Tycoon helped transform Barcelona into a powerhouse of world football
Josep Lluis Nunez, who has died aged 87, was a Spanish construction magnate who helped grow FC Barcelona into one of the world’s most valuable sports teams, presiding over the acquisition of some of football’s finest players.
He was Barcelona’s longest-serving president, holding the office from 1978 to 2000. He was investigated for corruption soon after leaving the team, and in 2011 was sentenced to six years in prison – later reduced to 26 months – for attempting to bribe tax inspectors investigating his construction business.
With the motto ‘‘More than a club’’, Barca, as it is commonly known, has long cultivated its image as an embodiment of democratic ideals and
Catalan pride. Similar to gridiron’s Green Bay Packers, the team is essentially owned by its fans – a group of more than 144,000 ‘‘members’’ who elect the team’s president and, at many home games, chant in favour of Catalan independence at the 17 minute 14 second mark, in a symbolic nod to the year in which Philip V of Spain captured Barcelona.
Nunez was known as a businessman, not a sports figure, before Barca’s members elected him president in 1978, after a tumultuous campaign in which he wooed journalists over lavish seafood dinners, bought an address list of all the team’s voting members, and tarred his opponents with propaganda about their personal lives.
He went on to usher in a new, modern era at FC Barcelona. A statement from Barca said he ‘‘totally transformed the club. In his first season, 1978-79, the budget was 817 million pesetas, and by 1999-2000 it was a massive
17,594m’’. The growth was fuelled by both an expansion of the team’s facilities and increasing success on the pitch.
Under Nunez, the team featured worldclass players such as Ronaldo and Diego Maradona, and managers including Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, who assembled a formidable squad known as the ‘‘Dream Team’’ in the early 1990s. It also won a spate of championships, including its first European Cup (now known as the Champions League) in 1992; four titles in the now-defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup; seven titles in La Liga, the Spanish league; and six Spanish cup competitions.
The club expanded its home stadium, Camp Nou, to a staggering capacity of 120,000; built a second, smaller stadium nearby; and in
1979, at Cruyff’s suggestion, set up La Masia, the fabled youth academy that trained players such as Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi, who together became known as Barcelona’s holy trinity.
In October this year, FC Barcelona announced that it had surpassed the US$1 billion mark in revenue, a first for a sports team. Forbes valued it at US$4.06
He was reported to have got rid of Dutch midfielder Johan Neeskens in 1979 as a result of a bathroom dispute. Neeskens, it was said, had refused to pass Nunez a roll of toilet paper under the stall.
billion earlier this year, ranking it the fourth most-valuable team in the world, behind only the Dallas Cowboys, Manchester United and archrivals Real Madrid.
While Nunez presided over the growth of a financial powerhouse, his reign was marked by strife with players, managers and fans, for whom expectations were nothing less than a Spanish league title each season, and a Champions League crown to boot.
Managers came and went, and Nunez was often criticised for transferring athletes who, in his eyes, demanded too much money. (Maradona was forced out after two years; Ronaldo lasted just one season.) After an unexpected European Cup final loss in 1986, a large faction of his team rebelled and was dismissed, in an event that become known as the Hesperia Mutiny, for the Barcelona hotel in which the players announced their revolt. Nunez, journalist Phil Ball wrote in Morbo:
The Story of Spanish Football, ‘‘survived players’ rebellions, dozens of votes of noconfidence, petulant star players and Cruyff’s periodic attempts to dislodge him from his throne’’ before finally retiring in 2000, two years before the end of his term as president. At the team’s last game that season, thousands of fans had waved white handkerchiefs his way, demanding his resignation.
Josep Lluis Nunez was born in Barakaldo, in the Basque Country just outside Bilbao, and went on to build Nunez i Navarro, widely regarded as the largest construction company in Catalonia, before being elected president of FC Barcelona.
Survivors include his wife, Maria Lluisa Navarro; and two sons, Josep Maria Nunez and Josep Lluis Nunez Jr, a fellow FC Barcelona official who was also convicted on bribery charges.
While Nunez’s decision to retain or transfer players typically seemed to hinge on money, more personal factors were said to play a role as well. In one history of the team,
Barca Inedit, he was reported to have got rid of Dutch midfielder Johan Neeskens in 1979 as a result of a bathroom dispute.
Neeskens, the book’s authors reported, had refused to pass Nunez a roll of toilet paper under the stall. –
Josep Lluis Nunez was president of FC Barcelona when they won their first European Cup under Johan Cruyff, left, who was hired as manager by Nunez.