Laporta wins election but may lose out on his target

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The Independent Football

Barcelona sweltered in a sticky hothouse atmosphere that seemed appropriate for yesterday's momentous election when the club's 95,000-strong membership chose Joan Laporta as the president they hope will be their saviour.

The contest that has held Barça fans - and the footballing world - spellbound was galvanised in the last days by a surge from Laporta, the enterprising lawyer who promises to bring Beckham to the Camp Nou. Laporta won 53 per cent of the vote, compared to 32 per cent who backed Lluis Bassat.

Laporta made no concession to the tropical heat yesterday when he turned up early to vote in a dark suit and blue-and-red striped tie. "I have a lot of confidence and I'm very optimistic," he beamed after dropping his ballot paper into the transparent box in the club's mini-stadium. "I hope everyone will enjoy this historic day."

Laporta's sprint to victory took him from just 2.2 per cent in the opinion polls two weeks ago to 29.5 per cent in the last poll on Friday. His only serious rival, the safe-pair-of-hands official candidate Bassat, who started off with an apparently unassailable 42.6 per cent in a field of six, lost ground from the start to end up with just 28.3 per cent.

Bassat, in shirt-sleeves but clearly feeling the heat, had said he believed the club's socios would vote for "a serene and mature change" and that "programmes and ideas" would win over "names" - meaning one name in particular.

The club's polling station was as vigorously controlled and marshalled as for any keenly-fought political contest. More so, perhaps, since the scene was besieged by hundreds of cameras and journalists all trying to assess any possible "Beckham effect".

As expected, those eligible to vote - season ticket holders aged over 18 who had held their ticket for at least a year - flocked to the 120 voting tables arranged on the first and second floors of the stadium in the shadow of the Camp Nou. By mid-afternoon numbers of those who had voted surpassed the turnout of the 2000 poll, when Bassat lost to Joan Gaspart.

Fans were partly fired by the enthusiasm of this unexpectedly thrilling contest, partly - observers conceded - they voted in time to settle down to enjoy yesterday afternoon's Catalan motorcycle grand prix.

Yesterday was Laporta's day: his camp were euphoric with what they sensed was a cruise to victory, while Bassat's people were - in the words of one of their number - "drowned in misery." Barça-watchers did not, however, discount a late rally for the older man. Voters were cautious about confiding their preference, and some Bassat supporters ventured that the last thing their club needed in these dark days of debt and defeat was a player with an international pop star in tow flanked by paparazzi and bodyguards.

But the prospect of Beckham in Barcelona probably tipped the scales for the young candidate filled with revolutionary zeal and plans to break with the past. Nevertheless, some voters yesterday expressed doubts that Laporta could actually deliver his spectacular promise. "Beckham's far more likely to end up in Madrid," they reckoned, with typically Catalan realism.

Even before Laporta played his Beckham card, his bandwagon was already on a roll, fuelled by his plan to modernise and rejuvenate a demoralised club and lift it from the deep crisis it has endured since Gaspart took over from Josep Nunez three years ago.

Laporta lifted fans' hearts and fanned their enthusiasm by promising to break with an old guard seen by many as in hock to big banking interests and conservative politicians, and to transform the club into a world-scale media phenomenon and commercial success on a par with Manchester United.

Buying Beckham is seen by Laportistas as the crowning symbol of that promise of hope and revival, the cherry on the cake, rather than its defining element. Perhaps they are already preparing for disappointment, bracing themselves for the prospect that although their man has won, he may yet fail to bring home the prize.

Bassat failed to counter the dynamic momentum of his younger rival. He was left standing by Laporta's slick campaign, his multi-media bombardment of technological wizardry described by the Sport newspaper yesterday as "PowerPoint campaigning". But Beckham it was who reduced a six-horse field to a neck-and-neck race, and sent the outsider bounding up the straight.