The Laporta revolution
How a group of fresh-faced directors built the modern Barcelona.
On 15 June 2003, a group of young directors shocked Spanish football by taking charge of FC Barcelona. The new board, who had been given a zero percent chance of winning the election, included every Barça president for the next twenty years—Joan Laporta, Sandro Rosell, Josep Maria Bartomeu—plus Ferran Soriano, who would build City Football Group. They were all in their 30s and early 40s, ambitious and sharp-suited, with success in law, merchandising and telecommunications. But none of them had worked in football. They had only met two months earlier, and when they got elected they still barely knew each other. “It was risky,” Soriano would write. All they shared was a love for Barça, a vision for changing the club and a plan for how to do it—or at least, so they thought.
The path to power had started with a blue elephant. In May 1996, Josep Lluís Núñez sent vice-president Joan Gaspart down to the dressing room to sack Johan Cruyff. Many fans were appalled at how Cruyff was treated and few more so than Laporta, who had been eleven when Cruyff had touched down from Amsterdam in 1973 to galvanise the club, its people and Catalonia. Laporta even wore the same haircut. To him, Cruyff meant a liberal lifestyle, a sense of bravery and surprise. “It was a kind of revolution in our city and in our culture,” Laporta told Graham Hunter in the book Barça, “as if the fifth Beatle had come to Barcelona.”
When Núñez fired Cruyff, Laporta turned rebellious—as he tended to. When his dream of playing for Barça had faded, he studied medicine, only to be expelled from class and switch to corporate law. When doing mandatory military service, writes Hunter, Laporta spent two weeks in a cell for sneaking home, and later left camp to take his girlfriend on a trip to Egypt. As a charismatic lawyer he made many friends, such as Armand Carabén, who had brought Cruyff to Barça in ’73. He too was angry at how Cruyff was treated. The two decided to study the club finances, and believed that Núñez was lying to the fans. They set up Elefant Blau, a pressure group working to haul Núñez out of office. In 1997, the group put forward a vote of no confidence that, if successful, would force Núñez to call elections.
The next months the Blue Elephant collected signatures, telling club members that Núñez had run up debt. Carabén called him a “fascist”. One of the people who signed was Cruyff. But when the vote went ahead in March 1998, Núñez staved off the rebels before sitting down at the Camp Nou to watch Barça beat Real Madrid. The vote saved Louis van Gaal, who knew he’d be toast had Núñez lost. After the game, Van Gaal told the press that, coming into work the next morning, he would wear a tie decorated with elephants.
Yet even Núñez was not going to live forever. In 2000 mounting pressure led him to resign, triggering the club’s first change of president in twenty-two years. As elections were called, Laporta joined the marketing executive Luis Bassat, who wanted Cruyff as advisor and Txiki Begiristain as sporting director. But Bassat lost to Gaspart, while Florentino Pérez stole Luís Figo. Two and a half years later Barça had finished fourth twice and won zero titles. Now they were two points off the drop, the Figo cash was wasted and the team had just lost 3–0 at home to Sevilla. “Resign! Resign!,” the Camp Nou shouted at Gaspart as live TV cameras zoomed in on a broken man close to tears. In February 2003, after five more games without a win, Gaspart resigned.
This time Laporta went solo. He got in touch with Rosell, a hard-nosed Nike executive, who in turn called Marc Ingla and Soriano, the co-founders of a major telecommunications firm. These four formed the nucleus of the proposed board. They knew that if they pulled this off, they’d take up unpaid roles as directors for a club that would lose €69m that season. Some quit their jobs to do it. Each had to put up €1.5m in personal assets. “The level of commitment was frightening,” wrote Soriano. Yet they could hardly do worse than Gaspart. Barça had slipped to sixth with a slew of flops on crazy contracts. Van Gaal had come back for a bitter second spell, while Radomir Antić had endured six months that he said felt like six years. Many culés shared the sentiment. “Being a Barcelona fan,” said Rosell, “had started to make you feel ashamed.”
When the group met up, they had not decided who would do what. It soon became clear that the president would be Laporta. Rosell is said to have fancied his own chances, but Laporta hooked people with his humour and energy. Now the group only had two problems. One was the surveys saying that Bassat held 42.6 percent of the votes and Laporta 2.2 percent. The other was that, as Soriano realised, none of them knew how to actually win an election.
So Soriano called up a Catalan consultant based in Washington, got an hour-long crash course in how to run a campaign, took notes, drew up a hundred-page strategy doc, hired a press officer, and launched their bid. The result was a vibrant campaign that promised to drag Barça from a dysfunctional past into a gleaming future. As they rallied against five older candidates, they knew that none of the major institutions—in media, politics or finance—had their backs. “It was like taking them all on,” Rosell said. The big rival was still Bassat, who owned a huge advertising agency. “We had to work twice as hard and we had to do it four times better,” said Soriano.
By late May, even that did not seem enough. Bassat was still way ahead. But ten days before the vote, Laporta called the press to his offices for major news. Barça, he said, had agreed a fee with Manchester United for David Beckham.
