Boardroom Infighting in Barcelona Shakes Team

Six resignations, a social media scandal and accusations of corruption shine an ugly light on F.C. Barcelona, the Lionel Messi-led soccer team.

Josep Maria Bartomeu, the president of F.C. Barcelona, has been fighting negative headlines.
Credit...Albert Gea/Reuters

Something is rotten in Barcelona.

While the coronavirus has brought the sports world to a standstill, the sense of chaos and uncertainty at F.C. Barcelona, the Spanish soccer club, seems to be more pronounced than anywhere else. Much of it is self-inflicted.

Simmering boardroom infighting erupted into embarrassing public revelations of how one of the most iconic sports brands is being run. Six board members resigned earlier this month amid complaints of mismanagement, and one of them, a vice president, Emili Rousaud, has made corruption claims.

The men signed a joint letter calling for elections — that must take place by the end of spring 2021 — to be brought forward so new management can step in and pull the club out of a spiraling crisis.

It hasn’t been pretty. The club has been gripped by behind-the-scenes ugliness, conspiracy and paranoia that contrast sharply with the beauty the Lionel Messi-led team has displayed on the field in establishing Barcelona’s modern incarnation as one of sports’ great dynasties.

“It’s so embarrassing for the club,” said Rousaud, who until recently was one of the closest boardroom allies of Josep Maria Bartomeu, the club’s president, and widely seen as his anointed successor.

Rousaud now wants Bartomeu out as quickly as possible and elections held for a new leader, possibly himself, to fix a club rife with discord. Even Messi, a figure not known for outspoken public comments, has attacked management.

“Bartomeu has just one year left,” Rousaud said in an interview. “The elections have to be held by June next year, but I think it’s better to hold them earlier so a new board can come in and take the decisions that need to be made with a five-year vision, and not 11 months.”

Rousaud said he resigned after Bartomeu told him to leave. He signed a letter with the five other men who quit the club. “We cannot reverse the way the club is managed in the face of important challenges in the future, especially in the post-pandemic era,” they said.

Bartomeu has been fighting negative headlines for months, and his reign, dating to 2014, has been pockmarked with periods of turbulence, but the boardroom departures crystallized the urgency of the crisis. At the heart of it is a contract with a social media monitoring company that had already been generating heat amid allegations it was behind fake social media accounts that purported to be by legitimate Barcelona supporters and attacked those perceived to Bartomeu’s opponents, including Victor Font, an outspoken candidate to be the club’s next president, and stalwart players like Messi and Gerard Piqué.

Rousaud said the agreement with the social media monitoring company might be corrupt, too, alleging that one million euros in payments, or about $1.1 million, were sliced into small slices so as not to trigger internal compliance mechanisms. “When we detected it, it was not normal at all,” said Rousaud, who said a committee he ran had responsibility for contracts above 200,000 euros.

“The club is clean, but this operation is dirty,” he said.

Barcelona reacted shortly after Rousaud first made his bombshell accusation that someone at the club “had their hand in the cash register.”

On Monday, Barcelona, in a statement, described Rousaud’s accusations as “grave and unfounded” and denied “any action that could be described as corruption.”

“F.C. Barcelona cannot tolerate allegations that seriously damage the institution’s image,” it said. The club said it was taking legal action against Rousaud “in defense of the honor of the club and its employees.”

In response, Rousaud, a 53-year-old Catalan businessman, doubled down on his claims of wrongdoing and insisted his lawyers had yet to inform him of any case brought against him by the club. “The club is saying I’m lying; I say that I have proofs and, no problem, my lawyers have said the club have not done anything against me,” Rousaud said.

Barcelona’s handling of the social media affair, known locally as Barçagate, has been disjointed. Details first emerged in late February. The club issued strong denials that it had hired the company for any activities beyond social media monitoring, but a group of board members, including Rousaud, succeeded in demanding that Bartomeu commission an audit firm, PwC, to conduct an internal investigation.

Bartomeu has shown little appetite to step aside, and moved in recent days to restructure the club’s board. He owes his elevation to the top job to a previous scandal. Bartomeu was a vice president of the club when Sandro Rosell was forced to resign as president in 2014 after an investigation into the hiring of the Brazilian star Neymar. Bartomeu was elected for a new term in 2016.

Since then, while the team, largely thanks to the brilliance of Messi, has performed respectably on the field — winning league titles — there have been a number of boardroom missteps, including several in the past months.

A public attempt to persuade the former captain Xavi Hernández to replace Coach Ernesto Valverde backfired spectacularly, with the club ending up with the little-known coach Quique Setién, who expressed his own astonishment at being given the reins at one of soccer’s grandest clubs. An error-strewn search to replace the injured forward Luis Suárez ended with the emergency 18 million euro ($20 million) purchase of Martin Braithwaite, a Danish journeyman unlikely to have much of a career beyond this season.

Expensive recruits bought with the world-record fee received from the forced sale of Neymar to Paris St.-Germain in 2017 have so far failed spectacularly, with winger Ousmane Dembélé injured for much of his Barcelona career and Philippe Coutinho lent to Bayern Munich.

“It’s easy to say now, but the money from Neymar was not invested well,” Rousaud said. “The salary commitments are very heavy, and right now management has to be very careful.”

By the time the coronavirus stopped soccer in Spain, Barcelona had reclaimed top position, but fans have been critical that the soccer has rarely matched the standard they have come to expect. The club almost immediately found itself in an ugly confrontation with its players over pay cuts that culminated in a broadside from Messi aimed squarely at management.

“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,” he wrote in an Instagram post last month.

The rush to reach an agreement was borne out of the team’s precarious financial predicament. Last season, the team spent 66 percent of its one billion euro turnover on payroll, and, as a members club, it cannot rely on the munificence of oil-rich sheikhs or oligarchs who can prop up rival teams in tough times. “We were not prepared to receive the impact of something like coronavirus,” Rousaud said, though he conceded that few clubs could have expected such an event.

Right now, exiled from the team, Rousaud is plotting his return, charting a course that could end with a return to the boardroom as Bartomeu’s replacement, but not now as his anointed successor.

“If I get the support, I will present myself," he said.