How Barca's Halo Slipped Part One of Two

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Messi Arab.
© Words Johnny Proctor

FC Barcelona, La Blaugrana or simply, the universally accepted “ Barca “, the sporting entity that throughout most of its history has always proclaimed themselves quite literally as “ more than a club “, are no more. This was no sudden passing in the night either for Catalunya’s most famous institution, no accident.

More gradual than instantaneous, over the past 10 years it has been through the club’s own attitude, values and forward planning that now sees them reduced to a shell of their former self leaving onlookers with the very evident juxtaposition of a club who are only too ready to buy into its own hyped romantic image while facing the fact that to a lot of the football world they are now a club with a halo that slipped long ago. A brand, which appeared to have something that its competitors didn’t have, soul. Yet chose to give up that important and vital piece of their fabric in the pursuit of earning a few euros more and in the process evolving into “ just another “ of Europe’s elite football clubs. No worse now or indeed better than a Bayern Munich or a Juventus. Just another one of the big guns that will always find themselves sitting at the top table dining alongside the continent’s leading clubs.

More Than Barca 1That was just it though, Barca already WERE considered as one of the biggest clubs in the world, have been for more likely longer than you and I have been on the planet. What set them apart from their rivals across Europe was their rich and unique history, their attitude that their club was truly something sacred. Ironically it is as much down to their image and history that has been projected year upon year that the club is viewed globally the way they are as much as it is down to how they are cherished in an actual footballing sense, possibly more. Until the Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola years, Barca was never a team that had been guilty of capturing the hearts and minds of football fans with a continued period of success. Their bitter rivals over in Madrid had won the European Cup 6 times before Johan Cruyff's " dream team " eventually got their hands on the trophy at Wembley in 1989. No periods of dominating Europe and winning consecutive European Cups like the Bayern’s and Ajax’s of yesteryear. No, Barca, despite all of this, have always been regarded as one of Europe's leading clubs and the lazy man’s reason for that would be, ‘ just cause ‘. Of course, there’s more to the story than ‘ just cause ‘ so while having never been a club that rampaged their way through Europe’s top competitions with any kind of regularity, landing copious titles that their standing would have suggested and demanded, they have always still been looked upon as something special inside Planet Football. For that I need to return to how La Blaugrana has been viewed for decades as more than a club.

In 1968, then president, Narcis de Carreras coined the famous phrase ‘ Barca, Mes que un club ‘. Translated as, Barca, more than a club, the phrase could not have been more pertinent during such times. With Spain still under the dictatorship of General Franco what De Carreras was referring to was not just about what Barca stood for when their eleven players would cross the white line onto the pitch. Through the Spanish Civil War and Franco's control of the country, the city of Barcelona, this itself the focal point of the region of Catalunya, suffered more than most at the hands of his brutal regime. FC Barcelona inevitably found itself in the crossfire. With Catalan society living under a dictatorship that persecuted their own language and regional culture, Barca appeared to overtly support and defend the Catalan’s culture right to its own customs and language. This to their own costs when Franco forced them to change their name to the Spanish version of Futbol Club de Barcelona and the removal of the four Catalan stripes from the club’s crest. During the Franco regime, Barca’s stadium, the cathedral universally known as “ Camp Nou “ was one of the few places where openly speaking in Catalan was still accepted throughout the city. A Barcelona home match wasn’t just a case of 90 minutes of football, it was a gathering of Catalans who could talk and sing in their own language without fear of reprisals from General Franco’s death squads. It’s through stories like this that makes it easy to see just why Barca have earned the reputation that they have in the footballing world. Only the staunchest Bernabeu frequenting Madrista, could deny or show admiration for Barca over how important and pivotal they were to a region and culture during a dark part of its country's history. Due to Real Madrid being Franco’s supported side, there was, in a footballing sense many other dirty tricks that Barca had to endure, the most notable being the sabotaging of their signing of an, at the time, relatively unknown Argentinian called Alfredo Di Stefano. With the signing of him all but in the bag, Franco indirectly stepped in, advising that Real Madrid also had a claim on the player and the order that both teams would share him. This led to Barca pulling out of the deal and Di Stefano going on to create European Cup history with Los Blancos and becoming arguably the greatest player ever to pull on the famous white shirt. In 1975 when Franco died and democracy eventually returned to Spain, Barcelona carried on displaying the same attitude and values. The obvious example being their refusal to sell the front of their shirt to the highest bidder.