It was a bolt out of the blue. Beckham was close to joining Madrid, yet now it looked like Laporta might pull it off. Guillem Balague says the stunt was run by Pini Zahavi, the Israeli agent, who wanted Barça to sign Rüştü Reçber in exchange for making United agree a price. Whether Barça had spoken to Beckham was another matter. Laporta later said he had met his agent in Nice, and that he was waiting for a reply when the ballots opened. Whatever was true, Laporta got 52.7 percent of the votes and Bassat 31.80 percent. “I have no doubt that many cast their vote in the hope that Beckham might come,” grumbled Bassat.
The new board consisted of Laporta as president, Rosell as vice-president, Begiristain as sporting director, and Soriano and Ingla as chiefs of finance and marketing. A few days later, Madrid presented Beckham. Next, Rüştü joined Barça. In the superb documentary FC Barcelona Confidential, a jubilant crowd chants “Laporta president, Catalonia independent!” Wearing a sharp suit and a beaming smile, Laporta raises a glass and says, “Long live Catalonia, everyone.”
On the first day when the directors strolled into the offices, they found a club stuck in the past. Soriano said the culture was taken out of the 70s, with key roles handed to “friends of the football family”. To him it made more sense to hire marketing people who actually knew marketing. “Get someone from Procter & Gamble,” he wrote. “That person can then learn about football.” Yet on that first day, Soriano was taken aside by an ex-Barça coach who warned that business logic did not apply. “All that matters here,” the coach told him, “is whether or not the ball goes into the net. If it does, then everything is fine, but if it doesn’t, it’s all a disaster. It’s all down to luck.”
This astonished Soriano. He had read Winners and Losers: The Business Strategy of Football (by Stefan Szymanski and Tim Kuypers), which found that the best team is usually the one that pays the most in wages. The key, Soriano believed, was to earn enough money to keep the best players. You do this, he wrote, “using good management criteria and the same common sense used by the CEO of a multinational corporation or the manager of a corner shop. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with luck.”
Soriano soon came up with the term “the virtuous cycle”. Barça would invest in the team, which would win games, which would raise funds to invest even more. Yet first they needed money, and they didn’t have much of it. The season before the club had made €123m, the thirteenth most in the world. Even Newcastle raked in more dough. Worse, Barça had lost €69m. While a healthy club should spend about fifty percent of its income on wages, Barça were on eighty-eight. The debt stood at €186m. “The club was almost bankrupt,” wrote Soriano.
While the squad had big names—Patrick Kluivert, Javier Saviola, Frank de Boer, Juan Román Riquelme—they needed fresh blood to kickstart the cycle. Soriano later wrote a book called Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go In By Chance, a title that appears to be a direct reply to the coach who had advised him on his first day. Soriano said they had two options:
1) Evolution. Cut costs, accept a few years of austerity and “walking through the desert”. No titles. Slow recovery.
2) Revolution. A joint effort to cut costs, restructure debt and invest in the team.
They chose the second option. Soriano knew it was risky, but felt the desert walk would enable their rivals to pull away so far that Barça might become a “second-tier” club, like Valencia or Atlético Madrid. In Madrid, Florentino was already signing galácticos, while Manchester United were bringing in twice the money that Barça did. To Soriano they only really had one option. They had to act fast, risks be damned.
Laporta took on the task with his usual energy. In Barcelona Confidential, where the camera crew film the directors for a year, Laporta treats even the gloomiest scenario with jokes and laughs. On one of the first days, he and his new board lose their way around the offices. “This is just a phase,” he says. “We’ll get to know it.” When they sit down for a meeting on the grave debt, Laporta dances into the room to the sound of lively music. “We should all be dancing a samba,” he says.
In that first year Laporta delegated a lot. He left the finances to Soriano and Ingla, and trusted Txiki to rebuild the team with Cruyff as advisor. Like most people, Laporta used to think he knew a lot about football. Then he sat down to watch it with people like Txiki and Cruyff, and realised he knew ten percent of what they did. “You are following the ball on the right side,” he told the excellent podcast Coffee & Football. “And they are complaining about the left-back, who doesn’t move. And you go, ‘… but if the ball is on the other side…’ They have been professionals and European champions. They know a lot more than you.”
The first task was to track down a coach. They wanted Ronald Koeman or Guus Hiddink. When both proved too costly, they turned to Frank Rijkaard, whose only two gigs as coach were a short spell with the Dutch national team and a season at Sparta Rotterdam, which had led to relegation and the sack. But Rijkaard was cheap, available and backed by Cruyff. Once he was in, the directors had to rebuild the squad.
First they cut down the wage bill. They loaned out or released flops such as Geovanni, Fábio Rochemback and Philippe Christanval. Another misfit was Riquelme, who had been signed by Gaspart only for Van Gall to tell him he wasn’t needed. Riquelme missed Argentina. Once a club employee had driven him home to see his flat almost empty, even though Riquelme had lived there for a year. Soriano dug into his past and found out that when he had left Argentinos for Boca, he had also struggled to adapt. “In other words,” wrote Soriano, “Barcelona signed a man who had not been able to get used to a different neighbourhood in Buenos Aires—and brought him to Barcelona!”
