On a family holiday during the summer of 1992, I asked my father a question about my favourite football team, FC Barcelona. We were due to visit their famous stadium, the Camp Nou, and I could barely contain my excitement.
How come they don’t have sponsors on their shirts? I wondered.
Well, my Dad began, it’s because the Catalan people are very proud, and they don’t believe in putting sponsors on their T-shirt’s. It was as good an explanation as he could give to a then 11-year-old boy unable to fully grasp the deeper complexities and issues that were involved. Still, upon hearing this, my chest swelled with something like pride. If I wasn’t already in love with Johan Cruyff’s all conquering Dream Team before, I certainly was now. They truly were, as their motto said, Mes Que Un Club.
Fast forward 30 years, and those same t-shirts have had sponsors on them for some time, of course. It never sat right with me, though I could always explain it away as a necessary concession to the realities of the modern game. Barcelona were still the romantic club of my youth. They had the best player in the history of the game, in Lionel Messi, a graduate of La Masia, their own famous youth academy, and he was surrounded by a world class group of other young, homegrown players that, between them, revolutionised the game, making something already beautiful now practically perfect. They carried their rich history with pride and made Catalonia the centre of the footballing world. Every time they played, they thrilled the adult I was now, and gladdened the heart of that 11-year-old child in the baggy Romario shirt.
Spotify Camp Nou. Jars, doesn’t it. Galls. Sticks in the throat. Every time I see it, I shudder. Barcelona’s recent financial difficulties have been well publicised, of course. A debt of around €1.3 billion threatened the very existence of the club for a while. Thankfully, they now seem stable. But at what price? This summer the romantic club of my youth seemed to become all about ‘economic levers’ and percentage sales. Stories on them felt more like a business article than a football one. Parts of the family China seemed to be flogged in order to stay afloat, stripping the club’s assets down to the bare bones. They were sacrificing the future, critics chided, at the altar of the present. Yet, it seemed like something else was being traded away. Something more. Faced with the economic hardships that threatened to kill them, what choice did Barcelona have but to sacrifice their ideals in order to stay alive? Wasn’t that better than no longer existing at all?
Yet, something has happened in the wake of this survival that has never happened before. People have begun to hate Barcelona. Far from being thankful and relieved that they are still here, football fans the world over have turned on the Blaugranes and lambasted them with white hot fury for the way they have been forced to comport themselves of late. It’s almost as though, keen to believe the dream of a football utopia all our lives, people are incandescent to suddenly have it taken away, devastated to discover there is no Santa Claus. Despite all its pretenses to be More Than A Club, it turns out Barcelona is just another club after all, prone to the pitfalls and practicalities of the modern game, just like anyone else. Truly, it was like pulling back the curtain to see there is no Wizard of Oz.
It’s a thorny issue made worse by Barcelona’s incredible spending spree this summer. Adding (Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde for big money, as well as Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen on free transfers) while over 1 billion in debt did not sit well with most football fans. How on earth did that kind of irresponsible behaviour chime with the Catalan clubs hazy, romantic notions of themselves? Did they really even need them all? Wasn’t Lewandowski signed primarily to add a much-needed boost to T-shirt and ticket sales? Why, they were no better than Real Madrid, the line went, needlessly stockpiling Galactico’s just because they could. It was a criticism that had to sting.
Worse, it was said, was the club’s abhorrent treatment of certain players. How could they withhold 15 million of Frenkie De Jong’s wages? Money which the player deferred to help alleviate some of the financial pressure the club was under. Now they were, what? Trying to force him out as a way of wriggling out of paying him what he was owed? What a cowardly, treacherous, snakelike act. And Martin Braithwaite. A player under contract who, deemed surplus to requirements, was now being openly attacked by the club and its hostile fans for refusing to leave when the club decided they’d had enough of him. Furthermore, they had no compunction about going to loyal players, men who had played for the shirt and knew what it meant to represent Catalonia, to ask them to take several pay cuts, all to help the board buy some newer, shinier toys. No qualms about manipulating their loyalty to the cause. What had happened to this one proud club? Had they no dignity? Had they no shame?
Writing that rap sheet out makes for stark viewing. Certainly, there is no easy way to explain it away. We as football fans have to ask ourselves some important questions sometimes. What do we want our club to stand for? How do we want it to be perceived? What are its values and, where is its line in the sand? One question Barça fans may have to ask ourselves right now is this; is it better to have a club that has compromised its values than to have no club at all? Just the very idea of FC Barcelona no longer exiting is one not worth thinking about. Yet, what is this new entity that we seem to have before us? If it no longer has the same proud traditions and values as it once had, can it still be called Barcelona? Is it still the Barcelona we all fell in love with? One has to hope so. Sure, this last couple of years has been a stain on its character, an ugly, regrettable time that we will all look back on with no little shame. Yet isn’t any marriage fraught with difficulty from time to time? No true love story is without its valleys. It has been a dark time, yes. But doesn’t the club deserve the chance to prove it hasn’t changed? That it’s still in there somewhere? That it’s still the club we fell in love with all that time ago? I believe it does. Like all survivors, it may not always be proud of the methods it used to stay alive. But survival was the principal goal. That achieved, it’s up to Barcelona now to prove its soul, albeit a little dirtied, a little scuffed, is still ultimately intact. To prove that it’s heart beats just the same as always. To prove, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it is still as special as always.
I believe that it is.
I believe we will be enchanted all over again, and every past transgression, while not forgotten, will at least be forgiven. Every one of us falls down at some point in our lives, fall short of the standards we hold for ourselves. Life teaches us that it’s ok to make a mistake, so long as you learn from them. it also teaches us that forgiveness can be beautiful, that redemption can be divine.
I believe FC Barcelona can be redeemed.
I still love this club and what it represents, still believe that they can, once again, prove themselves to be Mes Que Un Club.
I just pray that I’m right.