Sir Alex Ferguson says that Barcelona’s model is the one to aspire to and that his dream was once to coach the Catalan side. Ideologically and perhaps most importantly – the ownership model – means Barça is a club that many Manchester United supporters admire. The clubs share a common history but a diverged present.
Many aspects of each club’s management over the past 20 years is similar though: the commitment to – mostly – attacking, entertaining football and a focus on developing young players in particular. No wonder then that Ferguson is so enthused when speaking of the Catalan club.
“Barcelona is the role model,” Ferguson told a conference in Qatar this week.
“I thought of the possibility of coaching there. It is a model for players and holds a philosophy that I like. It’s the model to follow
“The ideology, their philosophy – the whole thing is fantastic. I’d have loved to have gone to Barcelona at one time in my life. That would have been a dream.”
Had Ferguson taken the chance to coach in Barcelona he would not have been the first Brit to grace Camp Nou. Barça’s history is replete with a touch of British influence, from the club’s first director Walter Wild and the Parsons brothers in 1899, to Bobby Robson, Gary Linekar, Steve Archibald and Terry Venables in the 1980s and ’90s.
Barça’s history predicates the philosophy Ferguson so admires. While today’s side adheres to the tika-taka football that has become an obsession in Catalonia, it is the concept of the socio – the member – that has underpinned the club for more than a century. Today, as on the club’s foundation in 1899, each member has an equal vote in presidential elections, continuing founding member Joan Gamper’s vision of building a collective identity.
More than just football, much of Barça’s identity stems from a suspicion of centralism in Spanish politics, as much as the rivalry with Real Madrid. Those visiting Camp Nou cannot but be struck by the Catalan nationalism that pervades the club and the sense of cultural and political separation from the Castilian élite in Madrid.
In many ways this cultural decentralisation is mirrored in Manchester where supporters in spirit, if not structurally or politically, often feel a common identity. After all, the Republik of Mancunia banner than hangs from the Stretford End is more than a soliloquy to a common North West identity.
Structurally, United began in 1878 – as Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club – as a society too. Workers at the Carriage and Wagon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath were encouraged to play team games, not long codified in the nation’s public schools and popularised in folk culture.
The Heathens’ first pitch near railway sidings hosted, first, games against other local amateur sides then eventually more serious competition.
By 1886 the side was packed with what would later be recognised as professionals. Seeking election to the newly established Football League in 1888, Heath planned to extend its ground at North Road but, denied funding by the Railway Company, cut all ties to LYR and opened up membership to anybody who paid the annual fee.
It was perhaps the first occasion, but by certainly no means the last, that the club had cause to argue about its ownership.
By January 1902, with debts of £2,670, the club was served with a winding-up order and only saved from extinction at the last moment by prominent local businessmen. Newton Heath fell into private hands, became Manchester United and the modern club was born.
Indeed, that meeting on 24 April 1902 was, in retrospect, the last time United supporters had any real say in running the club.
In a week when the current American owners refinanced £243 million worth of debt – about a third of United’s total – the club’s history is brought into sharp focus. Not least the antipathetic manner in which the club’s management communications with its fans.
Of course, Barça’s ownership model is not a panacea for financial providence either but there is a level of openness that is long-gone in Manchester. Barça recently borrowed money to cover a cash shortfall that has built into a substantial debt and under a new presidency is seeking to establish a period of austerity at a club that generates £50 million more in revenues per season than United.
Debt is not the only the point though. Football’s history has shown that clubs cannot self-regulate: that surely is for governing bodies, which in the FA and UEFA, have too often been slow on the uptake.
What clubs can ensure, however, is that its supporters remain central to the cause – as they were in 1878 when United formed and ten years later when the club sought to expand – and as fans are today at Barça, even in the megalith that the club has become. Indeed, in 1957 Barça’s socios effectively paid for Camp Nou’s construction.
In recent years, Barça has superseded United in both on and off the pitch. While the Catalan side triumphed in the most recent meeting at the 2009 Champions League final, the club has also proven far more successful in developing younger players. Barça provided no less than six of Spain’s World Cup winning team in addition to Argentina’s Lionel Messi, who joined Barça’s famed La Masia, home of the club’s ‘La Cantera’ academy, aged 12.
By contrast, United’s policy has evolved from developing locally born or reared players, such as in the ‘class of ’92’, to importing younger players from rivals’ academies. Wes Brown, in 1998, was the last Mancunian to graduate from United’s academy and find a regular place in the first team side.
Financially, Barça has outstripped United in recent years too, despite the 70 per cent growth in revenues under the Glazer family. The Catalan giants sell their own TV rights, which is significant, but commercial revenues are also greater than those at Old Trafford. This without taking a shirt sponsor during the club’s history.
Yet, success on the pitch, in financial terms or in youth development, always filters back to the socio; the collective goal of the club based on members’ interests.
There is much to be admired – it’s a world away from the secretive debt-laden business model foisted on United by the Glazers. The family Ferguson so vociferously supports.
In that there is no little contradiction of course.