Barça, tribalism, ‘truth’ and reality

It’s been fascinating to watch the feeding frenzy resulting in a Tweet from New York Times journalist Tariq Panja about the FC Barcelona governance model.

In that Tweet, Panja said “Under this model successive presidents are able to make financial decisions without any personal consequences.” This isn’t wrong. What happened is that wagons were circled, because that’s what fanbases do. The specific idea was turned into a broader interrogation of the club, its membership model and other notions.

FC Barcelona isn’t a “member-run club” in the strictest sense of that idea(l). FC Barcelona is a democracy wherein selected members get to vote on key actions by the board via general assembly. Members can also force a censure motion, which was used to depose Josep Bartomeu. Members can also vote for president (via an archaic system that still demands an in-person vote). But the idea of it being member-run is romance. And those thinking the Assembly feels a bit like America’s Electoral College aren’t entirely off the mark, except members don’t vote for Assembly delegates. And a soci’s chance of being picked as a delegate is about as a high as an average American being an Electoral College delegate.

When a person stands for club president, they have to offer a financial guarantee to stand against losses incurred during their tenure. What usually happens at the club is that near the end of a president’s tenure, a small profit magically appears. Sometimes a successor chooses to go after a former president, claiming that said small profit was in fact a loss. Sandro Rosell did it to Joan Laporta, an action that aside from lawyer bills and bluster, amounted to nothing.

Bartomeu, even having been ousted by socis, isn’t suffering personal fiscal consequences, leaving aside the Barçagate kerfuffle.

Joan Laporta, perhaps in a signal of the most recent history of his tenure, had to scuffle around to find funders for his guarantee, and did so successfully. He’s now making decisions, starting with jettisoning Messi, that members likely wouldn’t have approved of.

FC Barcelona is the same as any other democracy in that people vote for a leader, who then runs the entity. The thing couldn’t run properly if members had to be consulted before every single decision, of course. But for big decisions — selling the shirt, a mountain of debt for a nou Nou, etc. — an Assembly is convened, consisting of many different layers of members. It’s a composition that essentially is designed to ensure that the board gets its way, if you dig into the statutes that control its composition. That body votes on the decision before it. In an extraordinary measure, the new stadium was also put to a general referendum, via electronic vote. Here’s hoping that is a trend, as the Assembly is a flawed idea.

Leaving aside notions of quorums and being truly representative of the entire body of socis, the Assembly is essentially a rubber stamp. The meeting is held, there is some spirited debate then the vote happens as the board and president want, and it’s business as usual. Any socis that disagree with that decision? Well, you weren’t in the Assembly, so tough luck. Decisions are taken and THEN presented to the Assembly for ratification. In simple form, it’s, “We signed this sponsor deal, and here ya go. Yay or nay?”

From new sponsors to loans from U.S. corporate entities, members as an entire body politic are NOT consulted on significant decisions. Actions happen and decisions are made. These decisions are often presented as, most recently with the “economic levers,” with the club’s very future at stake. And people gleefully take up those financial cudgels and take to the ramparts, battering at anyone who dares to suggest otherwise, because tribalism is a thing.

Without tribalism, sport wouldn’t be any fun, but when tribalism becomes circling the wagons, it gets kinda weird.

It’s early in the Laporta tenure, but for a president who ran on being the only person who would be able to keep Messi, and notions of “transparency,” his governance has been a bit clunky on those two rather significant platforms.

Like Bartomeu before him, Laporta went to Goldman Sachs, hat in hand, and came away with a 500m loan. Members input was precisely zero. But it was to save, in the case of the former, Espai Barça, and the future of the club in the case of the latter. A member’s view of whether those loans are good or bad depends a lot on how the club’s situation is presented, and the perception of the president. Laporta is in good standing in that measure, his “not Bartomeu” leeway in full effect.

But the reality of what members truly have control over at FC Barcelona doesn’t match up with the hype of it being a member-run club. Laporta convened an Assembly to get approval for selling the shirt. For those old enough to remember when the club was proud of not having a sponsor, this was a massive thing. The appeal was that the club is in danger, and this needs to happen. It was approved, of course. Laporta then said the crisis had been averted, not the first time he “saved the day,” and pocketed the approval.

Rosell took office, blew the dust off that approval and announced that Barça would be getting a shirt sponsor. And that was that. The numbers were lower, just north of 440m, but Rosell claimed that the fiscal horrorshow of his predecessor, Laporta, necessitated such difficult decisions. Just as Laporta is claiming that the fiscal horrorshow of his predecessor, Rosell’s Renfield in Josep Bartomeu, makes all of these sales and levers necessary.

Who knows what the truth is? Even if socis were allowed to see the club’s books, who’s to say fun with numbers hasn’t happened? Every year the club puts out a financial report that pretty much says what the board needs it to say. The last one was dire, coming right after Bartomeu’s ouster. Bet the house that the next one will be presented with smiling faces, confetti and glitter bombs as yet another group of businessmen have saved the day.

FC Barcelona is about as transparent as a tar-coated camera lens, and about as member-run as any other democracy. You vote for the leader, then the leader does things that may or may not be in the best interest of the entity. We can grumble, but we don’t have a real say in those decisions. Should we? Yes. But to the larger point, presidents and boards take decisions and are indeed free from personal culpability in a financial sense.

And what of the idea of FC Barcelona as this bright, shining example of a member-run institution? As with anything glowing, a lot of the glow is hype. That’s fine, but don’t let hype obscure reality.