Di Stefano Real Madrid Barcelona.

At a time where sponsors were starting to creep onto the front of football team shirts, adding much needed funds to the clubs, Barca took the decision that the club should not soil its name and proud reputation by putting the name of an electronics company or drinks brand on the front of their shirt. This move only reinforcing the “ more than a club “ brand. In football, there’s not a side in the world which would put their values and image before money, so to see a club who were regarded as top shelf happily turning down big cash injections into their club, all to maintain the image that their club was different, it was special. It was always a refreshing thing to know and see, no matter how many years, they stuck to their principles. This philosophy continued right up to 2006 when the club announced that for the first time in their history they would have a sponsor on their shirt. With Barca being who they are however, this was no ordinary multi-million sponsorship deal where they had done a 180 degree flip from their values and signed up with one of the many brands that would have jumped at the chance to have their logo shown on the front of those iconic blue and claret shirts, a shirt that had world superstars wearing it such as South American world greats, Maradona, Romario and Ronaldo. In a move that shocked the world, yet being such a typical FC Barcelona masterstroke, they announced that they would for the first time have a shirt sponsor, the twist being that the name on their shirt was in fact that of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. Instead of Barca profiting from this venture, it would be THEY who would pay UNICEF, to the amount of €1.5 million per season. 

barcelona unicef 2006.This was pure Barca, I never imagined there would be a day where they would have a sponsor on the front of their shirts, as it was approaching the point of if they’ve not done it by now then they’ll never do it. To see the day arrive and see just how they handled such a big thing in their history? I’m not ashamed to say that while not in any way being someone who could be classed as a Barca “ Socio “ or a “ Cule “, my admiration for them soared when seeing the deal they had struck. To see the club finally move with the times as such, and sell the front of their shirts and move into line with the rest of their rivals who had been cashing in on their strong brands. It was a bit disappointing when I heard but accepted with a sense of realism that when it comes down to it, money controls the game now. To eventually learn however that this wasn’t some complete cash-in on the Barca brand and instead was a charity deal involving Barca paying for the privilege? And the kudos in this household flowed as a result, but judging by the stats it wasn’t just myself that was fawning over Barcelona with this feel good story of the year sponsorship deal. According to Ex Vice President, Ferran Soriano, who was also General Manager, club accounts posted income of €123 million which placed Barca as only the 13th highest earning club in Europe prior to the UNICEF deal being struck. By end of season 2010 - 2011 the club found themselves with the second highest income with €477m. This wasn’t the only thing that Soriano revealed. Now chairman of a Spanish airline, he wrote about his time at the Camp Nou in a book titled, Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go In By Chance. In the book he reveals that the UNICEF deal that was struck in 2006 wasn’t as warm, fuzzy and moralistic as had appeared.

