It's no secret that Barcelona are in desperate need of renovation on and off the pitch. It was evident in the 4-1 Champions League defeat to Paris Saint-Germain this month, just as it was in the 8-2 humiliation against Bayern Munich last August, that they can no longer compete with Europe's best sides. For that reason, Lionel Messi wanted out last summer and, for that reason, he could walk away for free when his contract expires on June 30.
The club's accounts don't read any better than the scorelines in those defeats. Gross debt, accelerating daue to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, has risen to €1.2 billion, with players forced to accept pay deferments. Sources have told ESPN that reports of bankruptcy are premature, pointing out the club still has a lot of assets, including stadiums, facilities and players, but the situation is bleaker than at any other top European club.
After a first trophy-less campaign in over a decade, Messi tried to leave the club last year because of dwindling performances and lies told to him by the former board. Barca are a shadow of the side that won the Champions League under Pep Guardiola in 2009 and 2011 or under Luis Enrique in 2015 and Messi, 34 in June, wants the final years of his career to be successful.
Leadership is desperately needed. Barca have been rudderless since October when Josep Maria Bartomeu stepped down before he could face a vote of no confidence from the club's members. By the time a new president is finally elected on March 7, 131 days will have passed since Bartomeu's resignation. Club statues state an election should have been called within 90 days, but coronavirus restrictions in Catalonia meant they had to be pushed back from the original date of Jan. 24.
Meanwhile, with each passing day, the number of issues the incoming president will have to deal with are mounting.
One of the first tasks is not an easy one: convincing Messi to stay. Even if they manage that, though, with Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City pushing to sign him, at some point during their six-year tenure they will have to oversee the most painful playing transition of the modern era. What -- or who -- comes next?
A spiralling wage bill also needs to be brought back under control, the debt needs to be restructured and a decision is also hanging over Camp Nou. Acting president Carles Tusquets has said the 100,000-seater stadium is "literally" falling down. An €815m renovation project, financed by Goldman Sachs, is currently on hold.
Despite that panoramic, nine club members, all men, declared their intent to run for the presidency. Three of them -- Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Toni Frexia -- gathered enough signatures from their fellow members (2,257) to make it to polling day. One of them will take over at a crucial moment in the club's history.
So, who is trying to get the job?
Laporta, 58, is the favourite according to polls. He is a lawyer by trade, but he is best known for his previous spell as the club's president between 2003 and 2010. He was elected on the promise of signing David Beckham, although he ended up with Ronaldinho instead, and oversaw Barca's rise to winning six trophies in one calendar year under Pep Guardiola in 2009.
He's not the fresh-faced candidate brimming with enthusiasm who was elected 18 years ago, but his campaign evokes nostalgia for the most successful period in the club's history. Stunts like unveiling a banner of himself with the caption 'Looking forward to seeing you again' outside Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu have gone down well during the election campaign, although rival Font says he doesn't actually have a plan in place.
Font, 48, is Laporta's biggest threat. He cannot be accused of not having a plan if he's elected. The media and telecoms entrepreneur has been working on his project, which is closely linked to Xavi Hernandez but doesn't have the Al-Sadd coach's official support, for over five years. The project includes a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds, including a backroom role for Toni Nadal, tennis star Rafael Nadal's uncle.
Former board member Freixa, 52, is the outsider. He ran unsuccessfully in 2015 having held several roles at the club previously. A lawyer, like Laporta, he did legal work for Barca between 2003 and 2005 and took a place on the board in 2010 when Sandro Rosell was elected as president.
All three sat down with ESPN to discuss the topics that will shape the election. (Editor's Note: the interviews were conducted prior to the police raids of Barcelona offices and the arrest of club officials, including former president Josep Maria Bartomeu.)
Can they convince Messi to stay?
Messi is out of contract on June 30. Since Jan. 1, he's been free to negotiate a pre-contract agreement with other clubs. If any of the candidates could guarantee he would stay under them, they would be halfway to victory in the election. Messi has said he will decide on his future in the summer.
