Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Spanish Elections

News from both Madrid and Barcelona this month (I’m trying to keep my promise about not talking about Italy): election chaos has engulfed both the countries major clubs.

A slight detour into the intricacies of Spanish club football is in order here. In England and Italy - and, indeed, in most of the rest of the world - football teams are limited companies, with shares owned by a single rich person (e.g. Chelsea), a consortia of rich people (e.g. Arsenal), or has wide ownership and is publicly traded on the stock exchange (e.g. Newcastle). These are not immutable, of course: ManU went from being widely-owned to being owned by the Glazers (U-S-A! U-S-A!), Juventus went from being owned by the Agnellis to being listed on the stock exchange, etc.

But Spanish football is different. Many of its clubs are not "owned" by anyone but their fans. They are membership organizations: football co-ops, if you like. As such, their management structures have at least the trappings of democracy, and once every four years, club members (Real Madrid membership price: 136 euros) vote in a new management team.

Face it, that’s pretty cool.

“Campaigning” for Club president is an activity in transition. Thirty years ago in Barcleona, elections were really a proxy vote on Catalonia’s status within Spain, with the nationalist posture of the various candidates scrutinized intensely. This was not surprising given the role of FC Barcelona in maintaining Catalan culture during the Franco years. Indeed, the main Catalan nationalist party was formed after a massive post-match rally in 1974.

(It is FC Barcelona’s status as a nationalist institution, incidentally, that has denied club president Joan Laporta universal admiration from the blaugrana faithful despite the squad’s massive successes of the past two seasons – Laporta is less than a full-hearted Catalan nationalist who only reluctantly sacked his brother from the Barca board after it became known that he had once been a member of the Francisco Franco Foundation).

Nowadays, though, campaigns are run based on promises of new player signings. Floretino Perez (Madrid President 2000-2006) famously campaigned on a strategy of signing one galactico per year, and succeeded in luring Luis Figo and Zidane to the club in his first two seasons. As his years went by and his big new signings (e.g Beckham, Ronaldo McDonaldo) spectacularly failed to bring results, Perez was eventually forced to resign, thus precipitating this summer’s election.

This year’s Real Madrid contest pitted Ramon Calderon (pictured, top left), who promised to sign Milan’s Kaka, Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas and Chelsea’s Arjen Robben as well as coach Fabio Cappello, against Lorenzo Sanz (“I’ll sign Adriano) and Villar Mir (“I’ll sign Cristiano Ronaldo!”). As usual, the various candidates all claimed to have “pre-contract” deals with their respective targets – which would be fine as a vote-getting tactic (truth in campaigning, etc.) if it weren’t for the fact that it blatantly violates pretty much every FIFA rule in existence relating to the player transfers, all of which specify that player’s clubs must give permission before another club can approach them.

Calderon was declared the winner. Juve’s agonies landed him Cappello straight away, but then the game plan changed. Arsenal, Chelsea and Milan proved unwilling (surprise, surprise) to part with their assets and so Cappello moved straight on to plan B, which involved raiding his old club for defensive reinforcements (which, let’s be honest, they need a whole lot more than they need yet another offensive midfielder).

Yet this all may end in farce – Calderon’s victory margin was only a few hundred votes, and several thousand postal ballots were not declared “invalid”. A legal battle now rages, and Calderon may yet be replaced by a new President before the month is out. A new victor, however, will either have to live with Cappello as coach, or pay out a lot of money to buy out his contract and bring in a new man.

Barca, too, have their election troubles. Laporta was due to stand for re-election, but a court has rules that a court interpretation of one of the club’s more obscure by-laws (so obscure even I can’t be bothered to explain – suffice to say that it has to do with the club’s fiscal year-end) has triggered an election a year early.

This is more of a distraction than anything else – Laporta may not be well-liked, but club members are hardly likely to boot the man who brought them Ronaldinho, Eto’o, two la Liga titles and a Champions League trophy. It’s worth mentioning, however, that Laporta came to power not on a promise to sign Ronaldinho, but on a promise to sign Beckham from Manchester (a pledge the latter promptly used to jack up his compensation deal in his ongoing negotiations with Real). It was only when Beckham turned down Laporta that the club moved for Ronaldinho.

A case of failing upwards if ever there was one.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about Spanish football, I highly recommend reading Sid Lowe’s column in the Guardian, and also the Spanish Football Sports Blog, which beats the pants off planetfootball.com for depth and intelligence of coverage.

Vaya con dios and Vamos mi Sevilla!

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