Dermot Corrigan lifts the lid on the civil action launched against former Barcelona owner Joan Laporta over the money he lost while at the club

Forcing unduly spendthrift owners or executives to repay club money they've squandered sounds like a dream for fans of many teams. But that's what might be about to happen at Barcelona. At a general assembly of club members on October 16, new Barça president Sandro Rosell outlined the immensity of the debt his predecessor Joan Laporta had left behind, and proposed Laporta be held responsible. Rosell abstained in the ensuing vote, but was unlikely to have been disappointed when the motion was passed. A civil action has been launched which could force Laporta to personally pay the club €48.7 million (£42.3m).

While the move's details were a surprise, most observers had been expecting Rosell to do something. Weeks after Laporta left in July, the club had had to borrow €150m just to meet running costs. A due diligence process found that FCB lost €79.6m last season, bringing total club debt to €430m. Deloitte and KPMG pored over Laporta's seven-year reign, documenting titillating details such as €2.65m spent spying on fellow club directors and journalists, €5.7m hiring private jets and €90,000 on U2 tickets. They also flagged up a combined €24m to buy South American flops Keirrison and Henrique and €18m for land now worth less than €6m. There was also the strange case of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on whom the club lost €37.2m in 12 months. It seems clear that Laporta's stewardship of the club coffers was irresponsible at best.

But so what, most ex-club directors and many fans might say. Barcelona have been winning football games and are not the first and won't be the last club to waste money on dodgy corporate hospitality, over-priced signings and under-researched property deals.

Also, Rosell himself was Laporta's sporting vice-president from 2003 to 2005, so he shouldn't really be the first one casting stones. The vote only passed by 468 votes to 439 and ordinary fans seem equally split. A poll on Catalan newspaper Sport's website had 52 per cent for and 48 per cent against the lawsuit.

Rather than addressing the auditors' findings in detail, Laporta called his former colleague "envious, resentful and jealous" and claimed the legal proceedings were personally and politically motivated. Two rich egoists squabbling like this could be seen as either entertaining or disgraceful, depending on which club you support, but the political angle is potentially more important. November 28 sees elections for the Catalan regional parliament, with Laporta running as leader of noisy new nationalist party Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència.

Laporta had been hoping to leverage his sporting profile to launch a political career. This has not proved easy to do. Even four Spanish league titles and two Champions League wins in seven years didn't make him universally popular among the club's members and fans. While some cheered his use of the Barça team to lend support or publicity to Catalan nationalist causes or events, others were less impressed at this blending of sport and politics. There were also regular grumbles at his autocratic leadership style and understandable criticism of morally questionable moves such as building commercial ties with the Uzbek dictatorship.

Neither has Laporta proved to be a gifted campaigner. Eyebrow-raising policies such as suggesting the central Spanish government repay the €3,000 a year it "plunders" from each Catalan citizen and offering to include the Balearic Islands and Valencia within the proposed new state of Catalonia have not caught on. Before the summer, it seemed Laporta might garner enough support to hold the post-election balance of power. He won't. October's polls gave his party only two seats out of 135 and predicted Artur Mas's milder nationalists, Convergència i Unió (CiU), would secure an overall majority.

Those polls were taken before full news of the debts and lawsuit broke. Although Laporta has alleged that Rosell is close to Mas and the CiU, it seems the new FCB president is just enjoying the opportunity to screw his former partner turned sworn enemy.

It remains to be seen whether Laporta will be forced to pay the €48.7m, but his legacy as the enabler of Barça's most successful season ever (2008-09) has been tarnished, and any remaining political dreams he had seem dashed. Meanwhile, Catalan voters and Barcelona fans get to enjoy, or more likely suffer, an unseemly soap opera, when most would prefer their attention to be focused on the pitch.

From WSC 286 December 2010

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