With 24 major trophies over the last decade (not including several more likely to be added in 2016), it’s almost impossible to imagine a world where Barcelona is considered anything other than the gold standard in world soccer. And yet, as recently as 2003, the club’s situation was not only starkly different, but downright perilous.
Bereft of Champions League competition after an abysmal campaign in La Liga, coupled with an increasingly crippling debt, Barcelona’s newly elected board quickly failed to achieve the marquee signing it had campaigned on.
At this juncture, when Lionel Messi was only a promising player at La Masia, Barcelona, despite facing its most intense problems in decades, managed a signing that was perhaps more important than any the club achieved since Johan Cruyff in 1973.
Ronaldinho, whose very name conjures the best ideals of soccer among an entire generation of fans, arrived at Barcelona in slightly miraculous circumstances. Instead of choosing an established European superpower with guaranteed Champions League playing time, the Brazilian gambled on a Barcelona team in crisis.
He was the perfect addition, arriving at the perfect time. As a one-man goal creation system, he got the ball rolling for Barcelona in the 21st century, helping to rescue the Catalan club in its hour of need. It’s a story filled with drama that’s largely forgotten in the contemporary context of Barcelona dominance. And it almost didn’t happen.
“Ronaldinho is the one who changed this negative spiral,” former Barcelona President Sandro Rosell said in 2013 (on the tenth anniversary of the Brazilian’s arrival in Catalonia). “He turned it round into something positive, and we still have that momentum today.”
Van Gaal’s Second Stint Spiral
The 2002-2003 La Liga season for Barcelona was an unmitigated disaster. For the first time in the memory of most Blaugranes’ minds, the team finished half a season with more losses than wins. In reality, it was the byproduct of decay that began years before.
Known as the polarizing manager of Manchester United in 2016, Dutchman Louis van Gaal cut a similar figure as Barcelona manager that season. In his second spell with the team (having achieved moderate success, including a pair of La Liga wins in his first tenure from 1997-2000), the manner of Van Gaal’s return was far different than when he first arrived in Catalonia in the ‘90s.
Having ascended to the Barcelona job in 1997 on the back of his masterful managerial job at Ajax (which included a Champions League victory in 1995), Van Gaal returned in 2002 amid very different circumstances. Ignominiously, he’d presided over the first Netherlands team since 1986 that failed to qualify for the World Cup. The team’s 2002 fate was sealed when, after particularly boastful comments from Van Gaal, it slumped to a loss to Ireland 1-0 (despite the Irish being down to ten men).
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.
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.
Just three days after Laporta’s landslide election victory, it was confirmed that Beckham would be signing with Real Madrid. With the lynchpin of his electoral promises rendered a failure, any honeymoon stage Laporta and his team might normally have enjoyed vanished. Club members, having just voted for a candidate promising to sign star of Beckham’s caliber, were instantly disappointed.
Ronaldinho, Manchester United, and a “matter of 48 hours”
The loss of Beckham as a primary transfer target forced Laporta’s boardroom quickly onto its heels. Scrambling to find a star with the same clout as the England midfielder appeared impossible.
Beckham, especially in 2003, was at the peak of his international appeal. (In a sense, his signing was a microcosm of Madrid’s Galácticos era. The obvious appeal to his addition was entirely commercial. He made little sense for Madrid’s starting 11, vamously triggering the departure of Claude Makelele.)
To find an alternative, Laporta was initially rumored to be interested in several Premier League players. But the only real target was an enthusiastic Brazilian playmaker at Paris Saint-Germain.
Ronaldinho, who would grow to become affectionately known worldwide as one of the most talented players of his generation, was far from a household name in 2003. Having achieved inconsistently at PSG over two seasons, his European reputation to that point had been mostly built on Brazil’s victory in the 2002 World Cup. And even in that context, he was the decidedly least famous attacker in Brazil’s frontline (behind Rivaldo and Ronaldo).
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