Barcelona civil war explained: Why Camp Nou is in crisis

Lionel Messi Real Madrid Barcelona
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Blaugrana president Josep Maria Bartomeu is coming under intense pressure after a succession of scandals that have rocked the club to the core

On Saturday, May 18, 1996, the headlines in the Catalan sporting press were dominated by the revelation that Bobby Robson had agreed a deal with Barcelona president Josep Lluis Nunez the day before to become the club's new coach.

This was news to Johan Cruyff. Just two days beforehand, the Dutchman had met with Nunez and vice-president Joan Gaspart and received no indication that his job was in jeopardy.

So, when Gaspart arrived at Camp Nou and extended his hand, Cruyff pushed it away and snapped, "You're Judas!"

According to then-assistant coach Charly Rexach's account in Jimmy Burns' book 'Barca', the former Netherlands international labelled his bosses "traitors" and accused them of stabbing him in the back.

"How is it possible," Cruyff screamed, "that Nunez didn't have the guts to deal with whatever problems there are with me face to face?"

The argument ended with Gaspart threatening to call the police to forcibly remove Cruyff from the premises.

The most influential figure in the club's history was told, "You no longer belong here."

Barcelona as a club, then, have never been any strangers to controversy at boardroom level. However, even by the Blaugrana's standards, the past week has been extraordinarily dramatic.

"Like football's answer to Game of Thrones," as one source familiar with the inner workings of the club told Goal.

Camp Nou, it seems, is on the verge of a civil war. But why?

As always with Barcelona, separating fact from fiction is difficult. However, this is what we know so far of the origins of the Catalan conflict...

Neymar

Josep Maria Bartomeu succeeded Sandro Rosell as Barcelona president in 2014, after the latter was forced to resign after the opening of an investigation into his handling of Neymar's transfer from Santos the year before.

Coincidentally, Bartomeu's problems are also linked to the Brazil forward, who joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.

Josep Maria Bartomeu Neymar Barcelona

The Blaugrana supremo tried to re-sign Neymar last summer but no deal was done, much to the frustration of club captain Lionel Messi, among others.

Bartomeu's relationship with the players has been strained ever since, given there was a perception that he had never really wanted Neymar back at Camp Nou.

Valverde's dismissal

The squad were further upset by their boss' handling of the dismissal of Ernesto Valverde in January.

Barca were top of the Liga table at the time and, thus, on course for a third consecutive title. However, the fans had grown increasingly frustrated with the coach's allegedly pragmatic style of play, his perceived ignorance of La Masia's most exciting prospects, and the team's propensity for sudden and shocking capitulations in the Champions League.

So, when Barca conceded twice in the closing stages of a 3-2 loss to Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana semi-finals on January 9, Bartomeu decided to act, sacking Valverde four days later.

However, he was criticised for the way in which he managed the whole affair, as the club elected to remove Valverde without having a replacement lined up.

The club claimed that they had been in contact with Quique Setien for weeks before appointing him but the new coach admitted at his unveiling that he had been surprised to receive a call from Barcelona the day before.

The truth was that Barca had been rejected by the likes of Xavi and Ronald Koeman.

The former would have been a particularly popular choice both with the fans and many of his former team-mates but, as Goal learned, the iconic midfielder was reluctant to become part of project that he didn't have 100 per cent faith in.

January transfer window

Bartomeu came under fire again just a matter of weeks later after the January transfer window closed without Barca having brought in another forward.

This was considered unacceptable by supporters, given first-choice No.9 Luis Suarez was facing at least another three months on the sidelines through injury – and there was no like-for-like replacement within the squad.

An injury to winger Ousmane Dembele only exacerbated Barca's problems in attack and ultimately led to the club having to desperately take advantage of a rule allowing them to make an emergency signing.

Martin Braithwaite Barcelona 2019-20

They eventually landed Martin Braithwaite, much to the disgust of Leganes, who were unable to sign a replacement of their own.

In addition, Barca had spent €18 million (£16m/$20m) on a 28-year-old journeyman who was ineligible for the Champions League and considered unlikely to stay in Catalunya beyond the summer.

Remarkably, though, worse was to come for Bartomeu and his increasingly ragged reputation.

