Money and winning.
They’re two of the most intoxicating pleasures life has to offer. Once you get a taste of one, let alone both, its anaconda-like grip can be nearly impossible to let go of.
No person or entity is entirely safe. Its allure has taken down athletes, movie stars, even heads of state. But far above all, there was one institution that remained true to itself. A representation of something more. Something unique. Something that couldn’t be bought.
That institution was FC Barcelona and Més Que un Club (More than a club) was their rallying cry. Birthed from oppression and emboldened by triumph, few have had a more meaningful relationship between a team and its fans. More than just on a sporting level, Barcelona became a political mouthpiece for not only a city but an entire region. Silenced in the courts and on the streets, the pitch did the talking. And over the past decade, they were able to speak louder than anyone. 16 domestic trophies and 10 European, including 4 of the most prestigious variety, the Champions League. Their reach even stretched to the most unlikely of places, the Spanish national team. The irony of it all, Catalan born and bread players leading Spain to national glory playing their style of football.
It was a great time to be a fan of Barcelona, and even more so, Catalan.
So what would anyone have to complain about? It would be like the rich girl living in the penthouse on 5th Avenue throwing a temper tantrum in aisle 5 of the Whole Foods because they ran out of her favorite brand of kale.
But behind all of the glory and accolades a disillusionment was beginning to simmer among a portion of supporters. I say a portion because this is quite a polarizing issue. In order to fully understand this fracture it is important to reach out to the source of where much of it is located — Barcelona.
David Cartlidge was born in Durham, England. A small town, it is located to the northeast near Sunderland and Newcastle. His journey to becoming a football journalist has taken him to cities such as London and Valencia, but for the past 2 and a half years he has resided in Barcelona, covering Spanish football and editing for beIN Sports USA. During his short time there he has noticed a large shift in much of the locale’s attitude towards their beloved squad.
“The people’s general feeling is discontent with the club” Cartlidge said. “It has become a lot different to how it once was, with local fans at the core of the club and its future. It was a club that represented the region after all, and the language, and the Catalans fight against Spain. Unfortunately, it's gone away from that however, despite the odd chant here and there for Independence at Camp Nou. Those are from a small minority however, and soon it will wilt away. There is little feeling at the club for what it once was. The Qatar deal for one, and then the issues regarding dealings of Presidents, has slowly eroded that special feeling once reserved for Barca. There is perhaps only Athletic Club who can now call themselves more than a club in Spain. Their values remain intact.”
In today’s football climate, winning and having large sums of money usually go hand-in-hand. The giant clubs are able to splash out exorbitant transfer fees for the worlds best players and pay them wages that could pay for entire rosters on some provincial sides. For 111 years no sponsor ever graced the Barcelona kits, they were an advertisement all to themselves. Their values. Their struggles.
But that all changed prior to the commencement of the 2011-12 season when a five-year, €150m deal with the Qatar Foundation was signed for them to join UNICEF as the (then) Spanish champions' shirt sponsor. Similar to UNICEF, the Qatar Foundation was a non-profit charitable organization that assists in education and community development. Unbeknownst to supporters, the shirt sponsor surprisingly changed again prior to 2013-14 season to Qatar Airways, the state owned airline. Many saw it as a deliberate cover on the part of club hierarchy, specifically Sandro Rosell, to ease the backlash that would've came by indirectly supporting a regime notorious for its human-rights violations. It was a risk Rosell was willing to take, seeing as how they were missing out on a large revenue stream most clubs saw as a formality. Making matters worse, club statutes state that board members have the right to vote whether the deal was completed or not, but they were only allowed this right eleven months after the deal had already been consummated.
Unfortunately, the kits were just one in a long list of gaffes committed by the club. In 2012, The man who brought Barça back to the pinnacle of world football, Pep Guardiola, resigned, citing “burnout”. He decided to take a year-long sabbatical by relocating to New York City. Meanwhile, Pep’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, was appointed his successor despite having been diagnosed with cancer the year prior. That season, Tito was able to continue much of what Pep started, bringing the cava soaked La Liga celebration back to Plaça de Catalunya. Only two months later, Tito was forced to retire as his condition relapsed. For treatment, he headed to the very city his mentor was living in. Rumors were floated around that Pep hadn’t bothered to visit his dying friend during his time there, and many saw the main culprit as being Rosell. A war of words exploded through the media with none being more damaging than from Pep:
"I told them [the president and his directors] I was going 6,000km away and asked them to leave me in peace, but they haven't kept their word. Too many things have happened that have crossed the line, I will never forget that they used Tito's illness to cause me damage, because it's a lie that I never saw him in New York."
