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Commercialisation, PR stunts & bullying. Are Barcelona still ‘more than a club’?

Mes Que Un Club

Though they held an image to be inspired from, Barcelona have drifted from their roots off-late. Ryan Paton examines of their famous motto still holds true.

Translated to English to mean ‘more than a club’, Mes Que Un Club is a phrase proudly printed across the seats in the middle tier of the Nou Camp stadium, and one that has become globally renowned as Barcelona’s mantra. In the era of modern football where money has become an increasingly key factor in whether a team is successful, Barcelona certainly were deserving of this ‘more than a club’ tag.

Mes Que Un Club

During the era of Pep Guardiola’s management, they were the most successful team in the land, but it was in the unique way they approached the game that made them ‘more than a club’, with the way Guardiola tapped into a certain romantic aura that meant Barcelona took on a special significance, leading football purists all over the world to declare Barcelona as their second favourite team. The Catalan giants revived the essence of the beautiful game that was thought to be dead.

In an era when there was much to dislike about the corporate direction modern football was taking, Barcelona were an exception. Instead of being owned by the familiar sight of a businessman more interested in profits than points, Barcelona were owned by their supporters who deeply cared about the direction the club was heading. At a time when player power had become an overwhelming presence in the game, Barcelona made a point of ridding all the individual egos in the dressing room in order to build a true team ethic. At a time when teams with rigid, defensive systems were flourishing, Barcelona were reminding us of football in its most innocent state, prioritising pass and move play in a system free from repressive shackles, demonstrating how the most beautiful team in the game could also be its most successful. At a time when teams like Chelsea and Manchester City were buying their way to success, Barcelona were reaping the rewards of the La Masia youth foundation initiated by Johan Cruyff in 1979, almost becoming self-sufficient in the way they promoted from within their own academy. With clubs increasingly resembling commercial businesses with each passing season, Barcelona were standing firm, continuing to embody true footballing principles, and becoming a romanticised symbol for the ideal way a football club should operate.

This symbolism perhaps reached its peak in the 2010-11 season, when Barcelona won all but one of the competitions they entered, playing scintillating football that will ensure they’ll always be remembered as one of the greatest teams to ever grace the game, featuring 8 of their own youth academy graduates in the predominant starting 11, and a squad that cost just €154.5 million.  The way the season ended provided the single moment that encapsulated everything good about Barcelona. After dismantling Manchester United to win the Champions League in football’s supposed spiritual home of Wembley, Carles Puyol handed the captain’s armband to Eric Abidal, a player who had recovered from surgery to treat a cancerous tumour earlier on in the season, in a wonderful gesture that allowed him to lift old ‘Big Ears’. It was the stuff of fable, and was an act that contained the emotion and sentimentality of a fan, affirming that this passion still had its place within the game, and it was actually part of the winning formula. Romance was alive and well in the world of football.

Unfortunately for football, this was a peak, and since this point, there have been a number of incidents that have tarnished Barcelona’s golden reputation, resulting in an ill feeling developing towards the team that suggests they may just be a normal club like any other.

The first of these occurred behind the scenes during the 2010-11 season, when Barcelona put an end to a tradition that had been in place since the club’s inception, signing a lucrative shirt sponsorship deal with Qatar Sports Investment that saw them earn €25 million per year. Throughout their history, Barcelona had famously shunned away from any sort of shirt sponsorship, and when they did eventually decide to incorporate a sponsor onto the famous striped shirt, it was in keeping with the clubs philosophy with the charity Unicef chosen in a deal that opposed all the greedy sentiments of modern football, altogether going against the idea of a sponsorship, as it involved the club giving (rather than taking) money through donating €1.5 million a year to the charity. This adds an extra layer to the moment Abidal lifted the Champions League trophy since this was the last time that Barcelona wore a shirt that is true to their roots.