SocialMedia-gate

In February, Spanish radio network Cadena SER claimed that an independent social media company had been contracted by Barca to boost the public profile of the Barca president and his board members.

However, it was also alleged that the I3 Ventures had also been tasked with undermining individuals with strong links to the club, including Messi, Xavi, defender Gerard Pique and former coach Pep Guardiola.

Bartomeu issued a swift denial: "First of all, I have to say that Barcelona haven't hired any service to discredit anyone. Neither players, nor the executives, ex-presidents. That is totally false.

"So, we will defend ourselves where necessary regarding this subject, by all means, and in front of anyone who accuses us of doing this. I repeat again, it is false that Barcelona, in any case, has hired anyone to discredit people.

"It is true that at the end of 2017, Barcelona hired a service to monitor different areas of the club on social media, as the majority of the clubs have.

"After the confirmation that one of the accounts linked to one of this company's suppliers have made inappropriate commentaries about people related to our organisation, I have given instructions personally to terminate the contract with this company.

"I want to make something clear. Regarding the question: 'Have we ordered anyone to monitor social media?', the answer is yes – and we will still do it.

"It is the responsibility of this club to know what is going on and what is being said around the world, always to preserve Barcelona.

"Regarding the question: 'Have we given orders to discredit people or institutions through social media?', the answer is no and we will persecute everyone who accuses us of it."

Xavi Al-Sadd 2019-20

Despite Bartomeu's comments, there were calls for him to resign in Barca's following Liga game at Camp Nou, a 5-0 defeat of Eibar.

Messi, meanwhile, was reluctant to jump to any conclusions.

"It's weird that something like this happens, but they also said that there would be evidence," he told Mundo Deportivo after the news broke.

"We will have to wait to see if it is true or not. We cannot say much and we will wait to see what happens with all of this."

Messi would demonstrate no such restraint, though, when it came to the next controversy to rock the club...

Covid-19 salary cuts

The Argentine is renowned as a shy character who shuns the limelight. However, he had already shown himself willing to lash out in public if the integrity of his team-mates was called into question.

Indeed, Messi had reacted furiously to technical director Eric Abidal's suggestion that some players had played a part in Valverde's dismissal because they had not tried hard enough.

"I honestly do not like to do this kind of thing but I think that everyone has to be responsible for their job and take responsibility for their decisions," the No.10 wrote on Instagram.

"Players are responsible for what happens on the field, we are also the first to acknowledge when we don't play well.

"Those in charge of sporting direction should also face up to their responsibilities and above all take charge of their own decisions."

In that context, it was unsurprising that Messi felt compelled to speak again amid negative press coverage of a proposed salary cut to help the club cope with the financial effects of the Covid-19 crisis.

Messi, Eric Abidal

It was claimed in certain sections of the press that the players were refusing to agree to wage reductions and the feeling was that the information was coming directly from the club.

Messi effectively admitted that he shared that suspicion when he again took to social media to make his opinion known.

"Much has been written and said about the Barcelona first team in relation to the players' salaries during this state of alarm," he wrote.

"Before going any further, we want to make it clear that we were always willing to reduce our salaries because we understand perfectly that we are in an exceptional situation. We, as players, are always here to help the club when they ask. Sometimes, we have done things on our own initiative during times when we felt it necessary and important.

"It didn’t surprise us that inside the club there are some trying to put us under the microscope and pressure us into doing something that we were always clear we would do. In fact, if the agreement came a little late it is because we have been looking for the formula to help the club and also the workers of the club at this difficult time.

"For our part, the moment has arrived to say that the cut will be 70 per cent of our wage during the state of alarm. We will also help out the club in order for the workers to be paid 100% of their wages.

"If we didn’t speak until now, it’s because the priority was to find solutions to help the club and to see who the most affected were during this situation.

"We don’t want to sign off without giving a massive salute and our strength to all of the cules who are going through a bad moment in these difficult times and those waiting patiently in their homes until this crisis is over.

"Soon, we will come out on the other side of this and we will all join together."

Bartomeu, who has many friends in the media, backed Messi's side of the story but when asked who was responsible for the leaks, he had no answers.

