By Bobby Mohr
Young football fans of a certain age, particularly in the United States, are for the most part cule unsurprisingly. They’ve forged their tastes for a footballing allegiance in virtually back-to-back epochs of Barcelona dominance, only separated by a forgettable year under Tata Martino. If you ask ten kids at a U-11 training session who their favorite player is, seven will say Messi. Sure, Real Madrid won their elusive la décima (tenth European Cup) after 12 years of waiting in 2014 and Bayern Munich have re-achieved their status of continental juggernauts to large effect, but in the last decade Barcelona have recaptured the imagination of the beautiful game and its worldwide fan base by the means of consistent on-the-field excellence. The trouble is many of these new Barcelona fans of the current generation will be too young or too infatuated to decipher that the values of the Luis Enrique team of today are in stark contrast from the Pep Guardiola team that laid the foundation for this continued adoration. I mean to speak of these managers in terms of their eras more than their influence. But these fans, some are star-struck by the success and blinded by the questionable means that it took to preserve. Some critics might even go as far to say that the Barcelona of today have sold their soul to maintain their medal-collecting frequency. As for those that already have a grasp on what I’m about to explain, they’ll either stop reading here or slip into a fit of rage denial for the exposure of such blasphemy. Either way, at The Away End we’ve never been afraid to throw gasoline on a fire.
NOV. 25 2012 – For the first time in history Barcelona field eleven la masia academy products after the Brazilian Dani Alves, the only exception, goes off injured in the 14th minute of an away fixture at Levante. Manager Tito Vilanova replaces him with the Catalan Martin Montoya and Barcelona win 4-0. This would be a triumph the late Tito Vilanova would never receive a trophy for, but an act that would be championed by not only the fans of Barcelona but Catalonia as a whole. The vision of an army of canteranos being groomed for a place in the first team, however, belonged to Pep Guardiola. Pep prized la masia as an indispensable asset to the club in his tenure as coach, giving debuts to countless local boys. The preceding 2011/12 campaign was Guardiola’s last of four seasons in charge at the Nou Camp, all the while overseeing the fall of countless records, none more impressive than the first ever team to win six trophies in a calendar year (2009). Four swift seasons would see an astonishing 14 trophies added to the Barcelona cabinet, and it would give off the impression that the Catalan culture that permeated the region’s flagship club was in some way genetically superior in all facets to its competitors. We’re talking about probably the best club side in history that was built on the foundation of cultivated local talent. It was a proud time to be Catalan and by extension a proud time to support Barca.
As natural as it is unfortunate, this invited blaugrana fans to joyfully admonish their eternal adversaries, Real Madrid, with barbs of borderline ethnocentric morality slogans because Real had used their power and pockets to attract superstars that they themselves could not produce, obviously without end product. “Real Madrid buy the best players in the world; Barcelona create them,’ was a popular Twitter argument. And for all the nastiness that may have resulted between fans of the two clubs because of such gloating, the truth is Barcelona fans were right. Real’s galácticos were simply no match for Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Pique, etc.
Barcelona were even boasting the moral high ground on the shirt sponsorship forefront. Where the front of the Real Madrid kit had been long bought out by betting companies and airline industries, between 2006 and 2011 Barcelona were actually paying UNICEF to promote their philanthropic logo on the front of their kits (still are but we’ll get to that later), the first time a logo of affiliation had appeared anywhere on the famous blue and red stripes. Now, who couldn’t love a group of in-house humanitarians that also happen to play scintillating football and host world’s best player? Very few. And so was born Barcelona the good guys, an image that still sticks even when some of these basic principles of the club’s appeal have now been lost.
