Some things in football are sacrosanct. Michael Owen has no place in a Manchester United team. The Football Association is populated by bumbling idiots. FIFA’s executive committee follows the money. And FC Barcelona will not take cash for shirt sponsorship. Until now. Hang up the wreaths. Pay your respects. Football. R.I.P.
One of those tenets ended on Friday when Barcelona broke with 125 years of traditional and accepted a mammoth new shirt sponsorship from the Qatari Foundation – read the al-Thani Royal Family – worth around £25 million per season over the next five years. It’s the richest shirt deal in history in the midst of the deepest global downturn since the 1930s.
Running from the 2011/12 season, Barcelona’s shirt will now bare the foundation’s logo in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup. But it’s a decision that is unlikely to rest easily with the club’s supporters, prompting criticism that the new board has sold out to the perils of the market. A decision defended by a club that is millions in debt.
“It is not a commercial brand but a non-government organisation in a country that wants publicity through education and sport, and, as everybody knows, through organising the 2022 World Cup,” said club vice-president Javier Faus.
“Barcelona needs the money to face up to our €420 million debt.”
Yet, it represents another major coup for the Qataris, who secured the rights to the 2022 World Cup at FIFA 10 days ago. If convincing 22 old-aged FIFA delegates that holding the World Cup in a country with no football tradition, during the summer when temperatures regularly exceed 40*C, was hard enough, then Qatar buying its way on to Barcelona’s shirt trumps even that.
Not that financial pressure doesn’t exist of course. Debt or no debt. The success, glamour and global profile of the Catalan outfit has created an environment in which a huge deal was always possible at a club owned and run by the fans.
Yet, the cash has always been turned down whatever the financial rewards of globalisation. Moreover, Los Cules paid UNICEF £1.5 million per season from 2006 onwards simply for the privilege of displaying the United Nation’s Children’s Fund logo. Those that viewed the UNICEF deal as a stalking horse the real deal have been proven correct.
For many United supporters this act of conciliation with the market represented the antipathy of everything the Glazers brought to Old Trafford in 2005. The over-arching obsession to generate new revenues to cover the outrageous indebtedness that the American family fostered on United caused genuine anger. So much so that thousands of supporters founded their own club – FC United – in Barcelona’s image.
While each of those clubs bookends the football spectrum, at their heart lies – or lay – a philosophy that fans not commerce comes first. That principles, not profit, is more important. That each is more than a club, it is a philosophy and a way of being.
Perhaps worse than selling this dream down the river, Barcelona has sold out not to some random bank with aspirations of global penetration or an increase in brand value – whatever that means – but an absolute monarchy with a shocking record on human rights. Barcelona, a club that grows its own; founded on the principal of mutuality and internal development, now beholden to mineral wealth’s fascination.
For those supporters who remember a time when football wasn’t dominated by finance, global television and the requirement to ‘exploit the brand’, Barcelona’s romanticism held much appeal. Indeed, this site carried an ode to a club which seemed – despite recent financial mismanagement – to understand the very core of football. When so many clubs have become entertainment businesses, United included, Barcelona stood tall as a family business.
Supporters must at least be grateful for the mutuality enshrined in the club’s charter. One wonders whether the club could withstand the full assault of the globalised market and remain independent otherwise.
Indeed, Pep Guardiola – Mr. Barcelona – seemed a reluctant proponent of the new deal. Necessity, he said, was at its root.
“We must take into account that the numbers at the club are not quite right, and I am hoping that they will recover and improve,” said the astute and intelligent, 39-year-old coach.
It’s an argument that could justify ticket price rises, stadium naming rights and, in dreadful market speak, refinancing.
The day money came before principles. The day the football died.