By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Five months after Josep Maria Bartomeu resigned, FC Barcelona will finally elect a new president on Sunday, with more than 110,000 of the Liga club's members expected to vote in polling stations in Catalonia, across Spain and via post.
The election has taken on new significance since Bartomeu, who resigned in October to avoid a vote of no-confidence, was arrested on Monday while the club's offices were raided in a probe into allegations of improper management and corruption.
Barca stunned Sevilla on Wednesday to reach the Copa del Rey final with a thrilling comeback win but the club are in one of the most difficult periods in their history and whoever wins Sunday's election faces a huge task to revive their fortunes.
Talisman Lionel Messi's future is uncertain, Barca are in the midst of a crippling financial crisis and they are falling behind the top sides in Europe, highlighted by thrashings at the hands of Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain.
WHY DOES THE ELECTION MATTER?
Since Bartomeu resigned, the club has been run by acting President Carles Tusquets and a management committee with limited powers.
A new president and board is needed to set the club's budget and make major decisions such as which players they want to sign, their strategy for the youth academy and to agree a plan to renovate the iconic yet outdated Camp Nou stadium.
Most of all, the new board will have to tackle the club's financial woes. Their last accounts showed a gross debt of more than 1.4 billion euros ($1.68 billion) while net debt more than doubled to 488 million euros by June 30 last year.
WHO IS RUNNING?
Nine candidates announced their intention to stand last year but only three gathered enough signatures to make it to the final round: Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Toni Freixa.
Font, a technology entrepreneur, began planning for the race as far back as 2013 and brought the club's former midfield great Xavi Hernandez plus Toni Nadal on board to position himself as the candidate to take Barca into the future.
But Xavi recently declaring he did not formally support any of the candidates has harmed Font's campaign and the charismatic Laporta, who presided over Barca's golden age between 2003 and 2010, has taken centre stage.
Laporta launched his campaign with an audacious publicity act, unveiling a giant poster of himself next to arch rivals Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium reading: 'Looking forward to seeing you again'.
He bragged of his record as a former president in a recent debate, telling Font: "While you were making Power-points, I was winning Champions Leagues."
Freixa, a former Barca director under Bartomeu, is the least known figure but has caused a stir by making lofty promises to sign young stars like Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe.
WHO IS THE FAVOURITE?
Laporta's appeal to nostalgia and pledge to return Barca to past glories looks to have worked. He gathered over 10,257 signatures compared to Font's 4,710 and Freixa's 2,821.
Opinion polls also make him the overwhelming favourite: 73% of respondents to a survey by radio station Cadena Ser said they would vote for Laporta. Freixa was second with 19% and Font third with 8%.
WHAT DOES THE ELECTION MEAN FOR MESSI?
Argentina international Messi's shock bid to leave the club last year was the catalyst behind the vote for a censure movement which led to Bartomeu resigning.
The 33-year-old forward has under four months left on his contract, the most lucrative in world sport, but has said he wants to speak with the new president before making his mind up about his future at the end of the season.
All three candidates want Messi to stay, with Font talking of the need to offer him a role when he hangs up his boots.
Laporta may represent the best chance of keeping him, though, as he oversaw Messi's rise from a long-haired teenager to six-times world player of the year.
($1 = 0.8310 euros)
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Ken Ferris)