Barcelona Members Race Clock in Effort to Oust Bartomeu

A group of F.C. Barcelona members that has spent months mobilizing, planning and plotting to force out the club’s unpopular president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, is using the soccer team’s latest crisis to begin an official campaign to force a change in leadership.

The effort’s biggest opponent is not Bartomeu, though, but rather a ticking clock, restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the club’s own byzantine rules: To force a no-confidence vote in the board, the organizers first must collect the handwritten signatures of portion of the club’s 140,000 members who are eligible to vote — about 16,500 people. And they must do it in the next nine days.

“We have to go door to door,” said Marc Duch, one of the Barcelona members behind the campaign. “This Covid thing is a massive issue at the moment.”

Discussions that had been taking place for months, he said, suddenly gathered pace in recent weeks. Already furious about months of boardroom infighting and angry about a humiliating exit from the Champions League, the organizers of the campaign said Lionel Messi’s announcement that he wanted out of Barcelona — a plan Messi has since abandoned — was the last straw.

“That sped things up,” Duch said.

Removing a board that has been duly elected is no easy task, though. According to Barcelona’s bylaws, a vote of no confidence can only be called if 15 percent of the club’s eligible voters — people who have been members for more than a year — provide handwritten signatures on official forms provided by the club within two weeks. (The forms must be accompanied by a photocopy of the front and back of each signer’s national identification card.) And that’s just to get the vote. To pass, the motion requires approval by a two-thirds majority.

Those rules, coupled with coronavirus-related restrictions, have set the scene for a race against time for Bartomeu’s opponents, a disparate alliance of fan groups that also has the support of three men who have said they would stand as candidates in the next election for club president. Bartomeu’s current term runs through next spring.

To officially launch their campaign, Duch, a tax adviser by profession, and a handful of other members arrived at the team’s headquarters last Wednesday. There they were provided with boxes upon boxes of the required forms — 32,000 in total — that they loaded into cars and vans.

That was the easy part.

In olağan circumstances, getting the forms in front of the team’s members would require little more than stationing volunteers outside the club’s Camp Nou stadium on match days and handing them out. But with the team currently in a brief off-season, and social distancing rules limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people, collecting the thousands of signatures by next week’s deadline has been a complex logistical conundrum from the start.

To spread the word, batches of forms have been left at more than 130 office blocks, restaurants and other businesses around Catalonia. The group also posted locations where Barcelona members can pick up a form on a website, and it continues to try to spread the word on social media. So far, Duch and others said, they have gathered 7,500 signatures.

Barcelona declined to comment on the effort, but at least one of Bartomeu’s rivals does not appear to oppose it.

“I thought the defeat in Lisbon was the bottom, but the bottom-bottom was having the best player in the history of the sport, who has been 20 years in the club, wanting to leave after such a defeat and through the back door,” said Victor Font, a technology entrepreneur and one of the front-runners in the race to replace Bartomeu.

Bartomeu can remain in charge until the middle of next year, but, according to Font, changes needs to come much faster than that, not least because the risk of losing Messi next year remains a strong possibility. Messi can speak with potential suitors — Manchester City is among those that have reportedly expressed interest — and even sign a precontract agreement as soon as Jan. 1.

Should Bartomeu’s opponents succeed in ousting the current leadership, elections would have to take place within three months. Whoever is in charge, however, will face a bulging inbox of immediate issues beyond the fate of Messi.

Key sponsorship agreements — including with the team’s principal sponsor Rakuten — will be up for renewal; a contentious and hugely expensive stadium refurbishment will need to be addressed; and, perhaps most important for the team’s fans, the roster will need to be rebuilt. But so will the club’s battered image.

“They have ruined it all, in economic terms, sporting terms and institutionally we have lost all Europe’s respect as a club,” Duch said.

Bloodlettings are not rare at Barcelona. Allies of Bartomeu evvel almost succeeded in ousting a former president, Joan Laporta, in 2008. Laporta narrowly survived, and went on to lay the foundations for much of the team’s current success by naming a largely untested former player, Pep Guardiola, as coach. Under Guardiola, with Messi leading on the field, Barcelona went on to enjoy a decade of unparalleled success.

Bartomeu took over in 2014, stepping up from a vice president role after his ally Sandro Rosell was forced to step down amid claims of improper conduct in the signing of the Brazilian forward Neymar.

But the tide against Bartomeu’s control of the 120-year-old club has been rising for months. Last week, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that the police in Catalonia were investigating Bartomeu for corruption.

Duch said eight groups had come together to push for Bartomeu’s ouster. But with only days to go, the campaign is entering its most difficult stage: Persuading older Barcelona members — unaware of an effort that to date has largely played out on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter — to add their names to the effort.

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