Everybody knows that Barcelona is possibly the biggest club in world football. Camp Nou is a bucket list experience for any fan, and ticket prices and availability reflect the power of the Barca brand.
Not everyone recalls how recent this is. Go back to 2003, prior to the election of Joan Laporta as club president, and things were very different in Catalonia.
May, 2003. Game 34 of a frustrating season. Barcelona are on the way to a disappointing sixth-placed finish, trailing in 22 points behind Real Madrid. The team is out of the Champions League spots and battling to stay ahead of Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis in the race for a UEFA Cup place. Touts outside the famous arena are having a hard time shifting tickets for the visit of RCD Mallorca and not even the return of Camp Nou legend Miguel Angel Nadal is encouraging the faithful to turn out for this one. Tickets change hands for around 30 euros for a category one seat in the corner – to sit there for Barca’s game against Celta Vigo in February 2016 would cost 149 euros with a tour agency.
In the end, just 48,129 turn up to see Mallorca grab a last-gasp 2-1 win. Those who came, mostly, were middle-aged, middle class; the type of prim ladies who fastidiously dusted down their seats before sitting to watch the action in quiet contemplation. Monday’s El Mundo Deportivo laments that more people went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert at the Olympic Stadium that night, and demands to know what’s gone so badly wrong with Barca.
Even half full, Camp Nou is an impressive stadium. The stands, steeply raked, rise into the skies. Behind the goal, the flags fly proudly – including the St. George’s Cross motif adopted in honour of a now little-known footballing legend from Crook Town. Disaffection with the present doesn’t lead to a lack of respect for the past and Nadal is given a warm reception. Patrick Kluivert, Barca’s languid Dutch striker, is not: even his second-half goal doesn’t really help defrost his relationship with the ultras.
But tonight the talk is less about football – even though Barca lose to an 87th-minute goal and see midfielder Gabri sent off in stoppage time. Instead it’s all about the presidential election. Laporta is the outsider, the challenger threatening to sweep out the old order and transform a club that seems to have lost its way in the new century just as Real Madrid, the other half of one of the bitterest sporting rivalries around, is going full Galactico and racking up the trophies.
It shouldn’t have been like this. In the 1990s, inspired by Johan Cruyff’s coaching, Barca were strong: in 1999 president Josep Lluis Nunez saw all four of the sports club’s major teams – football, basketball, handball and roller hockey – claim the Spanish championship for their sports. Laporta, whose 1998 attempt to force a vote of no confidence in Nunez failed, looked like a chancer at the time.
By 2003, though, he began to seem like more of a prophet. The backwash from the dispute between Nunez and Cruyff looked to have plunged the team into chaos. Old criticisms about an unwillingness to spend money were thrown into sharp relief by the rampant expenditure at the Bernabeu, and the short-lived tenure of Joan Gaspart as club president ended in failure. Now, in 2003, Laporta’s moment had arrived.
The big story on the day of that Mallorca game was the proposed signing of David Beckham. Becks was world football’s most bankable commodity: not, perhaps, the most talented player, but arguably the most charismatic. His stock was high: part of a successful Manchester United side and a talismanic England captain, he had the whiff of glamour that said ‘marquee signing’ even in an age before that Americanism was widely known in Europe. So Laporta’s pitch, first and foremost, revolved around securing Beckham’s signature on a ‘money no object’ contract to play for Barcelona.
That gambit failed to energize Barcelona’s fans at the end of the 2003 season: those who turned up for the Mallorca game were sceptical rather than excited. Flyers from Laporta were distributed freely around the stadium, but few of the faithful seemed to be signing on the dotted line. However, the big signing – a ploy Laporta repeated unsuccessfully in 2015 when he stood on a ticket of bringing Paul Pogba to the Catalan capital – was a slow-burner. In the end it persuaded the club membership to back Laporta ahead of Lluis Bassat, the pre-election favourite. The transfer looked like a done deal, until Beckham turned it down and opted for … Real Madrid. Embarrassed almost before he’d settled into the hot seat, Laporta turned to Brazilian playmaker Ronaldinho as a last-minute replacement.
It looked like a bitter blow for Laporta, but may have been his salvation. While Beckham’s spell at Madrid sold millions of t-shirts, Ronaldinho inspired a Barcelona resurgence. Bottom of the table early in the 2003-04 season, the team roared back to form and came second behind Valencia. The following season, reshuffles more or less complete, they won la Liga. In 2006 it was a Champions League and domestic double. Laporta was never far from controversy, but by the time he left office there was no danger that the team would be upstaged by a rock concert any time soon. Frank Rijkaard was replaced by Pep Guardiola, a certain Lionel Messi was beginning to shine and 2009, Laporta’s final year in office, brought a record-breaking haul of six domestic and European trophies.
Football’s fortunes diverge quickly. Mallorca, winners that night in Barcelona, lifted the Copa del Rey in 2003 and boasted the talents of Cameroonian star Samuel Eto’o in a team that looked to have a bright future. But Eto’o moved to Barca to join the Laporta revolution and after a failed takeover in 2008 the club was left in desperate financial trouble. By the time Laporta was replaced as Barcelona president, Mallorca were close to bankruptcy. Relegation followed in 2013 and the island team is now battling to remain in the Segunda rather than dreaming of returning to la Liga.
Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain
La Liga, March 18, 2003
Barcelona 1 (Kluivert 73) RCD Mallorca 2 (Novo 22, Carlito 87)