Barça shipped Riquelme off on loan to Villarreal. Next Soriano wanted to know whether investing in the academy was a good idea. Analysing the last decade, he added up the costs of running all the youth teams and divided the sum on the number of players who had made the first team. The cost turned out to be €2m per player. “Very good business,” he wrote.
Txiki was hunting a defender. He wanted Roberto Ayala, but Valencia demanded €12m. Then Jorge Mendes called Laporta with a solution: Himself. The two were about the same age and got on well. “He was full of enthusiasm, just like we were,” Laporta says in La Clave Mendes, an authorised Mendes biography. A few days later, tells the book, Mendes proposed that they sign one of his clients, Rafa Márquez. But Monaco wanted €13m. If Barça balked at €12m for Ayala, they sure wouldn’t pay €13m for Márquez. “I had nothing,” said Mendes.
Still, he went back to Laporta’s office and asked, “How much would you pay for Márquez?” Laporta said €5m, thinking it would be way too low. “Do you give me your word?” said Mendes. “Yes,” said Laporta. The Barça directors were happy, knowing they could use that fee to push down the price with Valencia. Yet Mendes knew that Jean-Louis Campora was about to leave as Monaco president. When his successor, Pierre Svara, was ready, the first to have dinner with him was Mendes. They ate and talked for six hours, during which Mendes somehow got him to sign a deal to sell Márquez for €5m. Then Mendes drove to Márquez, knocked on his door and told him to pack his stuff. Without telling Laporta, the two climbed into a small van and headed for Barcelona, a six-hour drive in the summer heat with no air condition. When they had parked outside the offices, Mendes called Laporta.
Mendes said, “I’m here.”
Laporta said, “Here where?”
Mendes said, “I’m here by the club gates with Márquez.”
The news sparked chaos in the corridors. Nobody had expected Márquez to arrive, but Laporta was not going to break his word. Later that day Márquez signed for Barcelona.
Whatever the actual price—Mendes claims €5m, Soriano says €8m—Márquez was cheaper than Ayala and freed up money for other players. Mendes suggested one more client, Cristiano Ronaldo. Barça were listening, but when United bid €18m they thought it was too much. “So we made a mistake!” Soriano would tell the Icelandic podcast Dr. Football. Yet they got another winger, Ricardo Quaresma. And anyway, they were busy reeling in Ronaldinho.
The directors wanted Ronaldinho as the face of the new regime. “Very expensive,” wrote Soriano, who would have to see €27.5m leave a club account already blood red. Yet no virtuous cycle would get going without a star. United also fought for Ronaldinho, and Peter Kenyon even interrupted Sir Alex Ferguson’s holiday to say the deal was all but done. Yet Rosell knew Ronaldinho from his time at Nike and that sealed the deal. After the signing was done, a key member of Florentino’s entourage told El País that Ronaldinho was “too ugly” to be a galáctico. “There was no point buying him, it wasn’t worth it,” the source said. “He’s so ugly that he’d sink you as a brand. Between Ronaldinho and Beckham, I’d go for Beckham a hundred times.”
In the documentary, Ronaldinho turns up at the offices to sign. After eight hours of talks, a club rep reads aloud that he cannot ride motorbikes, water bikes, ski or paraglide without permission. When the ink is dry, Laporta puts his arm around Ronaldinho. “You’ll see,” he says. “You’ll be very, very happy here.” Outside the open office windows, a horde of fans are chanting his name. A few metres away, Rosell vows to milk the transfer. “On Monday we’ve got to make a huge sale of shirts,” he tells a colleague, “because we’ve been screwed on this for four years.”
Soon Ronaldinho is presented at the Camp Nou in front of 20,000 people. The next day the documentary films Laporta reading the paper in his office, as he explains that Txiki and Rijkaard want one more defender. Citing Cruyff, Laporta says, “You can win the league with a team that scores eighty goals, even if fifty are scored against them. And you can also win the league with fifty goals, if you only let in twenty. For this option you need a goalscorer, for this one a strong defence. We have neither a goalscorer nor a strong defence, so we can’t win!”
And then he laughs.
The only other defender who arrived that summer was Giovanni van Bronckhorst. In Madrid, Florentino had ditched Vicente del Bosque for Carlos Queiroz; in Valencia, Rafa Benítez was gearing up for his second year; in La Coruña, Javier Irureta was plotting another title tilt. On the first day Barça won 1–0 at Athletic Club de Bilbao. As they prepared to face Sevilla at home, they got a problem: The match was scheduled for Tuesday, yet FIFA rules meant Barça would miss a slew of international players. After a long think, the directors rescheduled the game for Wednesday—at 00.05am.
