Forget FIFA scandal, FC Barcelona steals the show

John Wight
John Wight has written for a variety of newspapers and websites, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal.
Forget FIFA scandal, FC Barcelona steals the show
While the FIFA scandal may cast a shadow over this year’s European Champions League Final in Berlin, the history of one of the sport’s most famous teams, FC Barcelona, will forever represent all that’s beautiful about the beautiful game.

Football fans around the world are blessed with a number of teams that carry an aura of magic - Manchester City, Glasgow Celtic, Bayern Munich, and AC Milan, to name just a few - the most magical of all is FC Barcelona, better known simply as Barca.

In England there’s Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool (Chelsea do not possess this magic and neither does Manchester City, and they never will no matter how many titles they win).

In Scotland, Glasgow Celtic with their fantastic fans – the best in Europe according to none other than Lionel Messi – fit the bill, while in Germany we have Bayern Munich. Meanwhile in Holland, Ajax of Amsterdam possess it, and in Italy who could fail to put both Inter and AC Milan on the list, along with Juventus?

Eastern Europe also has its share of such clubs: Dynamo Kiev, Dynamo Moscow, Spartak Moscow, Partisan Belgrade, Red Star Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, and so on. Meanwhile in Spain there is Real Madrid, Athletico Madrid, and the most famous of all, FC Barcelona, or Barca.

Barca steals the show

In fact, when it comes to magic, Barca eclipses every other football club not just in Europe, but the entire world. Their stadium, the Nou Camp (Camp Nou in Spanish), exudes a magic of its very own; football’s equivalent of the ancient Roman Coliseum. This hallowed football field is the center of the universe of this most universal of sports, where the excitement regularly demonstrated on the pitch is echoed in the stands by fans whose passion and knowledge of the sport is unsurpassed.

In their famous blue-and-maroon striped shirts, the players of Barca have for many years given the world some of the most exquisite displays of footballing artistry. They embody the words of the great Liverpool manager, Billy Shankly, who once described football as “working class ballet.”

Reuters / Benoit Tessier

A bastion of resistance

Futbol Club Barcelona was formed in 1899 by Hans (Joan) Gamper, a Swiss national who fell in love with the city and the Catalan people and culture after moving there. Catalonia’s determined assertion of independence from Spain has been a constant source of upheaval and unrest throughout its history, and FC Barcelona has consistently been a symbol of that thirst for independence.

This was most evident during and after the Spanish Civil War, when Catalonia was a bastion of anti-fascist and republican resistance to Franco and his nationalist/fascist forces. After Franco prevailed and Spain entered a long period of authoritarian and fascist rule, FC Barcelona became an expression of Catalan pride and identity. Indeed, for many years the club’s stadium (up until the move to the Nou Camp in 1957, the club played at Camp de Les Corts) was the only place the Catalan language could be spoken without fear of arrest.

Murder of club president & rivalry with Real Madrid

In the early days of the civil war, club President Josep Sunyol was murdered when he made the fatal mistake of venturing into a nationalist zone of the country sporting a Catalan flag on the car he was traveling in. Fans of FC Barcelona have never forgotten nor forgiven his murder, which today still informs the deep hatred and rivalry between the club and Real Madrid. Matches between the teams are known as ‘El Clasico’ and are enthusiastically watched both at home and around the world.

General Franco, in an effort to gain as much political capital as he could from the sport’s popularity in the country, adopted Real as his preferred team. Real from then on was considered the establishment team, representing monarchy, the Catholic Church hierarchy and the rich; FC Barcelona, on the other hand, was and remains a club associated with Catalan independence, republicanism and anti-fascism.

This high level of identification between the fans and the team has led to a unique ownership model, comprising some 180,000 subscription-paying members (socios) rather than a single wealthy owner. The members elect the club’s president every four years; the president can serve a maximum of two four-year terms. This co-operative model is also responsible for the club being associated with charitable causes, such as UNICEF, to which it donates €1.5 million annually.

General view of Camp Nou stadium (Reuters / Albert Gea)

However, despite its reputation for team spirit and works of charity, the club has suffered some recent setbacks.

In 2010, the club succumbed to market pressures and entered a controversial five-year sponsorship deal with Qatar Sports Investments worth £125 million. In 2011 the club broke with 112 years of history when it agreed to carry the name of a commercial sponsor – initially Qatar Foundation followed by Qatar Airways from 2013 - on the team shirts as part of the deal.

Qatar is a particularly controversial sponsor given the mounting scandal over its selection to host the 2022 World Cup and its brutal treatment of migrant workers involved in preparing the infrastructure and stadia for the event. The reputational damage to the club’s ethos has not been lost on its board, which it was reported in January 2015 was reconsidering the sponsorship deal with the Qataris. However at time of writing the partnership remains very much in place.

In terms of value, Barcelona was ranked third - behind Real Madrid and Manchester City - with £407.5 million (US$574.21) in revenue in a 2013-14 report compiled by the US-based accountancy firm Deloitte.

Johan Cruyff and the beginning of total football

On the pitch, meanwhile, the total football that Barca have perfected and are famous for began with the arrival of Johan Cruyff, the legendary Dutch player and star of the famous Dutch international side of the 1970s. He joined the club in 1973 to team up with his old Ajax manager, Rinnus Michels, and made an immediate impact, inspiring the Catalans to a 5-0 thrashing of their archenemy, Real Madrid, en route to that season’s league title, the club’s first in 13 years.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their first goal (Reuters / Gustau Nacarino)

Cruyff returned to the club as manager between 1988 and 1996 and continued to exert his influence on the club’s playing style and philosophy, leading them to four La Liga titles, one European cup, one Cup Winners' Cup, and a Copa del Rey in that period.

The Barcelona style places emphasis on possession, movement, and a fast transition from defense to attack in waves with short and quick passes. Former Cruyff player, Pep Guardiola, modernized the style when he took over the reins as manager in 2008 with intense and aggressive pressing of the opposition when they have the ball. The style came to be known as ‘tiki-taka’, though it’s a description and a label Guardiola – who left Barca in 2012 and now manages Bayern Munich - loathed as reductive and simplistic.

Messi factor

Some of the world’s greatest players have worn the famous maroon and blue shirt; however Barcelona is known for its outstanding youth academy, through which it develops and nurtures talent from a young age. Lionel Messi, currently the best player in the world, joined the club at 13 from Argentina before progressing through the ranks. Describing the experience, Messi said: "The Barcelona youth program is one of the best in the world. As a kid they teach you not to play to win, but to grow in ability as a player. At Barca we trained every day with the ball, and I hardly ever ran without a ball at my feet. It was a form of training aimed very clearly at developing your skills."

When the players of this famous old club take to the pitch at Berlin’s Olympiastadion on June 6 to face Italian giants, Juventus, in the Champions League Final, they will do so in the knowledge that they represent not just a football club but an idea, a history, and the hopes and dreams of an entire people.

On May 30, Barcelona will face Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final at the Camp Nou.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.