Experience and freshness face off in the Barça presidential election
Víctor Font says he wants to bring FC Barcelona to the 21st century, while Toni Freixa backs himself for his know-how
After Josep Maria Bartomeu stepped down as president of FC Barcelona back in October, the club have been going through the procedures of finding a replacement ever since.
This Sunday's election is one of the most important in the club’s recent history. The club sits in a dangerous financial position, fans and experts alike believe the squad needs refreshing, and the team’s best-ever player and captain, Leo Messi, tried to leave for free last summer and could yet depart at the end of this campaign.
When club finances were revealed in October, just weeks before the resignation of Bartomeu, they unveiled huge losses of €97 million for the 2019/20 season and total club debts spiralling to €820 million, with €420 million due to be paid out of the club in the short-term, something likely to force the incoming leaders to try to negotiate with creditors.
The future president will have their work cut out for them. But who will the person be to take on this mammoth task? Three candidates are vying for the most powerful position in football in Catalonia - Víctor Font, Toni Freixa, and Joan Laporta. Catalan News had the opportunity to sit down with the first two of these candidates and discuss their vision for the club, while the third declined to be interviewed.
Who are the candidates?
One of the most vocal critics of the previous administration, Victor Font has been preparing his candidacy for the Barça presidency for years. Due to his leadership with the Sí al Futur group which was central to the no-confidence motion to remove Bartomeu as president, Font was one of the early favourites in the race. The entrepreneur is basing his pitch to ‘socis’ (club members) around the need for fresh faces and eyes, with a view to modernize methods and look to the future.
Meanwhile, 52-year-old lawyer Toni Freixa ran for the presidency in the 2015 election and is basing his candidacy in a very similar mould to back then. He served on the board of directors under both Joan Laporta as well as Josep Maria Bartomeu and is backing himself for the position based on the wealth of experience he has gained by serving on past boards of the club.
How do you assess the current situation of the club?
Víctor Font: In the middle of a perfect storm due to a combination of factors that the pandemic has exacerbated. The need to replace the best generation the sport has ever seen with the best in the world leading the pack, at a time the competition has become more and more professional and wealthy, and a time we need to make the most significant investment - from a real estate perspective - for the stadium and the Palau Blaugrana.
When you put all this together it’s clear you need a capable team with a track record of managing complex situations at the helm of the club to ensure we achieve two objectives: one, protect the ownership structure, this is our main objective, to ensure the club continues to be owned by its members. And two, to continue winning Champions Leagues. We want to avoid becoming another Milan, with a very successful history but for many years not competing at the very top.
Toni Freixa: The current situation of the club is primarily determined by the pandemic, which is affecting every company, entity, club, and family in the world. We can’t forget about this. Apart from this, it’s true that the management of the club in recent years has meant that there has been a lot of expenditure because spending has been very high. The debts as well have grown a lot. When you combine the two factors, one, sporting and management decisions which have left us with such a high wage bill and such high debts, along with the pandemic, that leaves the club right now in a critical situation, but one that for sure the club will be able to get out of once the pandemic ends and we put in place the right mechanisms.
What is your plan to return to economic stability?
Víctor Font: You need to restructure the cost structure of the club, you cannot sustain the wages of the first team. And refinancing the debt. The short term debt, we foresee €400-500 million before the end of the season, that needs to be refinanced. In parallel, you need to put the foundations of what needs to be a solid plan to return the club to growth - growth in revenue, and if you do this properly, you have to generate cash flow from next season onwards. That will allow us to repay the debt and start generating cash you can reinvest in having a successful sports project, a competitive one, not only in football but also in the other sports, our plans on the social side, all that is critical and you need to put the foundations in place.
The positive side of everything is the potential that the club has. Today, with €600-700 million euro revenue, we’re going to see many companies in Catalonia that generate more revenue than Barça this year, and there’s no institution or brand better than Barça, that tells you the potential we have.
Toni Freixa: I was part of the board that arrived in 2010 to a situation very similar to the one we’re seeing now, apart from the pandemic. Right now, we have more debts than turnover. We have to do the same now as we did before, manage the club, massively reduce spending, renegotiate the debt, negotiate a restructuring with our creditors, and at the same time taking responsible sporting decisions which in this context means relying heavily on homegrown talent, almost certainly we can’t go into the market and sign players with such aplomb as we have before, and we need a well-defined model of management, as ours is.
What is your philosophy that sets you apart?