The late start called for special measures. To keep fans fed, Barça doled out 25,000 bags of Doritos, 40,000 gazpachos, 30,000 yogurts and 100,000 KitKats plus chorizo and bread. Way past midnight, a munching Camp Nou saw Ronaldinho smash a thirty-yard thunderbolt in off the crossbar. Though Sevilla scored one too, Soriano deemed the game a success. Less impressed was Sevilla president José María del Nido, who was quoted in The Guardian: “Instead of gazpacho and chorizo, we’d give them Serrano ham and prawns.” The Sevilla coach, Joaquín Caparrós, said: “It’s a dangerous precedent. Besides, gazpacho can repeat on you if you eat it at night. This is a clown’s act.” The final word was left for the Madrid press, who called it “football in the piss-up hours.” And the food? “A third-world soup kitchen.”
Barça followed that up with a 2–1 win at Albacete. As Txiki studied the team and Laporta shook hands and kissed babies, Soriano pored over spreadsheets. He was obsessed with Manchester United. In 1995/96, Barça had pulled in €58m and United €62m. Now Barça were on €123m—and United €251. In a meeting, Soriano drew up a graph of the two revenue streams and called it an inspiring challenge. “If United could do it,” he wrote, “then so could we.”
Much of the marketing operation had been outsourced under Gaspart. After moving it all back in-house, Ingla and Soriano copied United by replacing many small sponsorship deals with a few big ones. Soriano also estimated that Madrid held half of the fanbase in Spain. The solution, he believed, was to appeal to fans abroad, especially in Asia. Looking to squeeze every revenue stream, they installed new seats and corporate boxes at the Camp Nou. They ensured the city tour bus stopped at the stadium, where tourists were given a series of visiting options for non-match days. Soriano redesigned the ticket sales strategy to target tour operators and online platforms. He kicked out violent hooligans so that the Camp Nou would appeal to families and tourists. Soon the stadium income had quadrupled.
Next they had to slash the expenditure. Soriano started with the daily operative costs. “Our guiding principle was drastic: Rethink everything,” he wrote. He dispatched an external team to visit each department and ask whether each cost was necessary, and if so, why. Once he had a list of what the club needed, he hired the suppliers who offered the best value for money. This cost-cutting crew was not popular. It was said they had to walk the corridors wearing helmets, with knives between their teeth. “Like Rambo,” Soriano wrote.
As for the players, Soriano redrew the contracts. He wanted a lower base salary and more incentives: if a player wanted a hundred units, he’d offer eighty as a guarantee and another forty in bonuses. The key, Soriano said, was to use group rewards, and he was horrified to find that Saviola was getting €6,000 for every goal he scored. “That explains some things!” said Rijkaard.
After a bright start, Barça stumbled to two draws. At the same time the press dug up dirt on Laporta. They discovered that Alejandro Echevarría, his brother-in-law who was now part of the board, had been a member of a foundation honouring Franco. Echevarría denied it, but resigned in October. The next shots at Laporta came from the ultras fan group Boixos Nois, who demanded cash to back the team, or else. Laporta basically said “bring it on”. At home to Valencia, the documentary films the ultras chanting against Laporta. “Damn,” says Rosell in the strands. “Those guys … The stuff you have to put up with.” Barça lose the game 1–0.
The next game, against Depor at the Camp Nou, they lose 1–0 again.
By mid-November, the feel-good factor that had united the directors was starting to unravel. Soriano would call this the “storming” stage, where they got to know each other and clarified principles and ideas. “Conflict is inevitable,” he wrote. Yet few had expected so much turmoil. Since the directors went unpaid, their only drive was power and recognition—either behind the scenes or in the papers, which, according to Soriano, they all read cover to cover. Some had not been given the roles they had craved, others felt overlooked. “There were problems with egos and vanity,” said Soriano. The discord centred on Rosell who, according to Soriano, was “totally against” Laporta and his allies. Just as the president was fighting to hold the board together, a group of ultras left death threats at his house. Around a dinner table with his fellow directors, Laporta admits that he is frightened.
Soon, on a Saturday night, Barça travel to Villarreal. On that same evening, Soriano gets married in a cathedral. The directors have stayed in Barcelona to celebrate the occasion, though they cannot turn their backs to the game. After the ceremony, the documentary shows Laporta, Rosell and a handful more directors huddle around a small TV placed on a dinner table. They groan when Villarreal take the lead just before half-time. But as the cake makes its grand entrance, Kluivert strikes. “GOAL!” shouts Laporta and hugs Rosell. By now they are oblivious to the wedding. They stay transfixed on the screen until the final minute, when Sonny Anderson wins it for Villarreal.
The directors slump in their chairs.
“Okay guys, no worries,” says Rosell and gets up. “Let’s get a drink.”
By now Barça seem lost. To the growing number of critics, the squad is weak, Rijkaard is clueless and the board is too young. After a goalless draw at home to Valladolid, the documentary films Rosell as he watches Barça away to Málaga on TV. He’s about to speak about the team on TV after, and so he sits in a chair all suited up, hoping for good news. Within fifteen minutes Málaga lead 2–0. Rijkaard makes two subs at the break, but Málaga make it 3–0 and 4–0. Barça pull one back, before Málaga close the score at 5–1, Rosell leans so far back in his chair that he’s nearly laying flat out, hands to his cheek, face frozen. Barça have slid to eighth, ten points behind Madrid. At the Rosaleda, fans chant that Barça are going to get relegated.
