Josep Maria Bartomeu left the Barcelona presidency on Tuesday as he had occupied it: amid rancor, bewilderment and controversy.
His resignation, and that of the entirety of the board, pre-empted a vote of no confidence that had been scheduled for Wednesday and which he would almost certainly have lost. But just as everybody was wondering what had taken him so long, came his bombshell: the announcement that he had committed Barcelona to a European Super League.
Last week, there had been the leak of yet another proposal for a super league, this one apparently to be bankrolled by JP Morgan and comprising 18 sides, with limited or no promotion or relegation. It was largely dismissed as a bargaining tool ahead of the restructuring of the Champions League that will happen in 2024-25. But Bartomeu’s parting words will raise fears that this time, the plans have a little more substance to them.
“I can announce some extraordinary news,” he said. “Yesterday we accepted a proposal to participate in a future European Super League, which would guarantee the future financial sustainability of the club. And we’ve accepted the future Club World Cup format.”
In reality, Bartomeu was probably doing little more than deflecting from his own humiliation, while preparing the ground to take the credit if Barcelona does find itself part of a super league that might help to resolve its chaotic finances. It remains possible that Bartomeu and his board may face civil action over a budgetary shortfall since he took power in 2014.
Bartomeu’s demise had seemed certain for several months, yet even with presidential elections looming next year–elections he had almost no chance of winning–he remained bizarrely determined to cling to power. A petition raised against him had forced the no-confidence vote, but he had lobbied the Catalan government to postpone it until next month so emergency measures could be put in place to deal with the pandemic. When the government refused, prompting Bartomeu to stand down with the knowledge that he had no hope of securing the third of the vote required to stay on, he accused them of irresponsibility, leaving an interim board to deal with an unprecedented crisis.
That board, led by Carles Tusquets, an economics lecturer at Barcelona University, will prepare for presidential elections. Former president Joan Laporta had already declared his candidacy for next year’s ballot, as had businessman Victor Font, who has spoken about restoring the influence of La Masia, the club's fabled youth academy, and installing Xavi as coach.
Whoever takes over, it is not likely to be good news for Ronald Koeman, the Dutch defender appointed in August. Although he was part of Johan Cruyff’s great side of the early 90s, scoring the winner in the 1992 European Cup final, Koeman has already proved broadly unpopular as he has set about a necessary revolution with characteristic tactlessness. Defeat to an ordinary Real Madrid in Saturday’s Clasico, and in particular a shapeless, zestless second half, encapsulated the problems at the club.
Bartomeu’s departure will be portrayed as a victory for Lionel Messi, who had announced his intention to leave the club in the summer, only for the president to force him to stay, pointing out that the release clause in his contract had not been triggered in time. Whether Messi actually wanted to leave, or whether he was merely trying to force Bartomeu out was never clear. Messi responded by truculently committing to the club for a further year, while savaging Bartomeu, saying there had been “no project” at Barcelona for years.
That much, at least, is true. Bartomeu departed with a rambling 35-minute speech in which he sought to portray himself as the victim and permitted no questions. Even acknowledging the difficult times he has faced, it’s hard to imagine history being kind to him.
When he took over Barcelona, even after the departure of Pep Guardiola, he inherited one of the best sides in the world, one that would win the Champions League again in 2015. He leaves a squad of 30-somethings and teenagers with an unpopular manager and mounting debt, as probably the least popular president in the club’s history. If his words are to be taken at face value, he may also have transformed European football forever. Given his record, it’s hard to believe it would be for the better.