Víctor Font: The other two represent the past. They’ve been part of the club, they’ve had board responsibilities in the past, and they are okay in continuing to manage the club as its’ been managed until today, a very strong presidential type of model where the president makes most decisions, where the members don’t count for much. With very limited use of democratic means to seek the opinion of the members, without the right talent or experience on the board, typically on the board, you have friends of whoever wants to become president and the only thing they bring is their capacity to bring bank guarantees.
All that is the model of the past. We present the model of the future. A model that believes in a new leadership style where you attract the very best talent, starting at the board. On the board, we want to have people who have knowhow about sports, know-how about the business parts relevant to a club like Barcelona like technology, e-commerce, content, etc.
Making sure that we normalize the role of women in the club, we believe very much in diversity. As an entrepreneur, when I built my company, I’ve seen that all kinds of diversity strengthens projects and we want that to happen at Barça as well. If we have the honour to govern it’s going to be the board that has the most number of women ever. We also want to build women’s teams in all sports, not just football, we want to ensure in the executive positions in the club we have women as well. We want to ensure the members are right in the middle of the club, that their opinion counts, that there is more transparency, we avoid situations like [what we’ve seen lately] where people discover what the economic situation of the club is. Bringing the club once and for all into the 21st century, that’s the main difference - past vs future.
Toni Freixa: My philosophy is to defend the club all the while knowing that I’m absolutely independent. No media power nor political party helps me, there is no special interest behind me that wants to take over Barça. Nor do I intend to issue bonds to turn Barça into a public limited sports company (sociedad anónima deportiva). The fact that our candidacy preserves the identity of the club and wants to remain independent makes us completely different from the other options.
In our case we have the knowledge of the club because we’ve been involved in it since always, the experience of having managed it before, and the balance between the passion needed to manage the club as well good judgement, and our profile too, passionate for the club also with the serenity and honesty needed.
How would you deal with the situation of Messi?
Víctor Font: First we have to ensure he stays in the club. It’s very strategic not only for the short-term sports project, but also in the longer term at the institutional level, ensuring that the association between Messi-Barça, Barça-Messi remains is strategic and important. He’s the best player in history and having this association is a gift for the club and we need to protect that. In order to do that Messi has told us already three things that are important - 1) His dream would be to retire here and to be a one-club man and therefore at least that’s his desire. 2) For this to happen, he needs a competitive sports project, and that’s what we’ve been working on, to offer him this and that he’s convinced that with the right leadership and talent in the squad we can win and win silverware. And 3) That he would also, in the longer term, leave Barcelona and remain associated with the club. Put all these realities together and I think you have the solution of how to retain Messi for the years to come.
Toni Freixa: First of all, the decision of each person is very personal to everybody, and you can’t change that. If he wants to leave, one has to respect that. In any case, while always putting the club ahead of everything else, we would try to find a formula that would make Messi happy and make him want to stay in the club, because for us, we want him to stay until the end of his career. We’ll sit and talk with him, speak mutually, and see if we can find this point.
Of course, Messi is the greatest in history and hopefully the story of Messi and Barça never finishes, but it’s a question that depends on two parts. From our side as a board, we will also look out for what’s best for FC Barcelona, putting the club above anything else or any person. If, within this framework, it’s possible for Messi to be a part, then it will be great news.
What would you do if Catalonia saw another independence push?
Víctor Font: Sports and politics mixing is a fact, and that’s not an opinion that anyone can change, that’s a reality. But we also know that a sports club like Barça is not a political party, and you don’t use sports clubs to do politics. Things that affect society in general, if they are not properly resolved they get into stadiums because people gather and their concerns are voiced, especially if freedom of speech is protected.
We’ve always said that Barça has in its DNA, in its roots, the representation of a good part of the Catalan people, it’s always been there, the founders decided that and that’s a reality that no one can avoid. But again, this does not mean that Barça needs to be playing the role of a political party. There are many people with different ideologies and beliefs that are part of Barça and this must remain the same, everyone must feel comfortable being part of Barça.
Toni Freixa: We’ve repeatedly said during this campaign that we don’t want any sort of interference in FC Barcelona. Barça belongs to its members, and its members have sensibilities of all types, not only political ideology but also other ways. We want Barça members to know that the club is managed thinking of them all and of the entity. Barça is a Catalan club and ‘Catalanista,’ a defender of freedoms and always will be, allowing people to express themselves freely. We’re always going to be connected to what happens in Catalonia, but not because we’ll be a vehicle of anything, but we’ll always be accompanying.
We understand that respecting freedom of expression, which is present in the rivalry between Barça and Madrid for example, something wider than just football we’re all aware, but we don’t want to central to any sort of political movement or serve as a tool for any sort of political ideology.