This spat pushed an unnecessary rift through supporters forcing them to choose sides between the most successful coach in Barcelona history and the club itself. Tenured players who had given so much to the cause such as Éric Abidal and Victor Valdés after him, were also shown the exit door. It was a transitional period for the club with La Maisa products being counted on less, while legends like Xavi and Carles Puyol aged. Mega-stars Neymar and Luis Suárez were purchased in subsequent summers, turning an already world-class Barça starting XI into something that more resembled the Monstars from Space Jam. Suárez cost €82 million, while Neymar’s purchase still remains shrouded in mystery. The reported fee at the time of purchase was €57 million, but a little over a month ago club president Josep Maria Bartomeu confirmed it was over €100 million, further pushing a wedge in the trust between the club and its supporters.
Then there was the closing of sociship, the horizontal kit designs, the decisions taken without soci consult, the lack of any reasonable attempt to explain board/managerial decisions before they take place, the 14-month transfer ban for breaking rules on signing international players under 18.
And finally, the taxes.
Javier Mascherano was given a one-year prison sentence for not properly paying taxes in Spain, but is not expected to serve any time in jail, instead being fined nearly €800,000. Neymar was found guilty of tax-fraud in his home country of Brazil for his failure to report earnings from his contracts with Santos, Barcelona, and Nike, and ordered him to pay $52.1 million in fines and back-taxes. Did I mention he was also under investigation in Spanish court over his transfer to Barça?
Even the greatest player in the world wasn’t immune to pocketing a few extra dollars. Leo Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, were found guilty on three counts of tax fraud and sentenced to 21 months in prison (both will probably avoid jail time) for avoiding to pay taxes totaling €4.1 million on earnings from image rights. Instead of sounding contrite and asking for forgiveness, the club tried a bizarre PR stunt aimed at showing the Ballon d'Or winner “he is not alone”, releasing a statement promoting the hashtag #WeAreAllLeoMessi and encouraged fans to bombard social media with messages of support. This only perpetuated the theory that the club was arrogant enough to believe that if you play football well enough, and make a ton of people happy, you too could be above the scope of social repercussion.
Now, one of Catalunya’s most sacred places has begun to feel the winds of change as well. Once the only sanctuary for the native tongue to be heard, and political ideals to be passed without fear of repercussion.
“The Camp Nou has become the worst tourist trap in Spain”, Cartlidge said. Barcelona is a stunning city and many visit, it's one of the most photographed cities in the world now. But Camp Nou, for all it's grandeur, doesn't feel like a football stadium anymore. It feels like the Sagrada Familia, or Park Guell. It's a tourist attraction. There are still signs of its old days, but they will soon all be gone. The club treats it as such, and thus decreases the value of it as an authentic match day experience. When I leave my house on a Saturday or Sunday, which is just a stones throw from Sagrada Familia, the ticketing booths are out selling match day tickets as games never sell out. The guy who you sat with in the pub, and then sat with at the ground, isn't there anymore”.
But does any of that matter? Barça continue to win, and win big. They’ve won 7 trophies the past two years and continue to rake in revenues at a historic pace. The club is now worth $3.55 billion, good for 3rd place in the world. They signed a new agreement with Nike that is expected to set a record and be worth as much as $175 million a year, according to reports. They will also kick off a $650 million renovation to the Camp Nou stadium next year. The project will modernize the stadium, expand capacity to 105,000 and help Barça challenge Real Madrid for the highest revenues in sports. Young fans from every continent have also flocked to the club, making them the most followed sports team in the world on social media. For most, their only agenda is concerned with winning on the pitch and using this recent period of success as a means to get one over on Real Madrid.
As more and more Catalans are pushed further away, the sweat, blood and tears that built the very foundations of this club go with it.
So ask yourself, what matters most to you? Do you need Barça to win while still being Més Que un Club, or can you be happy with one and not the other?
Under the current leadership, the club appears to be continuing down the current path of eroding its identity. When the day arrives that trebles and UCL trophies follow suit, will there be anything left?