Barcelona elect Laporta as president for second time in club history

Joan Laporta has been elected the new president of Barcelona, returning to the post he previously held from 2003 to 2010.

Barca members voted Laporta into power on Sunday ahead of rival candidates Victor Font and Toni Freixa. The club called the election on Sunday night, with Laporta winning with 30,184 votes and Font coming in second and Freixa third with 16,679 and 4,769 votes, respectively.

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Barca said 51,765 out of 109,531 eligible members had voted in the election, which was postponed from January due to coronavirus restrictions in Catalonia.

Among those to vote were first-team players Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, as well as the club's former coach and current Spain boss Luis Enrique.

"I want to thank all the members for coming out to vote what has been the most important election in the club's history due to [the effects of] the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed our lives," Laporta said in a brief speech.

"I want to thank the members that have supported our campaign. This has been a celebration of democracy and of Barcelona. I also want to pay special thanks to Johan Cruyff, who's no longer with us. I am sure he's helped us.

"Barcelona is a huge family, and we will overcome the difficulties together. We will achieve the objectives that we have set out."

Laporta, 58, takes over at a critical moment in the club's history. Gross debt has risen to €1.2 billion during the coronavirus pandemic, with players forced to accept pay cuts, and star player Messi is out of contract in June and will walk away for free if new terms cannot be agreed.

Laporta said the fact that Messi voted on Sunday was "significant."

"Today, 20 years ago, Messi made his debut for Barca's youth teams," he added. "To see the best player in the world, the player in the history of football, coming to vote, is a sign of what we have said throughout the campaign: that Messi loves Barca.

"The best player in the world loves Barca, and that is very significant. We're going to encourage him to continue with the club, which is what we all want."

Meanwhile, on the pitch, last season was Barca's first trophy-less campaign since 2008, and it ended with an 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

However, despite last month's 4-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie, there have been slow signs of recovery under coach Ronald Koeman.

Barca beat Sevilla last week to reach the final of the Copa del Rey, and a 16-game unbeaten run in La Liga has seen them close the gap on leaders Atletico Madrid to three points after the leaders drew 1-1 with Real on Sunday. They travel to PSG for the second leg of their European tie on Wednesday.

The Catalan club have been without a president since October, when Josep Maria Bartomeu resigned from the role. Bartomeu's six-year mandate was due to end this year, but he opted to step down early rather than face a vote of no confidence from members.

Bartomeu was one of four people connected to the club arrested last Monday for his role in the "Barcagate" social media scandal following allegations of misuse of funds and corruption. He was released on Tuesday and is awaiting a date to appear in court.

Bartomeu succeeded Sandro Rosell, who resigned in 2014 when a lawsuit alleged he had misappropriated funds in the signing of Neymar. During Bartomeu's mandate, Barca won three league titles, four Copas del Rey and one Champions League.

Rosell had been elected in 2010, replacing Laporta, who had held the role since 2003.

In his first spell as Barca president, Laporta turned the club around, helping them win their second and third Champions Leagues -- they've now won five in total but none since 2015 -- and overseeing the appointment of Pep Guardiola as coach and the explosion of Messi as a player.

His stint in charge, when he worked closely with Johan Cruyff and alongside Manchester City duo Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, is also remembered for the signings of Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o. He was the president to put UNICEF on the front of Barca's shirts, too. He was unable to stand again in 2010, having served two mandates.

Throughout the electoral campaign, Laporta insisted that he was the best-placed of the three candidates to keep Messi at Camp Nou, and following his election win, he will be able to open talks with the forward over a new contract. Sources have told ESPN Laporta hopes to visit the players at the training ground on Monday and plans to sit down with Messi after the PSG game on Wednesday, although he hinted on Sunday he could call Messi's dad, Jorge, before then.

Laporta has also said that Koeman has his full backing and, despite the club's perilous financial position, his relationship with some of the game's super-agents could help him make big signings this summer.