It was recently revealed that the Argentine's current contract with the club is worth as much as €555m over four years. Therefore, the argument could be made that letting him leave would help relieve the stress on the club's finances. However, due to his importance on the pitch and the revenue he helps create, none of the candidates have pushed that argument. Laporta has even said Messi's responsible for 30 percent of the club's income.
"I don't see Messi in a shirt that isn't Barca's," Laporta told ESPN. "The story between him and the club is so beautiful that the incoming president is obliged to make sure it continues. I don't see him playing for any other club. I see him in the Barca shirt.
"Along with turning around the club's financial situation, the priority is to make a proposal to Lionel that convinces him to stay. I hope I arrive in time. And I have an advantage: Messi's trust. He knows the offer I make will be real and I will fulfil it. I think that will help a lot and is an advantage over the other candidates."
While Laporta hopes his personal relationship with the Messi family will lead to a contract extension, Font will use Xavi as a bridge, although he also admits Barca cannot continue paying Messi at the current rate.
"I'm convinced that with a competitive, exciting and, especially in Messi's case, long-term project -- one that could even go beyond the day that Messi retires -- we will convince him to stay," Font explained to ESPN.
"[Xavi] is one of the most important parts of the sporting project we have designed. The fact Messi and Xavi know each other [is good]. Xavi is someone Messi trusts. I know Messi would welcome the leadership Xavi can bring.
"Above all else, Messi is a person that loves Barca and what he wants is to win. Of course, the best player in the world and the best of all time must be compensated competitively. [His salary] is one of the realities that must be adjusted. But I think his priorities are competing and winning."
Throughout the campaign trail, Freixa has been less willing to speak about Messi. He says he wants him to stay but will not put any pressure on him to do so.
"We have to put Barca first," he told ESPN. "I hope Messi retires at the club, that's our desire, but I think we have to leave Messi in peace and not use his name so much in the campaign. It's not in any of the candidates' hands to say what will happen with Leo. I think he's waiting for the election before making a decision."
Are they promising any big-name signings?
Elections at Camp Nou usually feature pledges to sign some of the game's biggest players. That's not possible this time due to Barca's financial problems. Some of the candidates to fall by the wayside attempted to use Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland's names to champion support, but none of those who have made the cut have resorted to such tactics.
"I won't talk about players in concrete because it could destabilise the current playing staff," Laporta said. "But the contacts I have are already helping me a lot. I have always related to the football world. In terms of agents, I have a very good relationship with many of them. I have kept in contact with them. In that sense, I am open to any proposals they may have for me."
Font, though, has said it would be irresponsible to promise big-name signings.
"There aren't going to be any flashy, exciting signings in the current climate," he said. "Signing Neymar is not viable economically or institutionally. He is one of the top players in the world but Barca cannot commit to an operation to sign him or pay his wages. We must turn the page on Neymar.
"Exciting fans again comes from assuring them we're capable of bringing back the right talent to lead the club. We speak about Xavi, but there are many others, and we also have to back young players like Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig."
Regardless of the financial side of the deal, Freixa is completely against attempting to re-sign Neymar due to the way he left the club in 2017.
"Neymar is the past," Freixa added. "He didn't behave well with the club, filing lawsuits... And he's not been as good at PSG as expected. There are several reasons why he can't come back to Barca. For me, that door is completely closed.
On Feb. 22, Freixa was noted as saying he had a deal in place to sell 49% of Barca Corporate for 250 million euros and assured voters that some of that money would be used for new signings, noting it was "possible" to go for either PSG's Kylian Mbappe or Borussia Dortmund's new star, Erling Haaland.
"[Possible transfer targets Kylian] Mbappe and [Erling] Haaland are great players. I wouldn't pick one or the other because it could be interpreted as having an interest in them. Others will have to decide [on signings] based on the fit for the team. In any case, we must be realistic, we can't lie to the supporters. If we must reduce the wage bill and cut spending, we can't talk about signings we can't afford right now."
"We've been working on an agreement for a while and have now closed one that will bring in €250 million for 49 percent of Barca Corporate, And for the 2021-22 season, [we will invest that money in] two difference-makers in attack and a great defender. The message is that Barça will have the competitive team that they have to have and that the supporters want. I'm talking in real terms, we will have the most competitive squad for next season."
