Only one man in the history of football has presided over the gigantic and historic achievement of his club winning a second league, domestic cup and Champions League Treble. That fabled podium for Treble winners has been attainable since the birth of the European Cup, 63 long years ago. Only seven clubs (Celtic, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Manchester United) have managed the feat — with Barcelona Barcelona being unique in achieving it twice.
Barca’s president in 2015, when that second Treble was clinched, was Josep Maria Bartomeu.
During his six-year reign, Barca have won 71 trophies across their various sporting sections (including roller hockey and beach soccer). It’s also praiseworthy that despite Bartomeu previously quitting Barcelona’s board in 2005, furious about then-president Joan Laporta’s devotion to Johan Cruyff’s influence, it has been during Bartomeu’s presidency that the ruinous relationship between Barcelona and the Cruyff family has been assiduously and patiently rebuilt. The club and Cruyff’s academic institutions run joint courses; the new training-ground arena is named Johan Cruyff Stadium after their greatest football thinker.
Danny Cruyff, Johan’s wife, pledged never to return to Camp Nou after the way Sandro Rosell (the Barcelona president, 2010-14) treated her husband. Under Bartomeu’s reign, she has often been seen in the presidential box. More praise for Bartomeu.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Barcelona were prompt to hand over their facilities to the medical authorities in Catalonia. While only time will tell how useful this has proved, the willingness, timing and alacrity of action were exemplary.
Yet despite all this, Bartomeu will not be well remembered when history comes to judge him. Considering the list above, isn’t that pretty incredible?
The short summary of his atrocious situation reads like this:
- In the middle of a pandemic crisis that should have seen everyone at Barcelona dedicated to helping the football club, its employees and fans survive this brutal virus, several of his board have just walked out on him
- Long before the opening of the transfer market, which continues to fill the front pages of the local football papers despite none of us knowing when the summer window will commence, or whether Barcelona will have the financial wherewithal to operate in it, Bartomeu has been consistently turned down by a number of big signings
- Carles Puyol said “No, gracias” to an offer of joining the technical staff, as did Jordi Cruyff, at least once. When Xavi, viewed by many (rightly or wrongly) as this club’s saviour-in-waiting, was offered the chance to take over as coach a few weeks back his answer, too, was “No, thank you.” Ditto Ronald Koeman
- Don’t forget Neymar embarrassingly saying, “I’m not interested” when Bartomeu offered him a huge contract extension, and appropriate salary rise, in winter 2016. His precursor to leaving them in the lurch
In the nostrils of these pretty distinguished alumni of FC Barcelona, something smells not quite right when they get a whiff of Bartomeu.
When Xavi talked about the sort of environment he’ll try to establish when he (eventually) becomes Barca coach, he specifically used the word “toxic” when talking about the type of characters he’ll determinedly expunge from both Camp Nou and its training facilities.
Did he specifically mean Bartomeu, the man who has kicked out director of football after director of football in the past few seasons? The man who, when it became crystal clear that media reports of a company being employed by Barcelona’s board to create negative social media images of presidential opponents and some current Camp Nou players had foundation basically said: Well, I’ll have to find out how this has happened, it’s nothing to do with me?
The man who, when Lionel Messi directly criticised what he believed were Camp Nou board leaks to the Catalan media about how long it took for Barcelona’s players to negotiate a massive 70% pay cut basically said: Well, I’ll have to find out how this has happened, it’s nothing to do with me? Or did Xavi simply mean the poisonous, backstabbing, mistrustful, finger-jabbing atmosphere that hasn’t simply been allowed to take root, but to dominate at Camp Nou under Bartomeu’s reign?
Draw your own conclusions.
I think it’s illustrative that over the past couple of weeks, both Liverpool and Tottenham — clubs of comparable ambition, recent rivals in Europe and fellow commercial behemoths — have made bad errors of judgement that drew torrents of reprobation and dismay. What did both Liverpool and Spurs do after their respective decisions about how to treat staff and the clubs’ public images were comprehensively hammered both inside the industry and out? They recanted and they corrected.