There would also be no demonstration of the kind of unity Messi wanted to see either. As it transpired, the divisions at Camp Nou would only deepen.

Mass resignations

As Goal reported on Wednesday, Bartomeu had already begun planning a Camp Nou cull, having been enraged by attempts to dethrone him during an impromptu board meeting called in the wake of SocialMedia-gate, when directors tried to convince him to resign his post and bring forward next summer's presidential election.

Bartomeu is prohibited from running again but he remains determined to see out the final year of his second and final term at the helm. Consequently, he set about strengthening his position, informing several directors that they would have no part to play in the new-look team.

Most surprisingly of all, Bartomeu sought to remove Emili Rousaud, who had been touted as the president's preferred successor.

The vice-president was furious, telling Cadena SER on Wednesday that he was being made a scapegoat.

"Bartomeu told me he wanted to revamp the board and he was annoyed with certain directors, myself included," he revealed. "He told me that there had been leaks which upset the players and that I was casting doubt on the board's work.

"I told Bartomeu that I speak to the press but I do not cause leaks, and I have never criticised the players. The best thing to do would be to talk face to face once the state of emergency has passed.

"I told him to give me time to think to answer him properly... but I think it's cowardly to do this over the phone and without warning."

Rousaud initially declared his intention to fight for his job but he resigned on Thursday night, along with fellow vice-president Enrique Tombas, while Silvio Elias, Maria Teixidor, Josep Pont and Jordi Clasamiglia also walked.

Josep Bartomeu

"We hereby want to communicate that the undersigned managers have transferred to President Bartomeu our decision to irrevocably resign from our position as managers of FC Barcelona," read the group's letter to La Vanguardia.

"We have reached this point by not being able to reverse the criteria and forms of management of the club in the face of the important challenges of the future and, especially, from the new post-pandemic scenario.

"We must also highlight our disenchantment with the unfortunate episode on social networks, known as 'Barcagate', which we learned about through the press.

"We ask here that once the results of the audit entrusted to PWC are presented, that responsibilities be cleared as well as the eventual corresponding compensation.

"As a last service to our club, we recommend that as soon as circumstances allow it to convene new elections that allow, with all the 'authority', to manage the club in the best possible way in the face of the important challenges of the immediate future.

"Last but not least, we want to have a very special recognition and thanks to our colleagues on the Board of Directors who have dedicated and dedicate their best energy and efforts for the good of our beloved Barcelona Football Club. Also to thank the executives and employees of the Club for their support and excellent work during this time in which we have had the honour of serving our beloved Barca."

'Hand in the till'

The club's supporters were still coming to terms with the mass exit when Rousaud sensationally claimed the following morning that someone was stealing from the club.

When asked during an interview with RAC1 if he believed money was being taken out of the till, he replied, "Sincerely, I think so. Who was it? I don't think it was someone from the board. I don't know who it was, but I can speculate.

“When you pay €1m (£0.9m/$1.1m) for something worth €100,000 (£90,000/$110,000), that could bring benefit to someone inside or outside the club. I don't think it's someone on the board but if there's a discrepancy then it means someone is benefiting in an illicit way.

“With 'SocialMediaGate', we have three problems. The first is understanding whether the social media networks are being used to destroy others' reputations – I don't think that is the case.

“Secondly, is the €3m (£2.7m/$3.3m) paid for those services market price? And third, it's unquestionable that the payments have been made in stages [to circumvent the board]. The issue is the fragmentation of the invoices. After the audit, we couldn't look the other way.

“The president's offer to step down came when the report was about to drop. It's suspicious. The president knows what he puts in the audit and that's one of the factors that concerns us.”

Barcelona have rejected Rousaud's claim and also threatened legal action, while at the same time insisting that the resignations had been expected as part of a planned restructuring process.

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To the fans, though, there appears to be no structure at all. Indeed, Barca's board is required to be made up of at least 14 directors but there are now only 13 left and Rousaud has claimed that more resignations are on the way.

What does all of this mean for Bartomeu, Barca and his board? Well, just like a classic episode of Game of Thrones, the ending is difficult to predict.

However, as Cruyff's exit 23 years underlined, nobody is safe from the chop.

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