The results deepen the internal divisions. Some directors want Rijkaard out, one being Rosell, who proposes Luiz Felipe Scolari. Laporta backs Rijkaard. Just when Barça need a boost, they lose 2–1 to Madrid at the Camp Nou. The press hammers Rijkaard for “cowardly” tactics, and by now even Rijkaard admits he’s in trouble.
On the way home in his car, the documentary films Laporta as he rolls down the window and talks to angry fans.
A fan shouts, “Sack Rijkaard, man!”
Laporta, “We’ll see.”
A fan, “I thought you’d fix things.”
Laporta, “A bit of time…”
A fan, “I want the Champions League.”
Laporta, “Me too. We’ll get it.”
In December, the directors meet for the final board meeting of the year. Sitting next to Laporta, Rosell begins a speech:
“Historically, football clubs are run by presidents and, frankly, dictatorially. Why? Because it works. I get the impression that we’re behaving like flower children and they will do us over. In sporting terms, if you analyse the last seven or eight games, they’ve taken ten points from us. Remember, each point is worth a lot of money. And I think strange things are going on. They’ll get at us here in the club, in town; the old management, the politicians here and in Madrid. We’re on our own.”
One director asks him, “Your main point is about referees?”
“As far as I’m concerned, yes,” says Rosell. “But it’s everything. It’s our image. When others come here they think, ‘Hey, this place is a joke.’”
When someone disagrees that the referees have taken ten points from Barça, Rosell clarifies that he means ten points across the whole season. He admits that he is being blunt. Laporta says he agrees with Rosell. That is it for the meeting.
Before the winter break, Barça beat Espanyol away and draw at home to Celta. By the time they wish each other a merry Christmas, Rijkaard is still in charge and the mood is still sour.
When Barça start back up in January, they lose 3–0 to Racing Santander.
By now the crisis does not only threaten Rijkaard. Without the Champions League, the virtuous cycle will be shattered before it has started. After consulting Cruyff, the directors sign Edgar Davids, at thirty, on loan from Juventus. “He’s not a galáctico,” says Madrid director Jorge Valdano—but Laporta is happy. “I really like this guy,” he says. “I’ve signed a real man.”
With Davids as the new midfield watchdog, Barça improve. In late January they beat Sevilla 1–0 away, after Xavi has cleared a header off the line in the final minute. Sitting in a taxi with Rijkaard the next day, Rosell says, “Last night I almost died, man.”
The win kickstarts a run of nine league wins. A group of ultras try to beat up Laporta, who says he’s “fed up” and fears what might have happened had his children been there. The press soon write about a conspiracy, based on police investigations, that an ex-director and his suits are using violent fans to scare Laporta out of office. But Laporta resists, and as the points keep ticking in, he is not just eyeing the Champions League. He’s dreaming of the title. At a board meeting, he says he has counted the games Madrid and Depor must to lose for Barça to go top. He’s met with laughter.
“Hey,” Laporta shoots back. “Let’s keep our spirits up.”
Soon it looks like he might be right. At home to Real Sociedad, Ronaldinho fires home a last-gasp free-kick to win it. At the Bernabéu, he chips through Xavi who seals the winner. Barça are now five points behind leaders Valencia.
By now Laporta and Rosell do not celebrate together. They disagree on who should make the calls on signings. Still, when they return to Barcelona after winning the Clásico, the fan celebrations are wild. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like to win a title,” Soriano says as he sits with Laporta on the bus. “What will we do?”
They will have to wait to find out. Barça come second, and Laporta seems disappointed. At the next meeting they talk about a “bad atmosphere” that must be sorted. The press knows about the tensions. It’s clear that Soriano, Ingla and Txiki back Laporta—but Rosell disagrees about almost everything. After the meeting, the documentary films Rosell in the back of a car talking on the phone. “I always like to say what I think,” he says. “If I didn’t, I’d die. Everyone has to accept the virtues and faults of others … if we all liked the same things, we’d be Communists.”
Rosell then hangs up.
“Power divides,” he tells the driver.
In summer 2004, the golden autumn had given Barça a fresh start. Rijkaard survived, while Soriano had kept the cycle alive. New grass was installed at the Camp Nou. A slew of big earners were released or loaned out—Kluivert, Saviola, Phillip Cocu—while Quaresma and Luis García were sold. Luis Enrique retired. In came Samuel Eto’o, Juliano Belletti, Edmílson, Sylvinho, Demetrio Albertini, Ludovic Giuly, Henrik Larsson, and Deco. What they shared, said Soriano, was hunger: Most of them had never won anything.
