Inside Barcelona: Success beyond trophies for club president Rosell

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BARCELONA, Spain -- You never know who you might meet on the road. Sam Lardner is (among other things) a Dartmouth alum, a descendant of sportswriting legend Ring Lardner, a professional musician, a former FC Barcelona ice hockey player and a one-time board member of the foundation started by Barça soccer deity Johan Cruyff.

A full-time resident of Barcelona since 1997, Lardner is in an ideal spot to observe the bustling political scene at FC Barcelona, which is "owned" by its 180,000 members who vote in elections for the club president every four years. Lardner took his son to London last year for the Arsenal-Barcelona Champions League game, and on the way back, they saw Barça president Sandro Rosell, the man in charge of the storied club with the most successful soccer team of this era.

"Rosell flew back on easyJet," said Lardner, mentioning the European budget-airline equivalent of Southwest Airlines. "I was very impressed by that. Rosell to me is doing a discreet and serious job. I know what's going on in his mind. He's got to clean up a big old mess."

When Rosell was elected as Barça's 39th president in 2010 with more than 60 percent of the vote, the club had a net debt of $558 million, owing in part to bank loans to help pay for transfers. That figure may not be quite as scary as it looks, in part because Barça is such a big revenue generator (as noted in this excellent Swiss Ramble piece), but the debt was still out of whack compared to what it should be.

"When we won the election, the biggest criticism was the financial aspect of the club," said Rosell, leaning forward in a chair in his office at the club. "We had an enormous debt with the banks outside of the financial ratios that Barça needs. It was a priority getting the debt under control and in relation to revenue. We've worked hard to cut costs and increase revenue in order to repay the bank debt -- and without being less competitive, while still winning trophies, we've reduced our debt by 15.5 percent. In one season we went from being €430 million [$558 million] in the red to a €364 million [$472 million] net debt."

In addition to cutting costs, Rosell worked out a deal with the Qatar Foundation, which became Barça's first paid shirt sponsor in a $225 million transaction.

Rosell, 48, has the air of a big-time politician, which is exactly what you have to be as the Barça president. But he also has a connection to the club that goes back to childhood. Rosell's father, Jaume, was club secretary of Barça in the early 1970s, and young Sandro was a diehard fan who became a club social member at age 4.

"Just like any kid in Catalonia, I wanted to be a Barça football player," he said. "They had tryouts every Saturday. I came to try out, but I wasn't good enough to play for Barça. The second option was to play for a small Barcelona amateur fan club. There are two types of fan clubs, the social clubs and the clubs that also play soccer and have formative youth teams. So I landed in one of those from the time I was 6 until I was 18. Meanwhile, my dad was general manager of the club, and I got to be a ballboy. As a small boy, you lived that passion up close."

After earning an MBA, Rosell worked on the organizing committee for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and eventually joined Nike, which had made a big jump into the global soccer market in the mid-1990s. "The first responsibility of my job description with Nike was to get a contract signed with Barça, which back then used Kappa gear," Rosell said. "So I began to negotiate the contract between Nike and Barça, which is still valid today. It took six months to get it done."

Rosell later moved to Brazil, where he was Nike's point man in its megadeal with the Brazilian national team, and those Brazilian relationships came in handy after he returned to Barcelona and was elected as a Barça vice-president on the ticket of Joan Laporta in 2003. That summer, Rosell was the central figure in Barça's signing of Brazilian star Ronaldinho, who would go on to win two World Player of the Year awards and lead the club to the 2005-06 Champions League crown.

Barça is a hothouse of internal politics, though, with constantly shifting alliances and as much media coverage as governmental politics. In 2005, just two years after coming into office, Rosell joined four other members in resigning from Barça's board, citing concerns about Laporta's authoritarian style. Rosell became a leading critic of Laporta and then ran for Barça president himself at the end of Laporta's tenure in 2010.

While Rosell has reduced Barça's debt and presided over the continuing runaway success, especially under former manager Pep Guardiola in 2010-11, there remains plenty of Machiavellian political intrigue at the club. One of the strange consequences of Rosell's presidency is that Barça has essentially disassociated itself these days from Cruyff, the most important figure in the development of Barcelona's playing philosophy.

As Graham Hunter explains in his excellent book, Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, Laporta had given Cruyff the position of Barça's honorary president in 2010, just before leaving office. Soon after winning the election, Rosell's board made it a priority to propose stripping Cruyff of the title, and the next day Cruyff renounced the position.

Said Cruyff, "If this position is so important that it took priority in the new board's first meeting, then it's obvious that I'm a thorn in someone's side, so I'm getting out of the way."

When I ask Rosell about his strained relationship with Cruyff, he shifts momentarily in his chair before answering. "The relationship with Johan is first and foremost as a culé [Barça fan], as a blaugrana member, of admiration and respect for a historic figure at the club as player and coach," he said. "Now as a normal person, meaning he doesn't serve a specific function at the club, we still admire him a whole lot, but we don't have a relationship. It's the simple admiration of any fan for that player and coach. At this moment there is a contractual relationship between the Barça Foundation and his foundation that we must honor, because it was already signed. But there's no relationship beyond that. Right now he's dedicated to Ajax and Chivas [de Guadalajara] and is very busy."

Rosell and Cruyff may have plenty of personal animosity, but that doesn't mean Rosell would be foolish enough to abandon the club philosophy that owes so much to Cruyff. When Guardiola, a Cruyff disciple, left Barça after four wildly successful seasons as manager last spring, Rosell and sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta could have hired a replacement who had nothing to do with the Cruyff school. Instead they simply promoted Guardiola's assistant, Tito Vilanova.

"The Barcelona president has to maintain the values, the essence and the history of the club," Rosell said, "because it's so entrenched in the DNA of the Barça members -- how we want the club to be, how we feel about it, where we want it to go, how we like to play, how we like our players to be -- that it must remain so. Leave things as they are, and if you see that they get off track, correct the course." One example Rosell cites is the board's decision to reconsider offering social membership to the club online.

"We realized we had acquired too many members," he said. "Each day we had more of them, and we were losing the connection with them because we had opened up the membership online. We were losing the DNA, because I want to see you, meet you. I want you here at the club. If you come here and show your face, perfect, but not just through the web. That's getting off track."

Barça's motto is Més que un club (More than a club), and everyone you meet here really does see it that way. The club's social mission matters: Rosell was in New York City last week to meet with UNICEF (which is on the back of Barça's jerseys) and Bill Gates, whose foundation has teamed up with Barça in a global campaign to fight polio.

"I don't know what we do that makes Barcelona different; it's that Barcelona just is different," said Rosell. "It's a club that's owned by 180,000 people, a club that has always belonged to all of its members, that belongs to the Catalans, because we are seven million strong. It's about the values we represent, not only competing in sports but also solidarity, camaraderie and Catalonian-ness, much more than just winning trophies."

Of course, winning trophies helps, too.

"The day-to-day doesn't allow you to take that time perspective and realize that this team is making history for sure," Rosell said. "But I have no doubt they will go down in history as the best team of all time."