look back to the 1990s, says Santi Giménez, Barcelona correspondent for Madrid-based sports daily AS.

“On one side are the Cruyffistas, where you would find [former president] Joan Laporta and [former coach] Josep Guardiola,” Giménez said. “The other is the Nunistas, where [current president] Sandro Rosell is. Barcelona was ruled for 25 years by Nunez who ended badly with Cruyff.”

This Laporta v Rosell battle looms over pretty much everything at the Nou Camp these days. The pair were once friends, or at least allies, and mounted a successful presidential campaign together in 2003, when Laporta became president with Rosell a senior board member.

Personality clash in the board - where current Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano was also a leading figure - led to regular rows, and Rosell eventually stepped down in 2005, claiming he could no longer work with Laporta.

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Personality clash in the board - where current Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano was also a leading figure - led to regular rows, and Rosell eventually stepped down in 2005, claiming he could no longer work with Laporta.

The former Nike executive regrouped outside and then succeeded Laporta as president when the latter’s second term ended in 2010. Rosell immediately made changes - removing Cruyff from his previous honorary president position and inviting the previously disgraced Nunez back to official club events. The split was made even clearer early this year when the current board backed a legal action which sued the previous regime for €23m.

Everything that happens now at the club - player transfers, contracts, team selections, results, staff appointments, business policies, kit colour choices - are viewed differently depending on whether the observer [or media outlet] is closer to Rosell or Laporta.

Even Lionel Messi’s recent injury problems were seen through this lens - the striker’s decision to recover back home in Argentina reported to have been due to his unhappiness at changes made by Rosell to the club’s medical team.

The brickbats were [mostly] focused on the boardroom while Martino, who came from Argentine club football to replace lifelong Barcelona clubman Tito Vilanova as coach last summer, was winning games. But when Barca lost a not very significant Champions League game at Ajax in November followed by a 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao the next weekend, critics pounced.

Team style

Two defeats after 20 games unbeaten was no crisis but pundits who still pine for the beautiful football played under Guardiola and Vilanova were scathing in their analysis of Martino’s management style. Burns has sympathy for the Argentine coach who was appointed by Rosell.

“In fairness to Martino, he’s caught in a crossfire beyond his control,” Burns said. “His handicap is that he comes in and breaks with the narrative that the club’s modern greatness begins with Cruyff as a player, continues with Cruyff and then Guardiola and Vilanova as managers.

“Suddenly an outsider gets brought in, who also begins to break up a system of play which people were used to.”

The Argentine coach was first baffled by the content and tone of questioning at his regular press-conferences but reacted with humour and logic. He has, however, grown increasingly irritated at the focus on every minor detail as the months have passed.

Catalan paper Mundo Deportivo claimed before Christmas that Martino had told friends he was fed up with the atmosphere at Barca and planned to leave in the summer.

The complications look set to continue for another three years at least. Rosell has already announced he will run for re-election in 2016, while Laporta could well return if his attempt to become a leading force in Catalan national politics flopped.

Fireworks expected

The Champions League draw has paired Barca with Soriano’s Manchester City, adding extra boardroom spice to their upcoming last-16 games. Many are waiting to see whether Soriano will be welcomed at directors events around the second-leg at the Nou Camp.

Despite this outlook Gimenez strikes an optimistic tone - saying the saving grace was that the club's long-serving footballers are now immune to such off-field controversies.

“Barca lives amid a permanent campaign,” Gimenez said. “The senior players – Carles Puyol, Xavi, Hernández, Messi and company - have seen similar upheaval before but kept on winning.

“With Guardiola, there were motions of censure, elections and half of Laporta’s board resigning en masse, and the team took no notice.”
 

 

Dermot Corrigan - An Irish writer who lives in Madrid and writes about Spanish football for a variety of international and local media including ESPNfc.com, FOXsoccer.com, When Saturday Comes and the Irish Examiner. He tweets @dermotmcorrigan

 
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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