More than a club? Embarrassing Barcelona have made a mockery of their own motto
For the benefit of Barcelona's soon-to-be-enraged supporters, let's just get this out of the way now: I used to be a fan too. I fell in love with the club as a kid, and I was obviously very fortunate in terms of the era in which I grew up.
I remember trying to replicate Ronald Koeman's Wembley winner with my friends on the street outside my house. Hristo Stoichkov and Romario running rings around Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister inspired me to write my first-ever match report, which I proudly presented to my Manchester United-supporting dad (he still maintains that while it was well-written for a 13-year-old, I'd clearly derived far too much joy from the result).
And, just like Bobby Robson, I had my hands on my head when Ronaldo wheeled away in celebration after scoring a goal so incredible that I still get goosebumps thinking about it today.
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Mes que un club
As far as I was concerned, Barca's slogan said it all: Mes que un club.
And it was more than a club. At least it looked and felt that way. And not just to me, either, but to millions of people across the world.
Like most football fans born before the era of the internet, my father taught me about the history of the game. So, he naturally taught me a lot about FC Barcelona, everything from Ireland's very own Patrick O'Connell to arguably the most influential figure the game has ever known, Johan Cruyff.
But more importantly than that, he taught me about the way in which Catalans had been persecuted, prevented from speaking their own language or waving their own flags.
I was just a kid, and I certainly wasn't Catalan, but I was growing up in an Ireland still tormented by 'The Troubles'. It would have been hard not to have been taken in by the mythology surrounding Barcelona. The similarities between Ireland and Catalonia just seemed so obvious.
Even more so when I read Jimmy Burns' book ‘Barca: A people's passion’ as a teenager, which gave me the validation I needed: I may have been from Dublin but I could be a Barca fan.
I'm not anymore, though. I haven't been for some time.
The cynical shirt sponsorship
Barcelona has always had its flaws, the kind of flaws that aren’t that obvious to a kid wrapped up in the romance of ‘The Beautiful Game’.
Josep Lluis Nunez ran the club ruthlessly for years, effectively turning it into his own personal fiefdom. But it still retained some of its inspirational ideals and iconography well into the start of the 21st century.
At a time when clubs were suddenly realising the power of their commercial appeal, Barca steadfastly refused to sully its shirt with a sponsor.
Nearly everything it once stood for has been eroded, though.
A name arrived on the shirt in 2006 and the agreement with UNICEF wasn’t just tolerated, but praised, because it was Barca doing the advertising, effectively paying the organisation for the right to promote its noble work with children.
An admirable idea on the surface but, in reality, just a depressingly cynical ploy to pave the way for subsequent sponsorship deals with other companies; a portentous sign of the beginning of the end of the idea of Barca as anything but a business.
And a grossly mismanaged one at that.
- Getty Images
A once impeccable image sullied
Barcelona is now a byword for recklessness, synonymous with self-sabotage and disastrous dealings in the transfer market, lurching from one scandal to another, from Sandro Rosell standing down over the fallout from the Neymar transfer to Josep Maria Bartomeu following suit after leaving the club on the verge of bankruptcy.
The latter’s resignation was obviously meant to signal the end of the end of a corrosive era of corruption – and yet Barca's once-proud name continues to be dragged through the mud.
This week’s Clasico, in fact, is in danger of being completely overshadowed by recently revealed payments made to former vice-president of the Technical Committee of Referees, Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira.
According to the latest reports in Spain, Barca directors are claiming that they were acting in “self-defence”, merely trying to ensure “neutral” officiating. Whatever the truth, it’s undeniably another PR disaster for Barca: a club that used to complain about referees being biased towards Real Madrid now find themselves accused of trying to influence match officials.
The hope is that Barca will be cleared of any wrongdoing and they obviously have a right to a fair trial – just like Manchester City and Juventus…
But regardless of the outcome of the case, it’s clear that the Catalans' once impeccable image has been sullied by these incessant allegations of financial impropriety, as underlined by the sight of Athletic Club supporters throwing fake money onto the pitch at San Mames last week with the Barca crest and the word 'mafia' printed on the notes.
For a long time, Barcelona were nearly every football fan's second team, but they have become a club that many now want to see fail.
Barca now just like Madrid
Indeed, arguably the worst thing you can say about Barcelona is that, in the eyes of the average supporter, they are no longer viewed much differently than Madrid.
Battle lines have been drawn over the Negreira affair, but don’t forget that their respective boards very much view the game in the same way these days, united as they are in their avaricious pursuit of a European Super League.
Current president Joan Laporta told staff on Monday that he will "take on the shameless individuals staining the club’s badge" – and there are undeniably people in the Madrid media with a blatant and deep-rooted, politically-motivated agenda against Barca.
However, in truth, most of the Blaugrana’s wounds are self-inflicted, the result of acts carried out by former directors, with the Barca-gate scandal an obvious case in point.
Furthermore, Laporta’s solutions to the problems created by his predecessors hardly inspire hope of a return to the club’s core values. Indeed, he appears to have learned little from Bartomeu’s catastrophic tenure, which was so economically crippling that it effectively forced Laporta into giving up the one remaining unifying force at Camp Nou: Lionel Messi.
Barca spent their way into trouble – yet now seem intent on spending their way out of it. And one cannot help but wonder why.
An example of the pervasive power of money
With time and patience, Laporta could have rebuilt Barca in its previous image.
After all, the Blaugrana remain adept at both identifying and nurturing young talent – just look at Pedri and Gavi in action – but in their desperation to continue winning, and to continue signing superstars, Laporta is willing to pull economic levers that jeopardise the very existence of the club.
Granted, money makes the modern game go around, making it difficult to compete with clubs funded by entire states. But while Laporta’s gamble may not be difficult to understand, it isn’t easy to accept either.
The way in which Barcelona are gambling with their future smacks of desperation, and selling off everything they can would have been once considered beneath Barca.
Burns said of his own book, "I hope that I have written a story that fans weary of the business of modern football can take some comfort in." I certainly did for a long time. But I no longer recognise the club I once revered (both as a child and a young adult).
Barca are neither an outlier nor an outsider anymore. They are part of the establishment. Just another embarrassing example of the pervasive power of money, having made a mockery of their own motto.
They’re not more than a club anymore. Right now, they’re no different to all the others.