More than a Club, FC Barcelona and Camp Nou

The most popular tourist attraction in Barcelona is the Camp Nou.

The Camp Nou tour attracted 32 million tourists in 2016, 20 times more than the population of the city Barcelona, and that’s just people who visit (which does not include fans, just visitors to the city), the club has 159.9 million followers across social media platforms, arguably a better barometer of people who are more interested in the footballing fortunes of the club. FC Barcelona, it can be said is more than a club, it is a modern day commercial enterprise.

It’s footballers have become sporting icons across generations with superstars of the global game across generations: Samuel Eto’o, Carles Puyol, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Patrick Kluivert, Josep Guardiola, Romario, Ronaldo (the Brazilian), Thierry Henry, Michael Laudrup, Diego Maradona, Johann Cryuff and Hristo Stoichkov just to name the more recent ones. Even among this veritable list, there is one current player who stands out, that might have a claim of eclipsing most of them – Lionel Messi, a Argentinian Barcelona academy product.

Messi is so good, pundits and fans have inserted his name into the never-ending battle of crowning a greatest of all time (colloquially, the GOAT). And this is not a case of an overhyped player in an overcommercialised footballing era, few doubt that Messi has a legitimate case to be involved.

A lot of the footballing credit to Barcelona can also be given to its long-standing philosophy of training homegrown talent from its world renowned La Masia academy. It can be fairly argued that Spain’s 2010 World Cup victory was breed on the grounds of La Masia, which trains footballers in a unique style and philosophy of football (began and popularised by Laureano Ruiz and Johan Cruyff respectively)- something called the Barcelona way, that of Total Football/Tiki Taka.

Spain’s recent lean footballing years, have coincided with a recent shift in policy by the club leadership in Barcelona, to move away from the footballing roots into a global corporation, evinced by a loss of influence of the La Masia academy in promoting talented youngsters into the Barcelona side despite calls from fans to do so (here, here and here).

Beyond the players, the Barcelona stadium (the Camp Nou) is a footballing mecca that all football fans, regardless of allegiance, visit the city to go and pay homage to, a fact that enterprising businessmen are all to ready to exploit with stalls stocked with replica Barcelona jerseys all around town. It is a club that is perhaps more well known than the city, and has made the city globally famous in the modern day context.

Not everyone who visits is a Barcelona fan, but they sure will be influenced by the all-round Barcelona wave

A shop on the famous Las Ramblas street stocked with FC Barcelona memorabilia
The stadium is also one of the largest in the world with a capacity of 99,354, bettered only by the Rungrado May Day Stadium at a 150,000 capacity in Pyongyang, North Korea. Which makes this stadium the largest stadium in the elite footballing world.

And they sure know how to make your money, anything with the Barcelona logo slapped onto it is far game for selling – Nou Camp grass as a souvenir anyone? Yes grass.

Or what about a picture of yourself behind a green screen that you can buy on your way out of the trip?

Or what about a jersey?

You’d think with the excesses of sales they try to do and the rather overpriced tickets that Barcelona would be rolling in cash from all the little guys, and you would be wrong. Like all elite clubs today, barely a fifth of their revenue comes from matchday and stadium incomes (FC Barcelona had a revenue of 706 million euros as of June 2018 for that financial year 2017/18 financial year) most of it comes fro, commercial/sponsorship deals as well as tv revenue for when games are screened. It is these sources of income that enable the club to pay footballers like Messi up to 667,000 USD a week until 2021 including a 59.6 million USD signing bonus.

Barcelona, is more than a club, it is a business.

Only, Barcelona has always been more than a club.

Even before the era of mad money, Barcelona had come to stand for more than football, it was an identity, a political statement and a symbol of defiance.

Football was brought to Barcelona a Swiss football Joan Gamper (who was born in Winterthur and played for FC St Gallen). Camper then moved to Zurich for work and it was there that his love of football led him to get involved with the founding of FC Zurich. In 1899, as part of his work, Gamper was supposed to go down to Africa to assist his uncle with the founding of sugar trading companies there, Barcelona was a temporary port of call on his journey down. But Gamper fell in love with the city and decided to make his stay permanent. A few months after arriving Gamper out out an advertisement declaring his wish to form a football club. Football Club Barcelona was born. And the clubs history from humble to huge had began. A few years later, in 1902, another club was founded. It called itself Madrid FC and was bestowed the use of the title Real (Royal) by the king after the return of the monarchy in Spain in 1920.

Spain of the early 20th century as we discussed previously was a place of intense political contestation, with extreme left wing anarchists and right wing fascists competing for influence where they were shut out. The old Spanish empire was in the process of gradual breakup. An independence movement in Morocco had occurred in 1909 and the central government mandated that soldiers were to be reconscripted to fight in the war to establish colonial control over parts of Morocco. Among these was an infantry brigade of active ans reserve soliders from Catalonia. Of these were 520 soldiers who had retired from the military and did not expect to be brought back into a war. They were sent off with all the pompt and peagentry of Spainish society of the era – led by a Catholic oligarchy of religious, merchants and the poitical class. Barcelona was always considered more Catalan and progressive than Madrid in central Spain and this vision of extreme right wwing control, plus a war they had no desire to fight led the soliders to rebel. The soliders were aided by the anarchist, socialists and republicans in the city who went round trying to bring down the hierarchical leadership of the country. The rebellion was violenly put down in an event called the Tragic Week.

This highlighted the difference between Catalonia (Barcelona) and Castile (Madrid) and soon the football club too changed its official language from Castilan to Catalan. Barcelona became a symbol of the political left as well as Catalan identity. People began to support the club for more than footballing reasons. From then on, FC Barcelona had come to symbolise the defiance of the Catalan people against Madrid. In 1925, the crowd jeered the national anthem as a mark of protest against the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera forcing the club to close its grounds for 6 months. Gamper was forced stand down from the presidency of the club.

The identity wars continued and solidified in 1936 when, a month after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the president of FC Barcelona Josep Sunyol, who was also a politician of a pro-independence political party was assasinated by government troops. Catalan and the left wing lost the war and Spain was controlled by Facist dictator Francisco Franco. Franco banned the use to anything that promoted a non-Spanish identity with Catalan and the Catalan flag singled out for special treatment. Threatened but not cowed, the people of Barcelona began to fly the FC Barcelona flag as a sign of resistance. Franco had a team that he liked a lot – the Real Madrid, whom he allowed to sign foreign players while all other clubs were not allowed to. Barcelona say themselves as victims, and Real Madrid as oppressors. Thus began a political narrative of a footballing contest, one that has become the most watched match of the global footballing calendar – El Classico.

The juiciness of the contests is added by the fact that these two clubs have been and continue to be the most successful clubs in Spanish football by a clear mile.

Even into the recent past, after the reunification of Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid were still considered polar opposite, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Real Madrid flirted with an idea called the Galaticos (of buying superstars to play for them), while Barcelona represented the little guy and showed that success could be trained and not bought. The rivalry between the two clubs was for the last 5 years embodied in the persons of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the former a bankable good looking, foreign trained superstar and latter a shy, receeding, introverted superstar – frenemies.

Barcelona was more than a club long before it became the global franchise it is today. The situation has changed, the motive is perhaps more business than sport, and perhaps the FC Barcelona-Catalan identity is no more as strong as it once was but it still is mes que un club.


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