”Barcelona is my life…my heart is with Barcelona, always.”
While the crisis that has engulfed world football over the indictment of fourteen FIFA officials by US lawmakers, on allegations of corruption, may cast a shadow over this year’s European Champions League Final in Berlin, the history of one of the clubs involved, FC Barcelona, will forever stand for all that is beautiful about the beautiful game.
In Europe there are a number of football clubs whose names conjure up a certain aura of magic, consistent with histories that are rich in drama, excitement, and meaning. In England there is Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool. In Scotland Glasgow Celtic with their fantastic fans – the best in Europe according to none other than 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, better known simply as Barca.
In fact when it comes to magic Barca easily eclipses every other football club not just in Europe but the entire world. Their stadium, the Nou Camp (or Camp Nou), exudes a magic of its very own as football’s equivalent of the Roman Coliseum. It is the centre of the universe of this most universal of sports, where the excitement regularly demonstrated and generated on the pitch is replicated 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, past and present, have given us some of the most wondrous and exquisite displays of footballing artistry. For years now they have embodying the game as the “working class ballet” it is when at its best.
Futbol Club Barcelona were formed in 1899 by Hans (Joan) Gamper, a Swiss national who’d moved to the city and fallen in love with both it anjd the Catalan people and culture. 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 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. FC Barcelona became an expression of Catalan pride and identity during the most repressive period in Spain’s history, after Franco prevailed and the country and its people entered a long period of authoritarian and fascist rule. The club’s stadium (up until the move to the Nou Camp in 1957, the club played at Camp de Les Corts) was for many years the only place the Catalan language could be spoken without fear of arrest.
During the civil war the club’s president, Josep Sunyol, was murdered when he made the mistake of venturing into a nationalist zone of the country sporting a Catalan flag on the car he was travelling 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 them are known as ‘El Clasico’ and are the highlight not only of Spanish football but also European and world club football.
General Franco adopted Real as his preferred team in an effort to extract as much political capital as he could from the sport’s popularity in the country. Real from then on was considered the establishment team, the club representing the monarchy, the Catholic Church hierarchy, and the rich, while FC Barcelona was and remains a club associated with Catalan independence, republicanism, and anti-fascism. This identity informs its 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, and the maximum a president can serve is two four-year terms. This co-operative model is also responsible for the club being associated with good causes through the club’s charitable foundation, such as Unicef, to whom it donates 1.5 million euros annually.
However 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 came third in the 2013-14 football rich list, compiled by the US-based accountancy firm Deloitte, behind Real Madrid and Manchester City with £407.5 million (574.21 euros) in revenue.
On the pitch, meanwhile, the total football that Barca have perfected and are famous for began with the arrival of Johann 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.
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 that places an emphasis on possession, movement, and the fast transition from defence to attack in waves with short, quick passing. 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 is one that Guardiola – who left Barca in 2012 and now manages Bayern Munich – loathed as reductive and simplistic.
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 players in the world, joined the club at 13 from Argentina before progressing through the ranks. Describing the experience, Messi said: “The Barcelona youth programme 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 6 June 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 a history and an idea of how the game should be played that resonates with people all over the world.