An 18-month transfer ban - That’s the last thing Barcelona needed in the summer of 2014 after completing their first season without a trophy since 2008. FIFA had slapped the world’s team with a stiff punishment after unearthing irregularities regarding the club’s youth transfers to bolster the talent pool of their famous la masia. Moreover, the club was starting to feel the heat of their rivals, Real Madrid, who finally lifted their marquee tenth European Cup that May. In order to compete with their adversaries from the capital in the next campaign Barcelona needed to improve the squad but could not dip into the market. Following the news of their castigation, the Nou Camp unveiled a banner at a home match that read “LA MASIA NO ES TOCA,” (La Masia isn’t touched) as if they had all the talent they needed just waiting in the ranks of the academy. And people truly believed the next Messi or Xavi was already waiting to be deployed. That would not prove to be the case. So a plot was hatched. By appealing the ban, a well-known fool’s errand, the buffer period would allow the club to briefly spend big, like a squirrel storing nuts for three winters. In other words, Barca had found a loophole.
The club utilized 166 million euros to sign players while waiting for the ban appeal to knowingly be denied, including a deal for megastar Luis Suárez, who Liverpool couldn’t refuse an offer for after the third biting incident of the Uruguayan’s career at the World Cup in Brazil. Essentially the punishment served no purpose at Barcelona and the loophole allowed Barca to assemble a fantastic team, one that won the club a second treble in the resulting season. Four of those loophole signings (Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitić, Marc-André Ter Stegen, and Jérémy Mathieu) played a part in the 2015 Champions League final against Juventus, three started, and two scored. The remaining Barcelona goal was scored by Neymar, whose transfer price was fabricated for alleged tax benefits to almost half of what Barcelona actually paid for the Brazilian in 2013. So in the 2013 summer transfer window (with the actual Neymar price) and loophole window of 2014 Barcelona spent upward of 250 million euros on personnel. If that’s not “galáctico” spending, I’m not sure what is. What ever happened to “La masia no es toca,” and “…Barcelona create them (the best players in the world)?” The club would eventually find a second loophole that allowed them to sign as many players as they would like, only the players wouldn’t be registered to play until the ban ended this past January, as was the case with Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal.
In regards to the shirt sponsorship, UNICEF’s logo is still intact. Only it has been relegated to an on-shirt tramp stamp below the number on the back of the kit. The airline conglomerate Qatar Airways now occupies the breast of one of Earth’s most recognizable kits and a second corporate sponsor, Beko, has bought their way onto the jersey’s sleeve. When the Qatar Foundation (not to be confused with Qatar Airways) first bought a space on the kit six years ago, club legend Johan Cruyff was outraged. “We have sold this uniqueness for about six per cent of our budget. I understand that we are currently losing more than we are earning. However, by selling the shirt it shows me that we are not being creative, and that we have become vulgar…If things are so bad, then we should cut out the deal we have with UNICEF, and all the values it represents, because we pay them to carry the logo on our shirts.” The Dutchman also remarked that the club’s slogan, més que un club (more than a club), now might as well be “just another club.”
To recap the regrettable transformation of FC Barcelona, the club has forfeited the idea that they produce the best players in the world while other big clubs use their revenue to purchase them. Sergi Busquets who debuted in the first team in 2008 is the last promoted player from Barcelona B to earn a regular starting to role in the full team. The most influential additions to the team since have all been transferred in or have been la masia products sold off for profit. The club has also been pinned with and sneakily tiptoed around their punishment of a FIFA-imposed transfer ban for discrepancies with their youth transfers. The ban might as well never have been implemented. The addition of the players bought after the ban’s announcement helped the club remarkably in the quest for their treble of 2014/15. In addition, the Barcelona shirt is no longer free of commercial stains. In fact, it now plays host to more sponsors than most shirts in the modern game. Is the success rekindled in the Luis Enrique era worth giving up essential make up of the FC Barcelona DNA?
Now if you’re a Barcelona fan and have made it this far in the article, there’s a chance your knee jerk reaction would be to point out that Real Madrid have always spent ungodly amounts of cash on players and that they’ve recently been hit with the same transfer ban for the same reasons and are just as likely to con their way through it as well. But as I’m sure Mr. Cruyff will agree, this problem isn’t about Real Madrid. It’s about preserving the unique identity of FC Barcelona, regardless of the evils of a competitor. What make’s Barcelona Barcelona is what sets them apart from the perceived sins of Madrid, not what makes them the same. Being the best often comes with sacrifice. Have Barcelona sacrificed too much?