The following season their shirt displayed the Qatar Foundation logo which, although not quite as special as the Unicef deal, it was still different to other clubs as it was advertising a non-profit organization rather than a big corporate business. However, last season’s Barcelona shirt saw them move further away from their roots with the change to the Qatar Airways logo, the first commercial sponsor to appear on the shirt. It appears that Barcelona have now got the taste for it too, becoming the first team to ever feature two corporate shirt sponsors after signing a deal with electronics firm Beko, whose name will appear on the sleeves of the shirts for the upcoming season while Intel’s logo will be (fittingly) inside the shirt. From being a team that rejected the idea of a corporation working with the club just a few years ago, they are now whoring their iconic shirt out to the highest bidder, and, at this rate of progress, the Barcelona home shirt will be unrecognisable from a NASCAR automobile by 2020.

MORE READING | Is Barcelona the World’s most profligate club?

The most important thing to a club is that they remain successful on the pitch; bringing in commercial investments in order to garner the funds to make big money signings is a common facet of the game, but it came as a surprise to see the ‘more than a club’ side engaging in such activities. The manner in which they used this money in the transfer market is also enough to awaken the cynic within. It was something that was first seen in the two year-long pursuit of Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal that involved a shameless public tapping up, where the club used their special image to manipulative ends, creating the sense that Arsenal were villainous because they were denying the completion of the romantic story of a long lost son finally getting the chance to complete his journey and return home.

After refusing to budge on their derisory €35 million valuation of one of the most influential players in the Premier League, Barcelona put Arsenal in an impossible situation, with seemingly every one of their players publicly speaking on the behalf of Fabregas, claiming his head was already at Barcelona, before giving the old faux moral outrage to condemn the shocking inhumane treatment of Arsenal who were disgracefully rejecting offers nowhere near good enough for a player of his standard. It was a classless pursuit of a player, where they used their ‘more than a club’ image to bully Arsenal into eventually lowering their valuation in order to sign Fabregas for an initial €29 million that could potentially rise to €39 million. If the image of Abidal lifting the trophy summed up the good of Barcelona, then the Fabregas transfer sums up the bad. The whole saga felt like a loss of innocence, similar to when a cute kid realises that they can start to use their cuteness to be able to get themselves out of trouble, and, just like a child, once they seen it work, they did it again, with Barcelona’s shady transfer dealings becoming an increasingly familiar sight over recent years.

Last summer featured the corrupt transfer of Neymar from Santos that eventually made its way into the Catalan courtrooms, and resulted in the resignation of club President, Sandro Rosell. At the time the deal was completed last summer, it was reported to have cost Barcelona €57.1 million i.e. €17.1 million to Neymar’s former club Santos and €40 million to N&N, a company owned by Neymar’s parents that had exclusive control over the player’s image rights. However, figures released after the President’s resignation confirm that the transfer actually cost Barcelona closer to €86.2 million, indicating that Barcelona mocked up the figures in order to avoid tax payments to the Spanish government. The misconduct in the transfer market was not something limited to the Neymar signing, as just one month after they paid their taxes, Barcelona were charged over the illegal acquisitions of 10 minors, with Fifa issuing a small fine and banning the club from conducting any sort of transfer activity for 14 months.

A number of years ago, nobody would have suspected the ‘more than a club’ to participate in such dodgy dealings because they surely had too much integrity for that sort of murky business, yet here they are involved in scandals of the highest order. Maybe Barcelona counted on their image as the good guys being enough to make sure they got away with this illegal activity, but in doing so they have only served to raise more doubts over the legitimacyof their idyllic image.

Barcelona appealed the ban and Fifa lifted the sanctions for the time being which enabled the club to involve themselves in another shady transfer saga that seen them resort to shameless PR stunts in the club record €94 million signing of Luis Suarez from Liverpool. This time the fee was never in doubt, but it was again in the manner that they conducted themselves in the transfer that raised a few eyebrows. While Luis Suarez’s quality is undoubted, Barcelona are signing him off the back of his third biting scandal, which begs the question of whether a controversy magnet such as their new number 9 fits the profile of a Barcelona that brand themselves as being morally superior to the rest of football. While Suarez did apologise for the whole affair, he did so without consulting Liverpool, his parent club at the time, or the Uruguayan FA, who had defended his ridiculous claims that he fell into Chiellini’s shoulder with his teeth; it was clearly an insincere apology engineered by Barcelona so they could still ride on their high horse when they eventually sealed the transfer.