Will they back Koeman as manager, or attempt to bring in Xavi?
Former player Koeman was only appointed in August and is likely to see out the season, but a new president could decide a new coach is an additional way to win votes. With Barca on the brink of exiting the Champions League and lagging behind Atletico Madrid in La Liga, the Dutchman's position is far from secure. Waiting in the wings is Xavi, the former Barca midfielder who is currently the coach of Al-Sadd in Qatar.
"Koeman's a Barca great and for that reason alone he deserves time," Laporta stated. "Xavi is one of the best midfielders in the history of the club. He will be the Barca coach one day. I just don't know if it will be in the short, medium or long-term. I know him well and he lives for football, he knows all about football and he loves the game."
Font's campaign is built around Xavi. He says his project has been written in conjunction with Xavi and vowed to resign the following day if he's elected and the former Spain international doesn't accompany him, at first in a general manager role with Jordi Cruyff as sporting director.
"Xavi is one of the most important parts of the project we've designed for the coming years but to reduce that project to a name or a coach would be an error," Font said. "The project starts with the board and involves having people in the apt positions for their skills.
"Right now, there's Koeman and [sporting director] Ramon Planes. There's no sporting vice president, the academy has nothing to do with the coach and it's all a mess. We must put the puzzle back together. From there, if Koeman is the right piece or not, that decision will be made by the sporting structure put in place.
"I like Koeman, he's a legend. At our house when I was younger, we had the commentary to Koeman's [European Cup winning] goal from 1992 on our answer machine! I like that he loves the club and took on the job in a difficult moment and has made brave decisions, betting on youngsters."
Freixa, meanwhile, has offered his full support to Koeman.
"Koeman is our coach," he said. "He has a contract and we must give him stability and confidence. Things have always gone well when we've backed coaches, look at Frank Rijkaard [who guided Barca to their second Champions League victory in 2006]. Koeman came in after the 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich at a difficult moment. He's had bad luck with injuries, too. But he's doing a good job and deserves our support.
"I have huge admiration for Xavi and what he's meant to this club. I am sure he will be Barca coach one day. He's in our thoughts and we respect him a lot, but we won't use his name."
Can they save the club from bankruptcy?
Barcelona announced losses of €97m for the 2019-20 season and confirmed that their total debt had doubled to €488m. Their annual report has since revealed that gross debt stands at €1.2bn with millions owed to banks and clubs for players signed at inflated prices in recent seasons.
La Liga, meanwhile, reduced their salary cap for this season from €671m to €382.7m. Players agreed to wage cuts when the coronavirus pandemic first broke out last March and have agreed to wage deferrals for this season, but a lot of work still needs to be done to turn the situation around.
"The club is on the brink of bankruptcy," Laporta explained. "That is one of the reasons why I am running. I did the same in 2003 to turn around a delicate situation. The magnitude is much bigger this time, but the structure is the same.
"The situation is difficult but, despite everything, we're [the football club] that generates the most revenue [€855m last season despite the pandemic]. But we will have to find club members working in certain areas that can help us generate even more.
"The emergency plan we have is powerful, and I am sure it will work. The message is one of optimism. We can turn the situation around by reducing outgoings. We're studying the restructuring of the debt, too."
Font has offered a similar plan, saying he's hopeful the club won't have to sell their best players to survive even if some sales are necessary.
"In the short-term, the club's economic situation is a one out of 10," he said. "We're on the brink of bankruptcy. But Barca still has huge potential. We have an emergency plan to deal with the situation that includes refinancing the debt by negotiating with the banks, but later we have another plan to grow revenue, protect the ownership model and to remain competitive.
"I hope we don't have to sell our best players, but we will have to sell to restructure the squad and make it as competitive as possible."
Freixa blames the club's poor financial health on the coronavirus pandemic.
"Barca aren't ruined but they are in a critical situation due to the pandemic and poor management in recent years," he said. "You can blame whoever you want but it's clear the club's not been managed well and the pandemic has led us to an extremely delicate situation."