Barca are being destroyed
Joan Laporta tells Ben Hayward how the best team in history is being ruined from within
It all started with a brilliant Brazilian and a transfer involving Paris Saint-Germain. Joan Laporta won the elections to take over as Barcelona president in 2003 and brought in Ronaldinho to spearhead an ambitious sporting project on the pitch. Today, rocked by the acrimonious departure of another Brazilian, Neymar, to PSG, the Catalan club is far removed from the one he left when his mandate ended in 2010.
By then, Barca had won it all. There were no trophies at all between 1999 and 2004, but the Blaugrana won back-to-back Liga titles and a first Champions League (a second European Cup) under Frank Rijkaard, before spectacular success followed with Pep Guardiola as coach.
By the time Laporta left, Guardiola’s great team had won seven titles, including a treble in 2008-09 and six out of six in an unprecedented 16-month spell that culminated with the Club World Cup in December 2009. It was also a Barca side revered for its singular style, for winning with fabulous football.
“The Champions League wins stand out,” Laporta told Goal in an exclusive interview. “The Champions League wins and the 2-6 at the Bernabeu. On a sporting level. And the way our players played, that genuine style of playing football that Barca has. That, in sporting terms, is what really stays in the memory and what gives me great pride.”
But it was more than that. During that time, Barca’s first team was mainly made up of homegrown talents from La Masia, while the club had no shirt sponsor, with charity Unicef given pride of place on the front of the famous blaugrana jersey. Whichever way you looked, it was an admirable philosophy. Més que un club.
However, things quickly changed when Laporta’s old foe Sandro Rosell won the elections in 2010. The two men were once friends and had worked together initially, but ultimately they would become rivals.
Laporta embraced Rosell after the latter swept to power in 2010, but there was no love lost between the two after that and the new president claimed his predecessor had left the club with huge debts, alleging financial mismanagement at the Catalan club.
“Their only interest was to discredit us,” Laporta said. “Because we left them the best Barca in history. Seven years have gone by and they have maintained a lie in order to discredit me and to do their thing with Qatar. They removed Unicef [from the shirt], put Qatar there, and they discredited me, saying that we had managed the club in an irresponsible way, and that allowed them to do their thing with Qatar.
“And now it’s coming out with all the FBI stuff… We have an ex-president who said that I mismanaged the club, who said so in order to discredit me and undertake activities with Qatar. Well, now he’s in prison for alleged involvement with an armed group, cashing illegal commissions and money laundering. We have had to suffer an unbearable, unfair situation, disproportionate because we left the best Barca in history and those rogues tried to discredit us in that way.
“Fortunately, the courts proved us right. Seven years later, we have been proved right definitively: we had managed the club in a responsible way and very well in the economic area as well.”
Rosell is now in prison, with Bartomeu in charge, and Laporta believes the two men are destroying the model that made Barca great during his mandate.
“It’s very difficult to have any feeling with Bartomeu,” he said. “Because he is a person who, with his attitude, he has Barca kidnapped with intoxication, with lies… and on top of that he is a president who is facing charges, so in that respect he isn’t very trustworthy.
“And in addition, it has been shown that he is a puppet for the one who is in prison. And therefore, I think this is a disgrace. We are suffering at Barca because both the one that is in prison and the one we have now as president were the ones that made a deal with the public prosecutor, which saw Barca convicted, for the first time in its history, for a double tax crime.
“There is no transparency when it comes to explaining things, there is not sufficient information. Everything is very dark at Barca, not at all transparent. And that is down to the president we have.”
Barcelona won another treble in 2014-15 under Luis Enrique, but that success was achieved using a more direct and pragmatic playing style that owed much to the brilliance of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in attack.
With such success on the pitch, Laporta lost the presidential elections in 2015, but he says he wanted to show that a different model was possible.
“I stood despite the treble to show that there was another model for running the club,” he said. “I wanted to show that there was another model for running the club that did not involve Qatar, that does not destroy La Masia, that doesn’t mean going to the [transfer] market and signing players at any price… that there’s a club that can have Unicef on its shirt, that can be based on the system of play that was invented by Johan Cruyff, that strengthens La Masia… That is the model of the club that we built and that this lot, that are still in the board today, have taken to destroying.
“Today, the institution is given more importance than the team, but the club depends on what happens on the pitch. They haven’t been able to oversee the renovation as they should have and that’s why last year didn’t go as it should have. We have an imbalanced squad, the youth system is being dissolved with no players coming through, and all of that worries me because the model we built for Barça worked and was the most appropriate one, in my understanding, to compete with clubs that are owned by a magnate with pots of money to spend on players.
“The figures should be lower, [but] up against that, we produced players from the youth system, we created stars to play in the first team.”
La Masia was a pillar of Laporta’s project, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Pedro, Messi and Victor Valdes all key players during his mandate. In recent years, however, the youth academy has not had the same impact.
“The proof is in the few players who are moving up to the first team or playing in the first team,” the former club chief said. “They have maintained the ones we had and I don’t think they have brought through replacements. They have taken advantage of the great players in the first team at Barca, but they haven’t worked at bringing through the next batch.