The Deco deal was again down to Mendes. He’d tried to pull it off a year earlier, only for Porto to ask for €15m. Anyway, Laporta and Txiki had watched Deco in the Super Cup in Monaco that year and scoffed at his display. But in November, Barça had met Porto in a friendly more noted for being Lionel Messi’s first-team debut. The Mendes biography quotes Echevarría saying that Mendes invited Txiki and Laporta for dinner. “He drove them mad with Deco, Deco, Deco,” says Echevarría. The pitch was: If you want to win the Champions League, you need Deco.
Laporta said he’d think about it. But later that season Mendes invited the pair to a new dinner. More food, more wine, more Deco. In the car en route to the restaurant he even played a song that Porto fans had dedicated to Deco. “I ended up learning it by heart!” says Echevarría. Soon enough a group of Barça directors flew to Porto to close the deal. One wonders how much they were motivated by actually getting the player, and how much of it was down to placating Mendes.
In any case, Rijkaard now had a stellar lineup. Víctor Valdés guarded the goal, while Puyol marshalled the back four next to Oleguer as Belletti and Van Bronckhorst galloped down the lines. Just ahead, Márquez rose into duels next to Xavi and Deco, who switched between dropping deep and lurking between the lines. On the left, Ronaldinho stayed wide to trick defenders or zip through balls to Eto’o and Giuly, who tore defences apart with their speed and movement. This was Cruyff’s football reincarnated. If anyone got tired, Andrés Iniesta would come off the bench. And if Rijkaard was in the mood, he’d call over Messi, who came on for seven league games that season—and scored once after being found by Ronaldinho.
Off the pitch, Soriano looked abroad. In 2005, he met Don Garber and Ivan Gazidis to discuss a Barça franchise in MLS. The idea was to have a team in New York, though it never happened. (When Soriano joined Manchester City in 2012, he immediately set up New York City.) A year earlier, Barça had launched a Japanese version of the website and opened up memberships to all. They welcomed a horde of Japanese members. A bit later, Soriano was in a bar in Tokyo, speaking Catalan, when the man behind the counter came over to him, held up his card and said, “I am a member!” The man treated the two like kings, said Soriano. “He wouldn’t let us pay for anything, not even tea.”
As Barça cruised to the top of the table, the civil war rumbled on. Rosell felt he had misunderstood the entire project. Ingla told Hunter that he felt every Rosell proposal was against Cruyff and his ideals. Rosell, he believed, wanted more recruits from his own contact list. According to Soriano, Rosell wanted more physical players and felt the Cruyff style was outdated. Rosell, said Soriano, was “against everybody else”.
Yet the results kept the factions in check. Barça led La Liga for months and clinched the title four points ahead of Madrid. They had won it, Deco claimed, because they had gathered in a spa south of Barcelona, where the players had discussed what to do. They could have won the Champions League as well, had they not run into José Mourinho’s armour-plated Chelsea, and the only big let-down was a Copa del Rey exit against third-tier UDA Gramenet. Once the confetti had been wiped off the streets, Laporta scored an even bigger win. In early June, Rosell resigned.
He did not leave quietly. In an open letter, Rosell fired shots at a management style that he believed had neither “independence, transparency or democracy”. In a later press conference, he called for Cruyff to step back and let Laporta work alone.
The board entered its first stable period. Txiki signed Mark van Bommel and Santiago Ezquerro, with Iniesta and Messi ripe for bigger roles. After a wobbly start, Barça clicked into gear, winning fourteen league games on the spin. Even better, Madrid were a mess under Vanderlei Luxemburgo, and when the two met at the Bernabéu in November, Barça won 3–0. Ronaldinho struck twice and was applauded off the pitch. According to Sid Lowe, the last player to get that gesture at the Bernabéu had been Diego Maradona. In December, Luxemburgo resigned, and three months later Florentino followed suit. When Marca wrote that Ronaldinho had “retired” the galácticos, they would be right in more senses than one.
With Madrid in meltdown, Soriano kept tweaking his money machine. Boosted by great form and Ronaldinho, who won the Ballon d’Or in 2005, he had steadily grown the traditional revenue streams. The board sealed a series of big deals that season, such as a new TV contract and a sponsorship with Nike. They would rake in €259m while United would make €242. In three years, Soriano had caught up his mentors.
Still, the greatest masterstroke would come a few months after the season. Barça had never had a main sponsor on the front of their shirts. Now Soriano wanted one. A year earlier, the board had nearly agreed a deal with China to display ‘Beijing 08’ for €20m a year. In 2006, they had an offer from the betting company Bwin worth the same. Yet Soriano wanted something more. He wanted something else. What was Barça? More than a club. That was clear in Catalonia. But how, thought Soriano, could they show that to the rest of the world?
Then it clicked. What if instead of receiving money, Barça would pay someone else? That is how UNICEF came up. By donating money and having the charity as a sponsor, Soriano felt Barça would show the world that they were different. As Laporta told Coffee & Football, “If we said that we were more than a club, we had to show it.” In September 2006, Laporta told the press that Barça would donate €1.5m a year to UNICEF, which would go to fight AIDS in Swaziland. “They told me we were crazy,” said Laporta. “But I think it’s the best decision we made.” The deal was followed by a strong growth in members over the next four years.
