- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 29, 2020

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Former Barcelona club president Joan Laporta has a simple pitch in his attempt to get reelected to the post. According to Laporta, he is the best chance Barcelona has of convincing Lionel Messi to stay put at Camp Nou.

Laporta is one of a handful of candidates vying to become Barcelona’s next president in an election by club members called for Jan. 24.

Besides having successfully led Barcelona a decade ago, Laporta’s strongest asset to win over voters is his relationship with Messi, whose future with the club is in serious doubt.

“I hope to convince Messi to stay a few more years with us so that this beautiful story he has at Barça can continue,” Laporta told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

“I have the honor to have the credibility of the player,” Laporta said. “When we meet, Messi always is telling me that ‘you always did what you said you would,’ and this is something that I am very proud of and I don’t want to lose.”



Laporta knows Messi from when he took over the club as its young president in 2003. A teenage Messi had recently joined the Spanish club after leaving Argentina with his family.

At the start of his stint as president, Laporta chose the equally inexperienced Frank Rijkaard as his first coach, and brought in Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Deco to team up with in-house talents Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández. Messi quickly moved up through Barcelona’s youth teams and joined the top squad in 2004. The team took off and won two Spanish leagues and the club’s second European Cup in 2006.

When that team began to falter, Laporta made another bold move by replacing Rijkaard with the untested Pep Guardiola and selling Ronaldinho. Guardiola retooled the team around Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, sparking the most glorious period in club history.

Laporta could not run for a third consecutive term in 2010. He tried to unseat Josep Bartomeu in a 2015 election, but Bartomeu won with the team coming off a triple sweep of the Champions League, Spanish league and Copa del Rey - the last peak of greatness for the club.

Bartomeu resigned in October when faced with the possibility of being ousted in a no-confidence motion supported by thousands of club members furious after the team’s poor performances and the club’s bad financial situation. Barcelona suffered a historic 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals in August, and its soaring debt forced the club to practically give away veteran stars like Luis Suárez to slash its salary burden.

The big worry, however, is what Messi will do now.

Messi stunned Barcelona in August when he said that he wanted out. The club, however, resisted, and he backed down - at least for the time being. He has played as hard as ever these past months with the team still having ups and downs as new coach Ronald Koeman tries to work in younger players to rejuvenate the side.

Messi’s contract expires next June, meaning he is free to negotiate with other clubs as of Jan. 1. However, Messi said on Sunday that he won’t make a decision on his future until the end of the season.

Barcelona will remain under a caretaker board, which lacks powers to sign contracts, until February when the newly elected board takes over.

Laporta said that despite having maintained what he called “informal” talks with Messi over the years, he has yet to make the player a formal pitch.

“I would like to be president of football club Barcelona, look at the accounts, know perfectly what the possibilities are that we have to give him an economic proposal,” Laporta said. “But for me the economic proposal with Messi is not the most relevant thing. (…) The most important thing is to propose him a very competitive team because Leo wants to win championships.”

There are seven other declared candidates, but the field will be narrowed down by a signature-gathering process. Just over 2,250 signatures are needed to get one’s name on the ballot. Around 110,00 club members will have the right to vote.

Since leaving the club, Laporta has maintained his work as a lawyer, but also dabbled in politics. He spent 2010-12 as a member of Catalonia’s regional parliament, supporting the independence of the wealthy northeast region.

The Catalan separatist movement Laporta backs has generated deep political and social divisions in Spain.

Still, Laporta said he would ensure that Barcelona would “integrate different ideas and ways of thinking” for its fans who do not agree with his politics.

Now, at age 58, Laporta is convinced that his record of having guided the team through thorough overhauls not once, but twice, should be enough to put him back in power.

“I can bring back the joy to Barcelona’s fans because I have the experience of having already done so,” he said. “I have the commitment and preparation required to take the decisions the club needs.”

Seventeen years since he first celebrated becoming president by spraying Cava on his cohorts, Laporta has some gray hairs, but he still knows how to make Barça fans snicker by poking fun at their top rival.

He launched his campaign by unfurling an enormous publicity poster covering a 13-story building not in Barcelona, but rather in the Spanish capital - directly across from Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.

It bore the message: “Eager to see you again.”

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