The season that started it all: FC Barcelona 2003-04 – Part II: Pre-Season

In 1998 a group called Elefant Blau tried an unsuccessful vote of no confidence against Núñez. A member of this group was one Joan Laporta, a Catalan lawyer. Laporta was a full-blooded cule heavily influenced by Johan Cruijff’s famous league winning side in 1973-74. Laporta would contest the era defining 2003 FC Barcelona presidential elections. He was not a favourite to win. A simultaneous development in Manchester was the Becks-Fergie power struggle. Fergie apparently threw a boot in anger after the FA Cup defeat to arch-rivals Arsenal in February which struck Beckham in the eye. Fergie was also growing tired of Beckham’s off-field activities.

Laporta aggressively promised he’ll bring David Beckham to Catalonia. Slowly he was gaining confidence of the socios. Another parallel development was the increasingly strained relationship between Paris St Germain manager Luis Fernandez and the next big thing in Brazil: Ronaldinho Gaucho. He also wanted out. Florentino Perez continuing with his “Zidanes y Pavones” policy wanted to sign the next Zidane in Ronaldinho. So the battle lines were drawn between two warring clubs: Real Madrid wanted Ronaldinho and Barcelona Beckham.

Laporta with ex-Nike executive Sandro Rosell as running mate and Johan Cruijff’s blessing won the elections and assumed office on June 15, 2003. Perez, in his infinite wisdom, thought Ronaldinho was too ugly for Los Blancos. Immediately he went for the jugular and signed Beckham from Man United right under Barcelona’s noses. Rosell, thanks to his Nike connection, salvaged the situation for Laporta by getting Ronaldinho to sign for the Blaugrana instead of Man United. Laporta, again on Cruijff’s recommendation, appointed Frank Rijkaard as manager.

Rijkaard’s appointment was surprising to say the least. He had first managed the Netherlands national team that were spectacularly knocked out by 10 men Italy on penalties in the UEFA Euro 2000 at home! After Zambrotta was sent off in the 34th minute, Netherlands could not breach the Italian defence. Faulting the manager can be hard when the players missed two penalties in regulation but Rijkaard was tactically outsmarted by Zoff. The former Milan star resigned immediately. His next job was at one of Netherlands traditional clubs: Sparta Rotterdam. Under Rijkaard, Sparta were relegated for the first time in their history and Rijkaard was sacked.

Other major signings that season included Van Bronckhorst on loan from Arsenal, Rafa Marquez from Monaco, 18 year old Ricardo Quaresma from Sporting Lisbon. In hindsight, the greatest thing to happen that summer was the promotion of a 19 year old from Albacete: Andres Iniesta. Iniesta had already made his first team debut in the previous season under that great promoter of youth: Louis Van Gaal. Another youth team member was promoted to first team goal keeper: Victor Valdes.

Other than the addition of Ronaldinho, this was in essence the same team from the previous season which had ended in disappointment. The club’s finances were in trouble, no great overhaul in the squad, and an inexperienced manager. The situation was grim to say the least. Laporta, riding on the Beckham wave, won the election but missed out on signing him. This was to be a blessing in disguise as Ronaldinho came from Paris. Beckham would endure the least successful period of his professional career in Madrid as Ronaldinho took Barcelona to places they had hardly been before.

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