The results didn’t hurt either. Barça danced their way to another title, twelve points ahead of Madrid. They faced Chelsea once more in the Champions League, but this time Messi delivered a scintillating display at Stamford Bridge that sent Mourinho out. They scraped past ten-man Arsenal in the final with late strikes from Eto’o and Belletti, who celebrated by sliding down on his knees and covering his face in disbelief. After the trophy lift, the players flew to Barcelona, rode a helicopter across the bay, cruised to the city by boat and boarded a bus for an open-top parade. The next day the Mundo Deportivo cover shouted, “Yes yes yes!!!” Three years after taking charge, Laporta and his board had a commercial beast, the greatest team in Europe and the best player in the world. Could things really get any better?
For Soriano, the new season began just when the last one had ended. The players were celebrating the double at a packed Camp Nou when he got a call. He stepped aside and picked up: It was the agent of Thierry Henry. They had been chasing Henry for years, and Soriano finally believed they had a deal for him to sign that summer. But the agent had other news, Soriano told Dr. Football. “I cannot believe what I’m gonna tell you,” said the agent. “But he’s not coming.” On the flight back to Paris, it appeared, Henry had grabbed a mic and told the fans, “I’m so sorry we lost. We’ll be back last year.” Barça would have to find someone else.
There were two names on the table. Txiki wanted Diego Forlán, who was tearing it up at Villarreal. Rijkaard wanted Eidur Gudjohnsen. In a meeting with Soriano, the two talked about how Forlán was more of a classic striker while Eidur would drop deeper. They could not agree on who to get, and finally an irritated Rijkaard left the room. Txiki went silent. Then he told Soriano, “This guy just won us the league and the Champions League … If he wants Gudjohnsen, it will be Gudjohnsen.”
Rijkaard also wanted more experience. “This team needs more married players,” he said. With Juventus in Serie B due to Calciopoli, Barça exploited the fire sale by flying to Turin, since the Juve directors refused to talk on the phone. As they sat in the offices negotiating for Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta, they discovered that the Madrid chief negotiator, Predrag Mijatović, was next door trying to get Fabio Cannavaro. According to Soriano, the Italian directors always wanted to meet in person so they could play with your emotions. On this occasion, Soriano pushed the price down, only for Juve vice-chairman Roberto Bettega to complain that they were taking advantage of their relegation. Soriano replied that he should stop this “piece of Neapolitan theatre”, which angered Bettega. Outside the offices, a horde of reporters held camp. “Quite a show,” wrote Soriano. Yet they ended up closing the deal for the two players, forcing Zambrotta to cancel his sailing holiday in Southern Italy to sign the contract.
With three stars in and Rosell out, Barça looked good. The only instability was in the coaching staff. Ajax had poached Henk ten Cate, the assistant coach, who had been the bad cop keeping the players in line. With only a good cop left, the culture changed. The first sign came the night before the Super Cup in Monaco, where according to Balague, Rijkaard invited a Dutch pop group to sing at his dinner table. There was no player curfew that evening. The next morning, Rijkaard granted the squad time off, leaving Ronaldinho to do a photoshoot with a sponsor while the rest ambled around in Monaco. Their opponents, Sevilla, spent the day preparing. Barça lost 3–0.
Once the league started, Barca won five out of six. They then lost 2–0 at the Bernabéu. Some directors, such as Soriano, felt Rijkaard had taken his foot off the gas. Back in 2003, wrote Soriano, Rijkaard had worked ten hours a day. Now that had stopped, the players relaxed too. “Many years ago it used to be said that the boss was the one who turned on the factory lights and also the one who turned them off,” wrote Soriano. “Times may have changed, but the concept is still just as valid.” A player told Soriano that he was used to turning up to training an hour early and find the coach already there. Now, he said, his teammates would turn up five minutes before, so he did the same. After Barça had lost the Club World Cup final to Internacional, Rijkaard gave Márquez, Deco and Ronaldinho a few days extra off. They still showed up late—and got away with it.
Some refused to accept what they saw. Early in the year, Eto’o came back from an injury that had kept him out since September, and was so appalled at the standards that he went to Laporta. But when Barça met Racing Santander in February, Rijkaard accused Eto’o of refusing to play. Ronaldinho poured petrol on the fire by telling the press that Eto’o had let the team down. A few days later, at a book presentation, Eto’o exploded. “Telling a news conference that I didn’t want to play is the behaviour of a bad person,” he said. Then he lifted the lid on new divisions within the board. “This is a war between two groups: those that are with the president and those that are with Rosell.” Finally Eto’o shot back at Ronaldinho. “If a teammate comes out saying that you must think of the team,” he said, “the first person who should do so is himself.”
