One of the more singular quirks of some football rivalries is an appropriation of the moral high ground by one club over another. It can be seen in some ways in the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, where the perception from the outside has long been of a near-bunker mentality at Ibrox. A similar situation exists in Spain, where Barcelona have, in recent years, become a symbol of something other than just football. FC Barcelona was in itself, long ago, a political statement. Camp Nou was, in Franco’s Spain, the only place where Catalan nationalist feeling could be openly expressed and, although it is now more than three decades since the general’s death, a sense remains that Barcelona stands for something “other”, while Real Madrid are the club of the establishment.
This is something that has been, to a degree, exploited by the club itself, particularly in recent years. The slogan “mes que un club” can be viewed through many prisms – as a political statement, a rallying cry to supporters or as a marketing slogan – but if it is taken, as many supporters do (whether rightly or wrongly) take it, as a claim to something approaching moral high ground, the club’s management seems likely to find out over the next few weeks that such a position can be a precarious ledge upon which to stand. Barcelona stand alone amongst what we could call European football’s “super-clubs” in being expected to make any sort of judgement calls over their financial affairs, and their decision to agree a paying sponsorship deal is being held up to scrutiny like almost no other clubs could be.
The reasons for the decision of the club to take such a decision are obvious enough. Barcelona are believed to be around £370m in debt, of which £65m was accrued last season alone. To manage this at a club with such a vast, global support is a fairly singular achievement, and the topsy-turviness of the club’s financial position was perhaps best summarised by them being unable to pay their wage bill on time at the end of June whilst spending over £30m on David Villa and attempting to spend the same again on Cesc Fabregas. There is no question of Barcelona becoming bankrupt – it seems impossible that anyone, be they a bank manager or whoever – would want to be charged with the job of being the man that closed one of the world’s great football clubs. The need for greater liquidity at Barcelona, however, is obvious and it is perhaps a reflection on new club president Sandro Rosell having a more realistic grip on the club’s situation than the previous incumbent, Joan Laporta.
Eyebrows have also been raised at the fact that the club’s new sponsors are the Qatar Foundation. Coming so soon after the decision to award that particular country the 2022 World Cup finals, this deal may be the beginning of a major charm offensive in Europe over the next few years. There has been talk that the Qataris are considering buying a Premier League football – although there is little of much substance to hang this rumour on at present – and we can probably expect more grand gestures over the next few years. Cynicism over any sentence that contains the words “Qatar” and “football” is likely at present, but it is worth pointing out that Barcelona, although the deal that they have agreed is massive, may well have managed to secure more from a commercial company if they had reached agreement with one, although one could just as reasonably argue that the Qatar Foundation may well have more money at their disposal than any company could afford to splash out on football shirt sponsorship in the current economic climate. There are merits to both sides of the argument.
Of course, Barcelona have been wearing names on their shirts for a considerable amount of time. The UNICEF deal may now come to be regarded as having been an exercise in softening up the club’s supporters for a deal of the sort just announced, and the rights or wrongs of this are neither here nor there. The case for the defence is obvious, that the UNICEF deal was arranged under a previous president, but Barcelona will probably just have to grin and bear such criticism. In addition to this, it is also worth pointing out that the names of Kappa and Nike have adorned their shirts for years. Barcelona could (and, should they deem it worthy of bothering, may well) argue that this is nowhere near being as big an issue as it is being reported as in the media.
Shirt sponsorship has become something of a totem in football. It has become so established that when clubs take to the pitch without sponsored shirts, many supporters seem tempted to ask, “Why haven’t they got sponsors? What’s wrong with them?”, rather than wondering whether any moral stance is being taken in not covering the most recognisable visual metaphor for whatever passes for the soul of a football club these days. An increasingly dwindling number of clubs – FC United of Manchester spring immediately to mind – will take this stance, and it is absolutely their right to. Barcelona, however, is a business as much as it is a football club and it seems that the financial tangle in which they have found themselves means that they were no longer in a position to be able to ignore such a lucrative income stream.
Ultimately, of course, principles do have a value and Barcelona’s decision to go with shirt sponsorship will come at a price, although that price isn’t easy to put a number upon. A proportion of the club’s support (possibly large, possibly not) are likely to be disgruntled by the decision, though they will be likely to be somewhat pacified if Lionel Messi et al can continue the stunning form that they have shown on the pitch this season and the club ends 2010/11 with the Spanish league title and/or the UEFA Champions League. Perhaps, though, the matter of Barcelona accepting shirt sponsorship should be judged upon how the club uses the money that they get from it. If they use this money to pay down their indebtedness, then there are definite grounds for considering it a positive development for the club and the game in general. If it ends up being thrown on the eternal bonfire of inflated wages, transfer fees and agents fees, however, then there may well be grounds for saying that in Barcelona are no “better” than the rest.
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