FOX Soccer Exclusive
Barcelona soap opera far from over
“My time here is over,” Sandro Rosell said as he announced he was stepping down as Barcelona president in a packed Camp Nou press-room on Thursday evening.
The idea of Rosell resigning had seemed remote just 24 hours previously, but by the time he stepped up to the podium everyone knew it was coming. Rosell’s wife, his fellow board-members, including new president Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barca’s four club captains (Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta) and dozens of reporters were present, while millions of blaugrana fans were watching on TV or following on the internet.
Many of these were recalling that since Rosell was elected president in 2010, Barca has won nine trophies including two La Liga titles, a Champions League, a Copa del Rey and one Club World Cup, while dealing with the exit of former coach Josep Guardiola and then illness of his replacement Tito Vilanova. But the 49-year-old will now go down in history as the club chief who had to resign amid an investigation into potential embezzlement during a big-money player purchase he himself had personally championed.
Rosell's speech on Thursday began with talk of many “difficult moments” and “threats and attacks” on him and his family. When he did eventually address the main issue, there was a refusal to accept he had done any wrong.
“In recent days an unfair and reckless accusation of misappropriation has resulted in a lawsuit against me in the Audiencia Nacional,” he said defiantly. “From the beginning I have said that the signing of Neymar Junior has been correct and his signing has caused despair and envy in some of our adversaries. I don’t want unfair attacks to negatively affect their management or the image of the Club. This is why I have presented my irrevocable resignation of the presidency of FC Barcelona to the board of directors.”
Those words were the culmination of a day of roller-coaster emotion in Catalonia. It begun with shock reports that Rosell was considering leaving his position. This was dismissed at first as posturing to try and gain sympathy and support, but once an extraordinary board meeting was confirmed in the early afternoon the feeling hardened that something really was up. When friends in the local media claimed the 49-year-old was "exhausted" (the same word used by Guardiola in similar, but different, circumstances less than two years ago) it was clear the end was near.
While Rosell did look tired and drawn as he spoke, there is no doubt that it is the fallout from the Neymar transfer which lead to his exit. The Brazilian starlet was always his regime’s primary transfer target, and the former head of Nike’s South American business used his contacts to ensure that it happened, with him personally taking credit for having seen off competition from Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester City to finally land world soccer’s hottest young property last summer.
That apparent success has turned out to be Rosell’s downfall, however, as the "complex" and "skillful" negotiation involved -- the club’s own words -- turned out to be too clever by half. Widespread reports in Spain claim that Barca did not pay €57 million as they still maintain, but in fact €95 million was handed over -- with Neymar and his father pocketing an unprecedented €51 million in various fees and commissions.
Even this largesse might have been OK if Rosell and his fellow directors had been up-front about what they were doing. However many of the elements of the deal were hidden from its own club members at first, leading club member Jordi Cases to go to court to determine the details. That led directly to the Madrid court investigation which could now have tax implications, and other legal complications, and therefore Rosell has felt that he could not continue.
Replacement Bartomeu was from 2003 to 2005 the Barca director in charge of the club’s basketball side, and has been "sporting" vice-president since 2010. After embracing his friend on the podium, he gave a speech which stressed that the club's policies and positions were not changing.
In happier times: Sandro Rosell introduced Neymar as Barcelona's newest player last summer (Photo: Josep Lago/Getty Images).
“My first action as president of FC Barcelona is to announce the continuity of the Board’s project until 2016,” Bartomeu said. “We feel very strong. We will continue to work toward, and employ, the values that have guided us throughout these years. We have achieved a lot of goals in the past three years, but we still have a lot to accomplish.”
A successful businessman, Bartomeu was to date most well known for reneging on a public promise to offer then-ill defender Eric Abidal a playing spot in the squad when he recovered from cancer. Otherwise the engineer by trade has kept a low profile, and showed little of the charisma or leadership qualities he will now need.
High on his agenda will be to shepherd the board’s plans for a €600 million redevelopment of the Camp Nou through a members referendum in early April. Lose that vote and the idea of a Bartomeu presidency lasting through to 2016 will look very remote. Tricky-looking contract talks with star man Lionel Messi -- who is known to have little time for Barca's suits -- are also on horizon. Former president Joan Laporta keeps sniping from the sidelines, and is thought to fancy another go at his old job.
All the Neymar stuff is not going to go away either -- as Bartomeu and other directors could also get caught up in the legal case. Sandro Rosell is gone, but the drama in the Camp Nou boardroom looks far from over.
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