A slogan that has been proudly repeated for years by its members and supporters is "More than a club", to highlight the particularity of the history of an entity that had to endure the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and always, the suspicions of a centralist football power closer to the teams of Madrid, the Spanish capital.
Futbol Club Barcelona has always been highly politicized because it represents much more than sporting values, but also cultural and social values, as a representative of a very special collective, which even has a well-defined "DNA" for the style of play of its teams: a non-negotiable 4-3-3.
One of its last coaches, the Argentinian Gerardo Martino, commented with surprise years after leaving his post, which he held in the 2013/14 season with no other titles than the Spanish Super Cup, that on one occasion, after a league match, a large part of the press that follows the team, reproached him that for the first time in years, he had lost the final percentage of ball possession against Rayo Vallecano, in Madrid, by 52% to 48%, "and we had won 4-0!".
Always, around Barcelona, there were debates, discussions, assemblies, votes, surveys among the members, historical reminders, although what the azulgranas have experienced in recent years is unprecedented.
Some argue that the biggest crisis began with the end of president Josep Lluis Núñez's term of office in 2000, after twenty-eight years in power. There ended one stage and began another, and in a strange way, different from all that had gone before, when an enterprising and charismatic young man, Joan Laporta, who had already dared to gather signatures against Nuñez, as an opponent, in a movement called "The Blue Elephant", burst onto the scene.
The truth is that in all the polls for the 2003 elections, the great candidate was the renowned publicist Lluis Bassat, who had Josep Guardiola in his project. But in the last few days he was overtaken by the young lawyer with a pro-independence discourse (although with a pro-Franco brother-in-law, Alejandro Echevarría), who now appeared promising the signing of David Beckham from Manchester United, who, however, the day after the elections, on Monday, was already announced as a new Real Madrid player. What had happened for the English club to announce the move to Barcelona on its website? Simply that Laporta's close contacts with a football agent who represented Beckham, and with the president of Real Madrid, Florentino Pérez, allowed them all to accept this little lie in order to favour his rise to power. Of course, a few days later, the Turkish goalkeeper Rustu Recber, a World Cup winner in 2002 and from the same team as the agent in question, joined Barcelona. Coincidence?
It was in those years of Laporta's administration (2003-2010) that the most admired team of the contemporary era was cemented, the Barcelona of Josep Guardiola (2008-2012), with a dazzling moment in 2010 when FIFA nominated Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi, three players from La Masía, the cradle of the Catalan club's youth academy, for the best player of the year. That meant the definitive and global surrender to such a high school, which generated sympathy all over the world and which was also beautiful and efficient, with that 2-6 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu or the subsequent 5-0 win at the Campo Nou. Those were the times of "que n'aprenguin" ("Let them learn"), Laporta's phrase in reference to the leaders of rival teams (especially those from Madrid), or the pride of wearing a T-shirt with the only UNICEF advertising on it at matches.
More than a Club" was clearly in line with the moment of euphoria, but come 2010 and the change of mandate, the whole thing collapsed like a house of cards. The new president Sandro Rosell, previously linked to the Brazilian national team through the marketing department of Nike, managed to reach an extensive agreement with the Qatari investment fund so that the shirt would now carry the advertising of Qatar Airways at training sessions and matches, sparking a long protest from many fans and members, to the point that the honorary president, none other than Johan Cruyff, resigned and went so far as to claim that this would turn Barcelona from "more than a club into just another club".
