Unlike many of you, my obsession with Barcelona is fairly recent. My exposure to football, soccer in my native United States, was limited to a playing perspective until a back injury forced me away from the game. This was devastating. The joy of footballing ceased, and I grew increasingly apathetic with the game. Barca brought me back. Even in my state of apathy, the uproar created by the early Guardiola-era team drove me to YouTube. "Barcelona tiki taka" was the search, and the result was love at first pass. I had never fathomed soccer could be played with such speed, precision, and devastating beauty. Yet while the extraordinary technical skill drew me in, the club’s values truly captured my imagination. The focus on youth development, the importance of fan ownership, the lack of a corporate sponsor, the preference of technical quality over physical athleticism, and the "More than a club" motto spoke to me.
Barca has a deep connection with the Catalan people. It isn’t a billionaire’s plaything, nor a business run for profit. Football Club Barcelona is an enduring symbol, and while as a foreign fan I am not a part of the struggle for Catalan independence, I deeply respect the club’s place in it. So why this anecdote? Simply put, I want to clearly illustrate the level of love and respect for this team, because it’s something we all feel and all share -- minus the glory hunters. While I was not born wearing blaugrana, nor was I drinking Estrella Damm before I could walk, all fans of this club experience a deep connection that extends beyond cultural or geographical boundaries or how long we have supported. I would happily share a drink and sing until hoarse with anyone who loves this club as I do. This love fuels my concern over the current state of affairs, and why I believe more than ever that "Mes que un club" still matters and is worth holding onto.
Like many others, recent club actions leave me puzzled and confused. Two great friends, Tito Vilanova and Pep Guardiola, current and former manager respectively, are engaged in a feud due to the latter not "being there" during the former’s battle with cancer over the past year. While this was undoubtedly due to mixed signals -- Guardiola probably felt he should keep his distance and not create rumors he was trying to retake the managerial position of the club -- that it should come out publicly in press conferences and cause bad blood between two prominent club figures is saddening. We’ve already seen problems in leadership before, with current club president Sandro Rosell’s lawsuit against former president Joan Laporta, and the rift between Rosell and Johan Cruyff, one of the most important individuals in the club’s history. How can we be more than a club when those in charge squabble continuously? How are players to focus and band together when their former leader and current leader are at odds?
Other club decisions leave me similarly perplexed, simply because of how inconsistent the management’s acted. We count on youth, yet let one of our best prospects in Thiago Alcantara leave at an incredibly poor time. This was a massive failing on multiple levels: contractually in allowing the ridiculous €18 million buyout clause, and managerially in what arguably counts as stubbornness to get 100 points (and thus playing an injured, exhausted Xavi over Thiago). Moreover, the failure of the club to communicate to Tito that there was a playing time clause in Thiago’s contract goes to show a lack of attention to detail in important matters. We now enter the season without a legitimate Xavi backup, ergo, an orchestrator who can create space for himself deep on the field and maintain positional discipline (Stop it, you’re talking tactics again). With Xavi’s age and inability to play 50+ games a season, this is an obvious problem management has dumped onto the young shoulders of Sergi Roberto, a solid player who simply cannot hope to fill the boots of one of the greatest ever midfielders.
We pride ourselves on a deeper relationship with players, yet the contract situations of Marc Muniesa and Eric Abidal were handled with the subtlety of a clumsy elephant. Management claims austerity limits transfer window spending on vital squad deficiencies yet makes vanity signings supporting an opposite philosophy. We sign a truly fabulous footballer in Neymar, but as of yet have done nothing to fix our defensive issues besides sell defenders (isn’t that counter-logical?) or let them leave for free. At times last season a true striker was desperately needed, yet we sold the only player capable of playing as a number 9 for a pittance and now refuse to sign another. These are puzzling decisions which underline a lack of attention to detail and constitute a strange way of optimizing the sporting project.
I am not one who expects this club to win a treble every season; however, I do expect the club to do everything in its power to make that happen. Right now, the inconsistency in decisions and willful limitations placed through arbitrary austerity could lead to the waste of the world’s best player, the best player in Brazil, and the best player in Spain all playing on the same team in their primes. To this Cule, a 70 million euro club profit is poor compensation for getting thrashed by Bayern Munich 7-0 on aggregate (unless Sandro Rosell wants to deposit a bit of that in my bank account of course). The business side of the club does matter, but deceptively slipping corporate sponsors onto the front of the famed blaugrana kit while the sporting project loses players and coaches to the German side which humiliated us just a few short months ago makes me question the club’s priorities.
This is the sad reality which we face as fans of this historic and fabulous club. A club which, to me at least, has deviated from its path ever so slightly. While cries of despair over Barcelona unraveling at the seams are premature, there’s simply no denying that this club has not established itself well for the next few seasons, or at least as well as it could. "Mes que un club" seems forgotten, and I have even heard some claim the motto should be left behind completely. That said, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The level of hatred has reached a fever pitch, and in this moment Barca can rise as underdogs. We hear the derision, read the comments as self-righteous football fans claim doom and gloom:
For the first time in what seems like an eternity, Barca are not on top of the footballing world, but this club is not finished. We have a new manager and a fresh perspective on the season. Tito Vilanova is now free to battle his cancer without the distractions and stress brought on by managing one of the largest clubs in the world. Football, after all, is just a game, and I hope we can use Tito’s illness as a point of unification. Perhaps we do not act like much more than a club at the moment, but this just means we must remember what we are. We, as fans, should bond over what draws us together: the camaraderie, the heartbreak, the joy and ecstasy of a Messi dribble, a Xavi pass, or Jordi Alba’s adorableness. The outpouring of love and support for Tito in this trouble time is what makes us more than a club. Maybe management makes the right decisions and maybe management does not make the right decisions, but we live on. We keep supporting, keep singing, and keep loving.