This theory was made more obvious when, for no apparent reason since he wasn’t yet a Barcelona player, sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta commented how Luis Suarez has “done the best thing a person can do” by being “humble enough to apologise to those he has offended” while President Josep Maria Bartomeu labelled him an ‘honourable man’.  The public comments from senior members basically confirmed the press reports how the ‘apology’ was all a big stunt forced by Barcelona, showing how they have now become so aware of their reputation as ‘more than a club’ that they have almost become a parody of their former selves, manufacturing their honourable and moral image rather than just simply being that way.

Even Johan Cruyff has been critical of Barcelona’s approach to transfers, questioning how their recent star signings will fit in a team with Lionel Messi stating that, “the three of them are too individual. In signing him, the club are showing a preference for individual genius over a team that plays great football.” This policy of signing players with individual genius, without much regard for how they fit into the team is characteristic of Real Madrid’s Galactico policy, and Cruyff’s charge leveled towards Barcelona is the most heinous of crimes. Could they possibly be changing their transfer strategy to resemble the one implemented at their most fierce rivals? Signing marquee players is not something entirely new to the Catalan side as big money was spent in the construction of all of Barcelona’s great sides under Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, and Pep Guardiola that resulted in winning the Champions League. They have always been a side who signed the big names, but it always felt as though the decision of who was signed lay with the manager, who had a plan of how they were going to fit into the overarching system. Regarding the Neymar transfer, Cruyff lamented the state of the Barcelona hierarchy claiming that it’s “not the coach who makes the decisions. The directors have been influencing things for some time now and it gets worse and worse.”

This is the kind of situation that is expected at Real Madrid where it is known that the club President has the final say in who is signed, but it’s not something thought of happening at Barcelona, highlighting how the ‘more than a club’ are victim to interfering members of the board whose main interest is in selling shirts just like any other side in football. TheNeymar transfer in particular stunk of intrusive board members as a big name signing was sealed before the new manager Tata Martino had even arrived, and it was completed at the expense of signing a top class centre half, something that Barcelona have been crying out for since age caught up with Carles Puyol a number of years ago.

While the recent marquee signing Luis Suarez was reportedly signed with the go ahead from manager Luis Enrique, where he exactly fits into the Barcelona system remains unclear. In Barcelona’s ‘more than a club’ philosophy, the system and the team should be everything,  yet in this new attacking three that admittedly looks mouth-watering on paper, all three are the kind of players a team would be built around. It’ll be interesting to see whether Luis Enrique attempts to build them into a team ethic in the 2014/15 season, or whether, as Cruyff suggests, they are deciding to change direction in becoming a team dictated by its individuals, rather than individuals designed as cogs to perform within a system.

One of the main successes of Guardiola’s stewardship was that he managed to capture Barcelona’s essence by putting faith in the players who’d grown up as boys within the club, who had Barcelona blood pulsating through their veins. However, players tipped to break into the first team such as Tello, Cuenca, and Bojan have failed to make any sort of impression and players who looked tipped for greatness such as Pedro have suffered from recurring injuries and a loss of form.

Where Barcelona seemed on the way to becoming truly self-sufficient in 2011, the project has taken a massive down turn, and the romantic atmosphere of the club has gone with it.  After the huge disappointment of last season’s trophy less campaign, Barcelona were left in dire need of a rebuilding process. Under Guardiola, Barcelona reached their full evolution into being ‘more than a club’, but it seems in their desire to recapture that form, they are regressing in the project which helped create its essence, becoming unrecognisable from the claims suggested by the club’s mantra. Signing corporate deals to fund big name signings in shady deals featuring plenty of misconduct, prioritising individuals at the expense of a team: it appears that in the quest to build a better side, Barcelona are sacrificing their special status and becoming less of a club.

Written by Ryan Paton

Cules' Corner Barcelona Football blog

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