FEATURE | Joan Laporta: Charisma over substance?

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April 2020. Joan Laporta stands on the roof terrace of his penthouse on the Avinguda Diagonal in Barcelona. Against a backdrop of the Camp Nou and the imposing towers of La Caixa, Laporta’s classic Holland jersey with the number fourteen on the back struggles to contain the former president who has, shall we say, noticeably expanded in recent years.

There’s something incredibly likeable about Laporta, of whom it can be said that aside from the aforementioned change in physical appearance – most likely the result of a notoriously avaricious appetite for buffet style meals and Catalan cava – has barely changed in the last decade. Far from the figure of a tired elder statesman, worn out after years of scrutiny and pressure at the helm of one of the world’s greatest footballing institutions, Laporta looks more than content; skipping about the terrace with the agility of a grasshopper as he records a tribute video for his footballing idol, Johan Cruyff, on what would have been the great man’s 73rd birthday.

One year on, he carried the same energy into Barcelona’s presidential race. In March, as it was announced that he had been elected as president of the club for a second time with 54% of the vote, a triumphant Laporta took to the stage at the Camp Nou. Surrounded by his team, he made reference to his recent change of attire; the standard issue FC Barcelona facemask had been swapped for a luminous orange one, emblazoned with the number 14 of his hero.

“This is for Johan, who inspires us in every big decision that we take. This is a victory for Cruyffism.”

Laporta knows exactly what to say when it comes to playing to the club’s purists and die-hards. The charisma of the young, slick, ambitious lawyer who swept to victory in Barça’s 2003 presidential elections once earned him the nickname “The New Kennedy” in the Catalan press, a comparison that Laporta himself has never been shy of courting. He even went so far as to channel the former U.S. president at the end of his acceptance speech. “Ask not what your club can do for you – ask what you can do for Barça.” A declaration that was received like catnip by his not-so-socially distanced gathering of supporters in the Camp Nou press room.

An inspiring call for an often hypercritical fanbase to get behind the team in times of crisis? A meaningless moral platitude? It’s hard to tell with Laporta. Whatever it is, it works.

Billed as the return of the most successful president in Barcelona’s history whose top priority was repeatedly stated as that of keeping Lionel Messi at the club, Laporta’s campaign ran on an irresistible wave of nostalgia and optimism. As the man who many credit with injecting life back into Barça after the barren years of the Joan Gaspart era, many also view him as someone with a proven track record of leading the club out of dark financial times.

The latter of these virtues was called into question by Laporta’s opponent, Toni Freixa, back in February. Barcelona residents went to work on a Wednesday morning to find the bus stops, walls and billboards of their city plastered with anti-Laporta propaganda. For a moment, it looked like the campaign had turned ugly, as Freixa and his staff sought to reacquaint Barça’s 140,000 socios with some of the ghosts of their leading candidate’s past. “Today seems like a good day to have breakfast in Reus, don’t you think?” said one poster – a direct reference to the disastrous management of C.F. Reus which ultimately ended with the liquidation of the club at the end of last year. The collapse of Reus was overseen by Core Store, a financial group co-owned by Laporta and Joan Oliver, the man who also served as CEO of Barcelona during Laporta’s last reign as president.

Laporta has always maintained that his personal involvement in the Reus debacle was essentially non-existent, as the management of their bankruptcy was handled principally by his business partners. Freixa, for his part, having cast the first stone then failed to capitalise on the issue during the presidential debates, and thus the accusation of financial incompetence never evolved into anything other than a thinly veiled personal jibe.

Looking back, Freixa’s message of fiscal responsibility and talk of Barcelona ‘values’ was ultimately doomed to fail, even if it did briefly place Laporta in the firing line. The week after the presidential elections, however, it looked like the doubts raised regarding the latter’s handling of the economic side of things may have been well founded after all; Jaume Giró, the man in charge of the Laporta campaign’s finances, resigned on the Saturday morning. On the Tuesday, it was announced that Laporta had a matter of hours to come up with €125m of funds required to confirm his status as Barcelona president or face the prospect of new elections.

The latest instalment of the Barcelona circus seemed inevitable, yet almost as soon as it was announced, Laporta had already come up with the money in time to meet the deadline. While the exact details surrounding how the proverbial rabbit was pulled out the hat remain unclear – at least at the time of writing – the fact remains that Laporta is an incredibly popular figure who continues to inspire almost twenty years after he was first elected as president of Barça, and this may well be the key to success in his second term.

“[He] has more charisma than most politicians,” says José Elías, one of the chief financial backers of Laporta’s campaign. “If anyone can convince Messi to stay, it’s him.”

In these incredibly uncertain times, faith seems to have gained added value at Camp Nou. Unlike the case of Josep María Bartomeu, there seem to be legions of people who are extremely loyal to Laporta. While there continue to be grey areas surrounding what his second presidency might look like, the undeniable fact is that there are very few individuals out there who know the club as well as he does. 54% of Barcelona’s voting socios have pinned their hopes on a man whose track record and charisma have placed him once again in the driving seat, and the hope now is that everything else falls into place.

Tommy Hay

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