While Eto’o and Ronaldinho soon made up, the dirty laundry hampered Barça’s form. They crashed to a series of defeats on the road—in Valencia, Sevilla, Zaragoza and Villarreal. They were dumped out of the Champions League by Liverpool. The most recent Copa del Rey debacle underlined their sense of complacency: They beat Getafe 5–2 at home, then lost 4–0 away. Yet in Madrid, Capello was saying he had a ‘mid-table team’ and had offered to resign in February. With nobody else nimble enough to jog past the two limping giants, Madrid snatched the title in front of Barça on the final day—on their head-to-head record. Barça had thrown away a title they should have won almost by default. That summer, something had to change.
Deep down, Soriano knew Rijkaard had to go. “This is not working,” he told Rijkaard. “You have to be stronger with the team.”
Rijkaard said he understood.
“But you know what?” he added. “I love these players.”
That set the tone for a summer where Barça never made the changes they should have. They turned down €60m for Ronaldinho. Laporta gave Rijkaard another year. The coach and the players had given the directors so much that they never managed to cut ties. “We didn’t have the guts,” Soriano told Dr. Football.
The new signings were all good: Henry, Yaya Touré, Gabriel Milito, Éric Abidal. The season started well too, with five wins in seven league games. Slowly, though, the sense of decadence returned. They lost at Villarreal and Getafe, before Rijkaard was sent off in Lyon. By the time Barça met Madrid at the Camp Nou in December, Rijkaard knew he needed to get tough. He admonished Deco and Ronaldinho in training, forcing them to do extra work. According to Balague, Ronaldinho would turn up to training in the same clothes he had worn the day before. Sometimes he’d fall asleep on the massage table. Even Soriano admitted he was in “alarmingly” bad shape. And so just before the Clásico, it looked like Ronaldinho and Deco would be benched. Yet parts of the press campaigned for the pair to start. When the line-up came out, Rijkaard had relented and named both. Barça lost 1–0, and a key player later told Soriano that, on that day, Rijkaard lost their respect.
Later that season, writes Balague, the first team played a friendly against Barça B, now coached by Pep Guardiola. Rijkaard was smoking a cigarette. Deco was exhausted, and Ronaldinho was hauled off after ten minutes. As Barça crashed to four defeats in March alone, the directors discussed who would replace Rijkaard. They valued Guardiola, but some felt it was unfair to put a fresh coach in such a tough spot. Laporta proposed Cruyff as caretaker, maybe with Guardiola as his assistant, though others were skeptical about using Cruyff. “I’m a massive fan of his,” Ingla told Hunter. “But I thought that putting ‘God’ on the bench of a club in this state wasn’t a good idea, because the problem we had was not uniquely the coach—it was some of the players, too.”
The board wasn’t perfect either. As the pressure on Laporta grew, Soriano and Ingla could see that he had changed. In the first year, Laporta had delegated well and done as told, Soriano explained to Hunter. “We would warn him, ‘Today you are going to repeat these messages over and over. You are going to feel very tired and dizzy due to saying the same things over and again, but don’t worry about it—these are the two things for today.’ And he would say those two or three things impeccably, time after time. Always convincingly. Zero deviation.” In the second year, Laporta took on more power on his own. Now, in the final year, he had gotten worse. “He would not allow his people around him to tell him what to do,” Soriano told Hunter. “He would go off message. He’d get emotional.” Laporta’s logic, said Soriano, was that since he was taking all the criticism, he should be taking all the decisions too.
In May, Barça hit rock bottom. First they went out of the Champions League against Manchester United. Next, they lost the title to Madrid. In the following game they had to go to the Bernabéu and form a pasillo—a guard of honour—for the champions. The pasillo had been hyped up by the press for months. Before the game, Deco and Eto’o picked up bookings that meant they’d be suspended. Marca ran a cover with red dotted lines showing the Barça players where to stand. Some wore T-shirts saying, “I saw the pasillo.” According to Lowe, one mother and her son turned up to watch the pasillo and then left because he had school the next day.
Had they stayed, they would have seen Madrid hammer Barça 4–1. The next morning, the cover of Sport was completely black.
Barça ended up eighteen points behind Madrid. Off the pitch, Soriano had hit many of his targets: Since 2003 they had grown their income faster than any other club in the world. But now even the handball and basketball sides were wobbling. That summer, a group of members put forward a vote of no confidence in Laporta, just as he had done to Núñez. The loss of trust became undeniable when 60,6 percent voted for Laporta to leave. He still survived, as they needed 66,6 percent to push him out, but some directors felt the fans had spoken clearly enough. Soon Soriano, Ingla and six more resigned from the board. Out of the original group that had taken charge in 2003, only nine directors were left.
That closed the cycle of the original revolution. Laporta would stay for two more years, before Rosell won the elections. Soriano and Txiki would head to City in 2012, where they’d watch Rosell ditch Cruyff and swap UNICEF with Qatar. For his part, Laporta went into politics, while Rosell accused him of grave mismanagement, their relationship becoming increasingly bitter. As Rosell’s resignation paved the way for Bartomeu, all parts would watch the club they loved fall apart from afar—an eternity away from the days when they were still young, still cheerful and still friends.