Soon after, Rosell had to leave the presidency due to the Neymar affair and his signing from Santos for a much higher price than Barcelona had stated, and the leader ended up in jail, with his successor, Josep María Bartomeu, who never imagined such a position, especially with a faint-hearted character and several missteps, having to take over. When he had already skidded on several points, he was saved by the "Triplete" (Cup, League and Champions League) of Luis Enrique, as coach, and always under the influence of Lionel Messi's reign, in 2015, and thus projected into a second stage, in which everything fell apart due to an increasingly large debt (for accepting, among other things, to pay the players much more than the economy allowed and the influence of the subsequent pandemic, and disastrous signings), the failure to win another Champions League since then, and what became known as "Barça-Gate", the inexplicable hiring of an agency linked to social networks by part of the board of directors, to attack their own players, opposition leaders or people they did not like on social networks. The initial image of Laporta-Guardiola's Barcelona had nothing to do with that of that moment, and on top of that, Real Madrid were sweeping Europe and the world with Zinedine Zidane on the substitutes' bench. Bartomeu's final days were those of Dutch coach Ronald Koeman's "It is what it is", to explain a team with a disgruntled Messi, who sent an unaccepted burofax to be released, and when Neymar had already emigrated to PSG in 2017 and Luis Suárez was crowned champion with Atlético Madrid.
So elections were called, and although it was not Laporta who went to Qatar to find Xavi Hernández as the new coach, but another of the candidates, Víctor Font, the former president had decided to give the brilliant former Barcelona and Spain midfielder a chance. His success for a second term had been based, fundamentally, on a giant poster displayed a few metres from the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, with his photo and the text "Ganas de volver a veros" ("We're looking forward to seeing you again"), a challenge to the club's greatest rival, recalling the times of splendour. There was no debate and Laporta, whom even Messi and his family voted in as partners, took over for the second time.
However, the dark clouds were gathering and soon after, in the summer of 2021, a crisis that few had considered exploded: he had no choice but to tell Messi that he had to leave. He couldn't pay him because the club's coffers were empty, much more than he imagined. And he did not accept the proposal of the Professional Football League (LFP), led by Javier Tebas, to buy the rights for many years from the company CVC. It considered the deal, which had been signed by ninety per cent of Spanish clubs, to be onerous and did not have the funds to pay the Argentinian star, who ended up leaving for PSG and creating a huge sense of emptiness.
But the finishing touch was missing: a team that had already been eliminated earlier and earlier from the Champions League needed urgent reinforcements to strengthen itself and return to competing at the highest level, there was no way to achieve this with the current resources, and so it was decided to sell a percentage of the assets to private companies and access a loan from the Goldman Sachs bank to be able to sign some players and to plan a change in the old structure of the Camp Nou. The Assembly of members, not fully informed of the steps, approved the measures and the team raised its level (although it stumbled again in Europe), when the last blow has just fallen: based on invoices obtained by the State Tax Agency, it was revealed that the vice president of the Technical Committee of Referees (CTA), José María Martínez Negreira, charged Barcelona 7.3 million euros between 2001 and 2018 for what he indicated were "courses" and "consultancies" to the club on the referees who were to lead the team. The strange thing is that in 2018, Bartomeu, then president, with the explanation of cutting costs, decided to cut those payments just when Martínez Negreira retired from his activity as leader of the CTA, i.e. when he could no longer exert any influence among his peers.
The big question is what Martinez Negreira did with those 7.3 million euros and what was, in fact, the work of the former referee and why up to four Barcelona presidents, consecutively, maintained those payments. The scandal at the possibility of Barcelona having benefited for so many years managed to mobilise the whole football world and although the case is time-barred in Spain in sporting terms, the criminal and European facts are not, to the point that UEFA has already begun to ask the League for background information and could take serious measures, (remember that UEFA and Barcelona are at loggerheads because together with Real Madrid and Juventus, the Catalans are spearheading the idea of a European Super League with elite clubs separate from the Champions League).
Suddenly, the image of "more than a club" was crumbling and although the case has just entered the courts, the moral condemnation is already running at a different speed and doubts are growing as in a month, Laporta has threatened but never held a press conference to clarify the facts from the club's point of view.
In less than fifteen years, that premonition of the late Cruyff has been fulfilled and, even more rapidly, Barcelona is on its way to becoming from "more than a club" into a club, or even worse, into an entity much more problematic than a club. And the big question is whether this is all it is about, or is it about the fact that what has always been at stake, since 2010, is that Barcelona is not a members' club, but something other than a club, i.e. a public limited company, for which the conditions were created little by little, like a Trojan horse, only to have those who had previously been simply a club return as managers.