barcelona unicef 2006.Barcelona, Soriano writes, rejected a €20m a season deal with gambling company Bwin in the build up to the UNICEF deal being struck, but it had not been an offer that had been rejected instantly like all of the others that they had received over the years. Inside the Camp Nou there was now a willingness to explore the possibilities of breaking with 107 years of tradition and selling the front of their shirt for the first time. Debts were running into the hundreds of millions so every avenue was being investigated by the Barcelona board. The offer from Bwin was dismissed but not for the reasons that Barca were not interested in allowing sponsorship on their shirts. The main factor in this was a study which the Barca board had carried out for them which found that an analysis of Barca’s desired market positioning came to the conclusion that while Bwin was offering one of the biggest sponsorship deals in history with a football club, their conclusion was that working with UNICEF with this unique deal would yield better mid to long term financial gain when the time came to actually sell the rights to their shirt sponsor. Maybe the cynical out there had already seen through such a sponsorship deal, not me. I saw it for what it appeared to be, a football club known for its social consciousness and sense of cultural responsibility using their influence in the world to do a bit of good, to give a bit back. With all the publicity they gave to UNICEF, in addition to the payments each season, no one can deny that they didn’t give something back. Knowing though that this was, for Barca, simply a well thought out plan, engaging in what was a long term business strategy, with plans already in place for the future when the shirt WOULD be sold. A way of softening the blow for that day by already having Barca with a name ( albeit a charity ) on the front of their shirts? Undoubtedly a piece of machiavellian business genius from the Barca board and were it not for the fact that while doing so they were perpetuating the front of being a club unlike any other with morals and ethics that left its rivals in the shade, I would be the first to tip my hat to such excellent business strategizing. Naturally though, through Soriano’s whistle blowing, a lot of the goodwill and slaps on the back FC Barcelona had received over the years since teaming up with UNICEF would now need to be withdrawn.

Barca Hoops.

The UNICEF deal was undoubtedly the watershed moment for Barca. From the moment Barca placed the children’s charity on the front of their shirts it was only going to be a matter of time before a much more profitable sponsor would find their way onto the famous shirts. By 2010, Barca were announcing that they had signed a world record 6 year, €25m a season deal with the Qatari Foundation, a non profit organisation who were involved in education projects throughout the Middle East. Now maybe it was just a coincidence that this non profit organisation happened to strike this major deal with one of Europe’s largest clubs just as the final bids for countries competing for the rights to hold the World Cups in 2018 & 2022 were being submitted. Possibly all just chance that an obscure charity of sorts would be throwing the biggest sponsorship deal offered in history at Barca while the country of Qatar was in the process of trying to win the rights to stage the World Cup in 2022. Whether it was or not, FC Barcelona had officially ended their long term stance of refusing to have their shirts commercially branded. The point that this new sponsor wasn’t a Sony or a Coca Cola was moot. There was an initial spin trotted out about how the Qatari Foundation did so much good charitable work in the Middle East and that by being associated with such a big name in the world of football would only help perform more good for the region while raising their profile over the world. Still, if you’ve got enough money to pay a football club the biggest amount of money per season in the history of the game for shirt sponsorship, it would suggest that as a charitable foundation, they weren’t short of a bob or two.

The 6 year deal barely got to the halfway stage before Barca had re-negotiated with Qatar leading to Qatar Airways taking over from the previous Qatar sponsors. This new deal would see Barca securing over €30m per season with the figure rising each year into a deal that would oversee the final transformation of Barca wearing a corporate logo on the front of their shirt for the first time. Whilst UNICEF had immediately been rightfully viewed as a charity, Qatari Foundation was more of a grey area. The move to put Qatar Airways on the front of the shirt catapulted La Blaugrana into the shirt sponsorship domain like any of their rivals. One of the club’s biggest reasons to claim that they were indeed “ more than a club “ was due to their beliefs on how sacred the shirt of the team was. Business wise, while watching their rivals raking in the millions, it wasn’t the best of decisions over the years but there was always something so very admirable about a team who were standing up for their philosophy and moral beliefs. I guess time simply caught up with them, or simply it was they who chose to move with the times, albeit supremely and fashionably late! From the moment that 90% of members in 2003 voted to allow corporate sponsorship it was a day that was going to come one way or another. At the unveiling of the Qatar Airways sponsorship deal, Club President, Sandro Rosell said ‘ We are delighted to be working with Qatar Airways. We share lots of values, and one of them is the search for excellence. We have lots of supporters and Qatar have lots of customers. ‘ Quite. He confirmed that the Barca board had previously turned down big money deals put towards them on the basis that the sponsors who had approached them did not match the philosophy of the Barca brand.

Part Two Here

Read 3715 times Last modified on Thursday, 07 May 2015 19:55
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