How Ronaldinho rescued Barcelona from its forgotten nightmare

In his second stint, Van Gaal began with a customarily polarizing decision. Rivaldo, the team’s creative fulcrum for the previous five seasons, was let go on a free transfer. On top of being an unpopular decision (Rivaldo had only just helped Brazil win that summer’s World Cup), the move was also bad business. The club received no money for letting its star depart, epitomizing the thoughtless financial decisions of Joan Gaspart’s Barcelona presidency (which lasted from 2000-2003). And while he wouldn’t star at A.C. Milan, Rivaldo would go on to contribute to a win in that season’s Champions League.

In his own Champions League effort, Van Gaal’s Barcelona actually managed a record run of form. Snapping off 11 wins in a row, it established a new competition benchmark. But that would be the highwater mark, as Barcelona lost in the quarterfinals to Juventus.

In La Liga, results went far differently. Prior to the new year, Barcelona found itself in an inconceivable lower-table position, with more losses than wins. The poor investments of the Gaspart era were finally coming home to roost (over 150 million Euros on 16 players). The club massively overspent on players like Marc Overmars, Javier Saviola and Geovanni. For a variety of reasons, none proved to be consistently productive.

When form didn’t improve in January, 2003, Van Gaal and the board agreed to a mutual termination of his contract. In the frivolous spirit of the Gaspart presidency, Van Gaal’s exit cost Barcelona four million Euros. Only three points above the relegation zone, it was a full-fledged crisis.

Remarkably, the damage by season’s end wasn’t relegation, but merely a historically poor sixth place finish in La Liga (achieved only by a last-gasp win in the finale). By then, Gaspart’s reign had come to an end, less than a month after Van Gaal’s. Rudderless Barca continued to drift into Spanish soccer’s abyss all while hemorrhaging money.

Beckham’s electoral bend

The defining feature of Barcelona in comparison to many of its fellow European super clubs has always been its fan ownership. Because of that, the thousands of “members” (fans who own the club) vote on its leadership.

With the demise of Joan Gaspart’s presidency, his successor faced an uphill battle. Gaspart spent over 180 million Euros in transfer fees, leaving the club in more than 230 million in debt. In fact, according to one financial assessment group cited by El Mundo in February, 2003, Barcelona were the most indebted club in Spain.

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