How Ronaldinho rescued Barcelona from its forgotten nightmare

Campaigning for the presidency, 40-year-old Catalan lawyer Joan Laporta’s bid was instrumentally helped by a pitch from his running mate (and eventual rival), Sandro Rosell. Rosell posited that he would bring Manchester United icon David Beckham to Barcelona if Laporta was elected. Rosell claimed to be “70 to 80 percent confident” of signing the England midfielder.

It was a bold, if familiar plan. Promising a star signing was, after all, the trademark of not only Barcelona club presidents, but also arch rival Real Madrid. And it was from Madrid that the main competition would arise in the Beckham sweepstakes.

The election proved to be foregone conclusion for Laporta. Aside from Rosell’s tantalizing Beckham rumor, the Catalan attorney enlisted an official endorsement from one of his clients, Johan Cruyff. And with a corps of younger partners, Laporta’s campaign successfully inspired the voters, who saw them as refreshingly energetic and business-savvy.

In the final tally, Laporta won with 27,138 votes (52.57 percent), decisively defeating his closest challenger, Lluis Bassat (16,412 votes).

Flush with victory, Laporta’s regime set out to sign Beckham. Yet even before the English star helped bend the electoral results of Barcelona’s presidency, the tactic was backfiring.

In a club statement, Barcelona disclosed an offer for Beckham prior to Laporta’s election. The bid was contingent on him becoming the next club president:

“Manchester United confirms that club officials have met Joan Laporta, the leading candidate for the Presidency of Barcelona. These meetings have resulted in an offer being made for the transfer of David Beckham to Barcelona.”

Beckham, then on vacation in Los Angeles, fired back in a statement from his management company, SFX:

“David is very disappointed and surprised to learn of this statement and feels that he has been used as a political pawn in the Barcelona presidential elections. David’s advisers have no plans to meet Mr. Laporta or his representatives.”

Madrid, led by their own democratically elected president (Florentino Perez) had already seized on Beckham’s frustrations at United. Having sensed an opening, Perez swooped in to sign the latest in his long line of extravagant “Galácticos.”

As was discovered long afterward, Madrid had truthfully all but locked up the transfer even before Laporta’s election. Rosell’s “70 to 80 percent” certainty of signing Beckham was purely a first-rate Machiavellian political power play. They had a zero percent chance of getting Beckham, but Barcelona’s club members were dazzled by the possibility. The “slight of hand” trick from Rosell, as author Graham Hunter has described it, was masterstroke of political gamesmanship, though it quickly put the new administration in a tough spot.

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