Barcelona are not a club that is new to controversy at the boardroom level.
The handling of Neymar’s signing and the finances involved in the deal by Sandro Rosell, former Barcelona president, which eventually led to his resignation during the last decade is one of many incidents that have cast the Catalans’ upper-management in poor light.
But what has happened over the last week or so is surely a new low for the La Liga champions. Six Barcelona board members – vice president Emili Rosaud, Enrique Tombas alongside directors Silvio Elias, Maria Teixidor, Josep Pont and Jordi Clasamiglia, handed in their resignations and questioned Josep Maria Bartomeu’s leadership and the direction in which the club was headed in.
There had been signs of unrest all throughout the season starting from last summer. And it seems like things have finally come to a boil in the past few days. We now take you through a timeline of how events unfolded, leading to the current crisis at Camp Nou;
The failed return of Neymar
It is no secret that Barcelona have failed to fill the Neymar-shaped void since he left the club for PSG in 2017. Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann, many new big names came through the doors at Camp Nou, but were unable to make the desired impact.
So, Barca have been trying to bring back Neymar to the club for a while now, with some of the senior players also in favour of such a move. And while Bartomeu & co. made an attempt to re-sign the Brazilian superstar last summer, the approach failed to materialize.
The relationship between the board and the players had been on a decline since Neymar’s departure and when the club decided to spend heavily on Griezmann last summer, it hampered their pursuit of Neymar due to a lack of funds. This did not go down well with the influential players at the club including captain Lionel Messi.
The sacking of Ernesto Valverde
To be fair, Ernesto Valverde was never a popular figure at Camp Nou, with fans unhappy with the style of football the club had been playing under him. Yet, they had still tasted success under the former Athletic Bilbao boss.
However, after the Spanish Super Cup semi-final defeat against Atletico Madrid, Bartomeu decided to pull the plug and sack Valverde. This despite the fact that Barca were at the top of the La Liga table at the time.
After having tried to bring in the likes of Xavi and Ronald Koeman, the club eventually settled on Quique Setien, who himself has revealed that he was as surprised as anyone to receive the call from Barcelona, two days before his appointment.
This just goes on to show that Barcelona had no succession plan in place before relieving Valverde of his duties. And this kind of ineptitude is sure to have left the players angered.
Moreover, the comments made by sporting director Eric Abidal in the aftermath, in which he claimed that some of the players were responsible for Valverde’s sacking did not sit well with Messi. The Barcelona captain, who usually refrains from speaking about issues in public, lashed out at the board.
“Players are responsible for what happens on the field, we are also the first to acknowledge when we don't play well. Those in charge of sporting direction should also face up to their responsibilities and above all take charge of their own decisions,” Messi said.
“Lastly, I think that when you talk about players, you should give names because otherwise you are tainting everyone's name and feeding rumours that spread and are not true.”
The January Transfer Window Debacle
This one’s fairly well-documented. With Luis Suarez out injured for a long time, Barcelona were in need of serious reinforcements in the attacking contingent. During the entire January transfer window, Barcelona were constantly linked with players left, right and centre, but nothing materialized.
The transfer window came and went, and Bartomeu rightly drew a lot of criticism from fans for his inefficacy. Barcelona were handed a lifeline as Ousmane Dembele picked up a serious injury, which allowed the club to make an emergency signing outside the transfer window, as per the rules in Spanish football.
The Catalans ended up signing 28-year-old Martin Braithwaite from Leganes, who were not allowed to sign a replacement even as they battle relegation, which left them displeased. Moreover, the fact that the club ended up spending on a player who is likely to be moved on in the summer, exposed the club’s poor planning and transfer strategies, leading to calls of Bartomeu’s sack by the fans.
The Social Media Scandal
The worst was yet to come for Bartomeu and Barcelona though. In February, reports emerged that the president had hired a PR firm in order to boost the board’s reputation and tasked with targeting and discrediting influential figures who had been vocal against the president and the board.
Bartomeu was quick to jump to the defence of his himself and his board, although he did accept that the club had employed the services of a PR company, I3 ventures.
“I want to make something clear. Regarding the question: 'Have we ordered anyone to monitor social media?', the answer is yes – and we will still do it. It is the responsibility of this club to know what is going on and what is being said around the world, always to preserve Barcelona,” Bartomeu said in the aftermath.
“Regarding the question: 'Have we given orders to discredit people or institutions through social media?', the answer is no and we will persecute everyone who accuses us of it.”
Calls for Bartomeu’s sacking only intensified after this report came to light.
The Player Wage-Cuts amid COVID-19
Last month, Messi confirmed that Barcelona players will take a 70 per cent pay cut and make financial contributions to ensure the club's other employees are paid in full during the coronavirus crisis.
While making the announcement, the little magician from Argentina also took a swipe at Bartomeu after reports had been circulating in Spanish news outlets that the Barcelona players were unwilling to forego a portion of their salaries, despite the club’s best attempts to convince them.
The manner in which the reports had been painting the Barcelona players in a bad light did not go down well with the captain.
“It didn’t surprise us that inside the club there are some trying to put us under the microscope and pressure us into doing something that we were always clear we would do,” Messi wrote in his post.
While Bartomeu did back Messi’s claims in the press afterwards, the leaks leading to the reports in Spanish media outlets seemed to have further strained the relationship between the pair.
The Mass Boardroom Exodus
After everything, six board members decided to resign from their posts last week. Following the resignation, Emili Rousaud, who was one among the six to have quit, revealed that Bartomeu was planning to revamp the board, citing the recent leaks that have upset the players as the reason.
This had left the former vice-president furious, as he was being made the scapegoat for all the mishandlings that had been happening within the boardroom. The morning after his resignation, Rousaud went on to make another sensational claim, suggesting that there had been someone stealing money from the club.
“When you pay €1m for something worth €100,000, that could bring benefit to someone inside or outside the club. I don't think it's someone on the board but if there's a discrepancy then it means someone is benefiting in an illicit way,” Rousaud said in an interview with RAC1.
“With 'SocialMediaGate', we have three problems. The first is understanding whether the social media networks are being used to destroy others' reputations – I don't think that is the case.
“Secondly, is the €3m (£2.7m/$3.3m) paid for those services market price? And third, it's unquestionable that the payments have been made in stages [to circumvent the board]. The issue is the fragmentation of the invoices. After the audit, we couldn't look the other way.
“The president's offer to step down came when the report was about to drop. It's suspicious. The president knows what he puts in the audit and that's one of the factors that concerns us.”
Barcelona have quickly refuted these claims and have threatened legal action against Rousaud.
Only Rousaud, Bartomeu and the board members involved will know how much of these claims are true.
But one thing is certain, Barcelona are in a state of malaise. And, the club’s reputation has taken a massive hit. With calls for the club’s presidential election to be pushed forward, it remains to be seen how much longer Bartomeu’s controversial reign lasts.
As of now, chaos reigns supreme at Camp Nou.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Ander Gillenea