“Apart from Sergi Roberto, who came from our time really, they haven’t brought through one player. The opposite: they have sold players and some have ended up leaving. And for our model, that is very worrying. We need to bring through players with talent, and there is talent at youth level at Barca, there is.”
Laporta lent heavily on Johan Cruyff as an advisor during his time as president, having idolised the Dutchman as a young Barcelona fan.
“For me, [Joan] Gamper, [Laszlo] Kubala and Cruyff were the most important figures in the history of Barca,” he said. “The ones who transformed the club and defined an era.
“In Johan’s case, for me, he was important because as a player he transformed football into art and he gave us a Liga in 1973-74 after 14 years in which Barca had not won anything. We played spectacular football and we won that Liga, among other things, but the most important thing was how they played.
“Later, as coach, he gave us a European Cup and four Ligas in a row, and he was inspiration for a whole generation, which is mine, that when we arrived at Barca, we were inspired by his way of understanding football, by his footballing philosophy, by his way of understanding life. And in that respect, we have to be grateful to him and that is why I made him honorary president. So for me, yes, he is the most important personality in the history of Barca.”
Laporta believes Barcelona have lost some of their identity since those heady days, particularly since the departure of Xavi, and says the club should remain true to Cruyff’s philosophy.
In terms of personnel, Barcelona have been unable to convince some of their targets - including Marco Verratti - to join the club, while Neymar has now left to join PSG. So what has gone wrong?
“They don’t have credibility,” Laporta said. “They have a very bad image all over the world. Before, I remember that the players even came earning less money. Why? Because they were excited to play alongside, at that time, Ronaldinho, or Deco, now Messi, Xavi is no longer there, Iniesta… They had to be excited. Before, when we had Ronaldinho, Messi, Deco, Eto’o, all of them.
“And also, Barca transmitted an image with Unicef on the shirt. Barca because of its history is already attractive, the club’s aspirations every season make it attractive, and there were players who wanted to come to Barca and who were willing to come to Barca for less money.
“And the ones we had, stayed. They didn’t even contemplate moving to another team because they were happy, not just at the club, or in the country, but I understand they were satisfied with the image transmitted by the club, the values transmitted by the club.
“Now we have a club in which the president is facing charges, the ex-president, who as I say is the one who controls the current president, is in jail… they took Unicef off the shirt and put it on the bum, a series of decisions that have greatly damaged the image of Barca.”
Other players, such as Isco, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos, have moved to Real Madrid - even though they would seem ideally suited to the Barcelona blueprint. And that caused Xavi to claim in a recent interview that his former club had “fallen asleep”, allowing Los Blancos to take advantage.
“I share Xavi’s opinion,” Laporta said. “There are players with Barca’s style who should be playing at Barca, but who are playing for Madrid. And that’s because, like I say, we have lost credibility, there is less excitement, that ability to bring in players with talent has been lost.
“And on top of that, they are not working with the youth system as they should, so that is what happens. So I am totally in agreement with Xavi. I believe that is true, they have fallen asleep, and with all that this lot are doing, let’s hope that during this sleep, we don’t end up having nightmares…”
During Laporta’s reign, Madrid were very much second best to Barcelona at home and in Europe, but Real have been more successful in recent seasons. So have the fierce rivals learnt from Barca’s glorious era?
“Well,” he said. “When we were there, Madrid didn’t win any European Cups. Now, they have won three. They are doing things better than us. And that’s why I’m calling for the resignation of this board, because this needs to be turned around as soon as possible.
“Because if not, we will have an era, a period where, if we carry on along this path, Madrid will have many opportunities to keep winning.”
Laporta is ready to stand again if a censure motion brought by former presidential candidate Agusti Benedito against Bartomeu is successful. If not, there are no elections planned until 2021 and Laporta admits he does not know if he will want to stand then.
He is clear, however, that even if he himself is not involved again, the likes of Xavi, Pique and Puyol will play a big part in Barca’s future.
“Pique, Puyol, Xavi, also Busquets when the time comes, Andres… they have many qualities to stay linked to the club,” he said. “Let’s hope that Leo too, the day he decides to hang up his boots, even though like I say that’s a long way away, let’s hope he can stay linked to the club.
“But Xavi has enormous qualities to be a coach and he wants to be a coach. Pique has many qualities to be president and he also wants to be president. Carles is involved with the world of football, as an agent and such. All of them are acquiring knowledge that will serve them very well for the Barca of the immediate future.”
In the meantime, Laporta wants the club to recover some of Cruyff’s philosophy and the values of La Masia under their new coach.
“I hope [Ernesto] Valverde trusts the homegrown players,” he said. “I hope he plays with the genuine system for playing football invented by Cruyff, which he knows perfectly, and I hope he picks players that are apt for that system.
“With Messi and the players we have, I would like them to be concerned with building a squad, because last year we didn’t have that. Madrid had a stronger bench and that is what made them win La Liga. But the expectation I have for Barca, with Messi as a player, is the maximum expectation. With Messi, anything is possible…”