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Hail To The President

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Joan Laporta hit the headlines because of his bid to bring England captain David Beckham to Barcelona, but first he had to become the club president. Madrid-based sportswriter Phil Minshull looks at the election and wonders whether other clubs around the world should adopt the process.


The former Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty once famously said, "There's a hell of a lot of politics in football. I don't think Henry Kissinger would have lasted 48 hours at Old Trafford."
The American statesman and noted soccer fan might then have preferred Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium instead, because the Catalan club has just concluded its presidential elections with Joan Laporta coming out ahead of five other candidates.
Rather than just opening his wallet to buy his way into a club, Laporta had to fight a public campaign that bore all the hallmarks of a US presidential primary. A process Kissinger would definitely recognise in comparison to the complex methods by which many football clubs acquire their chairman and directors.
Laporta got 27,138 votes out of the 51,618 Barcelona 'socios' - supporters' club members - who filled in their ballot papers and the 40 year-old lawyer consequently became the 38th president of the historic club.
It was also a remarkable result for a man who opinion polls put a month ago, at the start of the campaign, at having just 2.2 per cent of the vote.
But two magic words won Laporta the election: David Beckham.
Laporta pulled off the masterstroke of announcing that he had reached agreement with English Premiership champions Manchester United to sign Beckham.
His profile rocketed and so did his poll rating, even if many Barcelona were not convinced about whether he can actually persuade the player - one of the most recognisable faces in world sport - to follow in the footsteps of another England icon Gary Lineker and pull on the Catalan club's famous claret-and-blue jersey.
Those fans were right. Beckham recently signed for Barcelona's bitter rivals, Real Madrid.
"I won because our project captured the imagination of the people. I won because we have the best team. But I am only one part of that team. We will put into place a real change, radical, because that is what the majority of the supporters want," said Laporta after his election, with words that were virtually indistinguishable to those used after recent victories by the likes of US President George W Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Beckham is just one part of our Strategic Plan that runs to 99 pages," added Laporta, whose campaign manifesto included the names of his associates who would be on the Barca board of directors, in effect his cabinet.
This particular election was news around the world because of the Beckham factor but they are a regular feature at most top Spanish clubs, a democratic vehicle for 'socios' to have a say in who runs their club and how they are run.
Just like in parliamentary or senate elections, apathy often rules the day. Less than 35 per cent of the 'socios' bothered to vote when Barca held elections in 1997 but, when charismatic candidates take to the hustings*, then the status quo is sometimes overturned.
Construction magnate Florentino Perez defeated the incumbent against the odds to became the Real Madrid president in 2000 after audaciously promising to sign Luis Figo from bitter rivals Barcelona or pay for supporters' season tickets out of his own pocket.
The election system is not universally popular. Another former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson, writing recently in the British newspaper The Guardian, recalled being involved in a presidential campaign at Atletico Madrid in the 1980s.
"It was all very new to me and I was thinking, 'This is not how things work'," commented Atkinson.
However, many fans around the world might feel that they would have more of a stake in their club if things did work the way they do in Spain.
*Hustings is a term that includes any activities involved in political campaigning



Phil Minshull, June 2003



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