These are tactics that Bartomeu, who on Monday announced a “Nothing to see here, folks” Camp Nou board re-shuffle, would do well to learn from. Phrases such as “I see where I/we went wrong,” “We’ve learned our lessons,” “We’re listening to these criticisms,” “We’ll try to avoid repeating these kind of mistakes” don’t seem to be in his vocabulary.
One of his fundamental errors, and again one for which he’ll be badly judged in the history books, is forgetting the true purpose of being Barcelona president. The central purpose is to ensure the club has a healthy, intelligent, visionary sporting and commercial strategy, one that is enacted, reviewed, updated and made wholly transparent. Kudos, laurel wreaths, trophies and veneration will follow. Instead, he seems to have pursued self-aggrandisement and legacy, focusing more on the creation of a Bartomeu empire.
In this tendency, he’s very far from alone. Even Barcelona’s historically most successful president, Laporta, faced censure from within his ranks, a motion of lack of confidence and desertion from his board.
Being president is far from straightforward, but Bartomeu is the man who has presided over a pretty comprehensive abandonment of the very policies that took Barcelona from the scrapheap to the world throne in the space of six years.
When Laporta instituted a complete overhaul of this club in 2003, during what was a six-year hiatus without a single major football trophy, he used Cruyff as his pole star, Cruyff’s disciples as his staff and Cruyff-selected footballers as his Praetorian Guard. Barcelona, a football wasteland for years, swept the board both in terms of trophies and admiration.
Bartomeu has decided over time that Galactico-style mega-signings are the way forward. Half a billion euros (including transfer fees, wages, tax and agents’ fees) was spent on three footballers in Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, and not one of them looks likely to come close to returning the investment.
Bartomeu, gradually, has decided that being the first club to reach €1 billion turnover is somehow more worthy and more desirable than a healthy wage bill, more important than a fully functioning Cruyffist youth system providing a flow of first-team-ready products. The neck-and-neck ego race with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez about which club could claim that €1b turnover tag has become, at Camp Nou at least, a glittering distraction from real flaws and false directions.
Did Bartomeu know this pandemic was going to arrive and cut off revenue flow, leave him scrabbling around to pay what the club is committed to paying and desperately hoping the domestic and European seasons can, somehow, be completed to avoid utterly disastrous financial damage? Of course not. But Sod’s law is globally understood, and popularised in every language: If you’re risking more than you can afford to lose, the immutable universal law is that circumstances will conspire, however improbably, to trip you up.
So it has been for this president’s reign. The commercial stasis caused by this pandemic has not only left Bartomeu’s tactics exposed, it has left those who disagree with him, mistrust him or downright oppose him in much more powerful positions.
Throughout his reign, Bartomeu has benefitted from those inspired by Cruyff. He inherited footballers who were either signed while Cruyff was involved with Barcelona or subsequently signed using his principles.
For this ambitious president, that 2015 Treble was like the man who steps up to a roulette table in Monte Carlo, slaps down €50 on 15 red, wins €1,750, then, on the law of ever diminishing returns, starts to lose more than he wins and, endlessly, chases after another big win, abandoning good principles and throwing good money after bad.
Bartomeu, it strongly appears, has not only hungrily been chasing legacy, but chasing a legacy that he can claim is his alone; not Cruyffist; nothing to do with what the successful decades prior to his inheriting the presidency — when his friend and predecessor, Rosell, did a midnight flit — have taught everyone.
His tendency toward two clashing ideas, that of “I know better” and “This was someone else’s fault,” have left him grievously wounded — just at a time when his club desperately needs sound, visionary and intelligent leadership to steer clear of the financial, moral and sporting precipice that will yawn in front of Barcelona if this crisis is prolonged. His players, his critics and his opponents all know this. Watch them muster, watch them start to use his weakened position to their advantage.
Redemption, for Bartomeu, lies down the route of acknowledging his errors, adopting greater transparency and trying his absolute best to show that he merits seeing out the remaining year and a bit of his now massively troubled mandate.