First it was just a logo. Not a commercial one of course, and it was certainly presented as being an altruistic move. Whilst other clubs were selling their shirt space, donating yours to charity seemed a statement of intent. Perhaps. Whatever the reasoning however, it was an opening of the door. Now the name emblazoned across the famous blaugrana shirt is ‘Qatar.’ Commercial without a doubt.
From that arguably small beginning, greater indiscretions now seem on the horizon. Indications are that the club’s new kit for next season will see a change from the traditional vertical stripes that have been synonymous with the football flagship of Catalunya, to a hooped version. Still the same colours, but with a totally different slant, as it were. Barcelona project themselves as being ‘Mes que en club.’ More than a club? Yes, but perhaps not in the way they initially intended. Very much a commercial organisation as well, now it seems, just like almost any other club.
A few days ago, the front page of Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo carried a leaked image of the new hooped shirt with the headline “No Gusta!” (No thanks). It reported that of Barca fans sureveyed, 78% objected to the new shirt. Of course changing the club’s shirt for each season has now become commonplace, but these things are always a matter of fact and degree. Over recent years, versions have featured both wider stripes and narrower ones. One season there was a shirt with mismatched sleeves. Fans tolerated these, as the barely acceptable face of keeping the money flowing into the club’s coffers. Tweaks are one thing. Adding a yellow collar here and a different trim there is one thing, so long as the basic identity is untarnished.
The Nike offering for the new season however looks like one particular hoop the fans may not be prepared to jump through. FC Barcelona may be owned by its Socios (members), but in this instance, the directors of the club appear to have decided that the commercial imperative outweighs the view of many tens of thousands of season ticket holders.
In fairness, it’s difficult to criticise the move with even the slightest of regard to reality. Reports suggest that the club is currently some half a billion euros in debt, and operates a business plan that accepts the need for annual losses of eye-watering magnitudes, in order to keep Barcelona endowed with the blessed talents they can put out onto the pitch. One wonders how such economics escape the all-seeing eyes of Platini’s FFP strictures.
The problem is of course that for Barcelona, there’s a need to maintain an ethos that belongs to a different age. The ‘Mes que en club’ approach is explained on the club’s website, defining it as “an institution rooted in its community, one whose primary purpose is to support and promote Catalan identity.”
The reality though is that the days of Catalunya being oppressed as in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, are long gone, although independence for the region is back on the political agenda once more. No-one now surely believes any more that the “primary purpose” of the club has anything to do with promoting “Catalan identity.” The primary purpose is surely to be successful on the field, and if this adds to the Catalan glory, then so much the better. Even during the recent referendum about independence for the region, the club kept its own counsel, offering no opinion or advice, although a number of their Catalan-born players came out heavily in support.
Recognition of this reality makes understanding the club’s acceptance of Nike’s hooped version of the shirt entirely plausible. For many years now, the Barca constitution ensuring members ownership of the club, and the refusal to pollute their shirts with commercial logos, allowed their fans to adopt a smug superiority, looking down their noses at other clubs who scrambled around to accumulate necessary funding from less and less palatable sources. Dough-based snack partners, et al. As with the espousing of Catalan oppression however, this looks very much a thing of the past for any objective observer.
Eating at the top table of European football in these days of ubiquitous financial influence, requires a taste for the most expensive of A la Carte menus and the cost that this demands is an inevitable consequence. Such is the voracious appetite of clubs at this level for money that many, even Barcelona, are prepared to sell anything – perhaps even the soul of the club.
Having visited the Camp Nou for games on a number of occasions, I can confirm that the Senyaras (Catalan flags) still fly in abundance, and many of them also have the blue triangle and white star of an independent Catalunya. That the club is primarily an expression and promoter of Catalan identity however is perhaps a little fanciful. That it is some kind of enterprise that looks down with disdain on the plethora of other clubs that are prey to financial reality, probably also falls into the same category. For the fans and Socios alike, the new shirt may just be the signal to recognise this.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘theaspirer’ website).