Fútbol Club Barcelona, more than a club

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Through this particularly difficult moment of time of its history, Fútbol Club Barcelona appears a team that is coming back slowly. The financial pains and turmoil in the last couple of years that the club has endured —almost heroically— through the painful departure of arguably the best footballer ever in Lionel Messi, and the reduction of salaries of big figures of the team like Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba. Xavi, the former midfielder of the Barcelona team that won the treble in the 2008-2009 season, returned to manage the club for which he had already given so many years of his life. As a player, he joined the club’s academy as an eleven year-old, and left when he was 35.

This tendency to gravitate towards the club that was once a player’s home is not a one-off. Before Xavi, Ernesto Valverde, Luis Enrique, Josep Guardiola, and Johan Cruyff all were players that went on to coach the Catalan giants. This is because since Johan Cruyff’s tenure as coach, a sporting culture was instilled in the club that has lived ever since. This culture —that some know as “ADN Barça” (Barça DNA), tiki taka (an attempt to give sound to the passing patterns of the team), or cruyffismo— is seen on a soccer field as, basically, the constant hoarding of the ball.

Understanding this culture is important to the FC Barcelona politics (yes, politics, because it is a club owned by fans, who elect the president and the board). Some are opposed to Johan Cruyff’s legacy, and some swear in its name. The current president, Joan Laporta, can be characterized as part of the latter given that he was close to Cruyff. During first presidency (2003-2010) he allowed the Dutch legend to advise him, and thus, usher in the Guardiola era —the most successful period in the club’s history—. He was elected again in 2021 after a hiatus, and he once again has surrounded himself with ‘Cruyffists’. His son, Jordi, is a counselor. Ronald Koeman was dismissed as a coach after a horrendous start to the season, and Xavi was appointed. The newly appointed coach, having been a part of the academy during Cruyff’s years, has been molded by this style of play. The sole appointment of Xavi is a declaration of intent.

Still though, how does a sports organization survive such a catastrophic economic outlook? The club’s motto ‘Mes que un club’ (More than a club, in Catalan) holds some clues. It is an institution that is deeply attached to Catalan identity and culture. So let’s take quick look at the history of the club to see how it has achieved greatness, and what allows it to withstand such financial pressures.

The history

The club was founded on November 29, 1899 by 12 soccer fans. These fans were assembled via a newspaper ad by Hans Gamper —a Swiss national who wanted organize matches with fellow enthusiasts—. By the decade of the 1910s, it was able to win two Cups of Spain and one Cup of the Pyrenees. But more importantly, it had 3,000 members. It was one of the most popular societies of Catalonia.

The 1920s were the first golden age for the club. Barcelona went from having 3,000 members to 120,000. They moved from their Calle Industria stadium, to Camp Les Corts —the first club stadium with a seating capacity for 30,000 fans—. The club won four Cups of Spain and the first ever Spanish La Liga as well, to cement a place in the Spanish soccer landscape.

However, these were the years that would also make the club the identitarian institution for the Catalans. Spanish dictator Primo Rivera forced the closure of Camps Les Corts due to the hissing that the Spanish national anthem was met with prior to a game. Hans Gamper was forced to resign from the presidency.

These were a sign of the gloom that was to come in the following decade. A new Spanish Constitution was approved in 1931, which ushered a Republican State. To be unfairly succinct, tensions arose due to left-wing governments and enacting for policies that were reverted by the subsequent right-wing government.  On the sporting front, in the 1933-1934 —due to poor results in the league— Barcelona barely avoided demotion to the second tier competition. But it was on the institutional side of things that the situation would worsen. A lot. At the time of the start of the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona had as president Josep Suñol, who was also a politician for Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya —a left-wing party that seeks the independence of all territories where that share Catalan language, history and culture—. He was captured and killed by the revolted, nationalist side of the war.

Of course, this translated in a drop of club members. The war was sufficient to interrupt La Liga. And people had to deal with things more important than soccer. But being the identitarian symbol that FC Barcelona was, and given the hostility that nationalist side of the war had for Catalan sentiment, the club was taken over by a proxies of Francisco Franco —the leader of the revolted side that won the Spanish Civil War— that went on to suppress all Catalan and Anglo-Saxon symbology. Most notably, the team was renamed as “Club de Fútbol Barcelona”, instead of “Football Club Barcelona”. This constant clash with Spanish powers only made the club rivalry with Real Madrid (favored by the political establishment) more bitter and transcend what happened on the pitch. It’s not only a soccer rivalry, but a stage where Catalan identity confronts the Spanish political establishment, who tend to have a preference for Real Madrid.

Anyway, the club was able to come back and restore little by little its membership. By the 1950, Laszlo Kubala was signed. The Hungarian was among the best players of his time, and gave Barcelona every trophy available except the European Cup.

Now, let’s jump forward to 1973. A certain Johan Cruyff heard that his club, Ajax Amsterdam was negotiating his move to Real Madrid —Barcelona’s maximum rivals—. But given his rebel nature, he refused the move. And he decided to go to Barcelona. The Dutch arrived and immediately made his presence felt, leading the team into end a 14 year-long league title drought. Cruyff assimilated into the Catalan culture so much, that he decided to name his third son Jordi. This is very important to note, because he was the first Jordi (the Catalan version of George) to be registered during years of Francisco Franco. He recalls fighting with bureaucrat, because they insisted on there not being such a thing as Jordi, only Jorge. But given that the Jordi was born in Amsterdam, Johan told them to just copy the name, because that was the name that was on his papers. According to Johan Cruyff, his son became the first person to be registered with the Catalan name in Franco’s Spain. 

The same year that Johan Cruyff left Barcelona (1978), in came a new president: José Luis Núñez. He became the longest serving president, and retained office until the year 2000. He signed players of great prestige, like Maradona, Bernd Schuster and Gary Lineker. But he was known for being a tough negotiator which led to outgoings of said great players (think of Ronaldo, Laudrup, and Stoichkov). In the year 1988, Núñez decided to bring Cruyff as a coach. The style that Cruyff brought in was built upon what he learned from his mentor, Rinus Michels. If Cruyff, as a player, marveled the world for playing “total football” with the Dutch national team, then that was what he would bring to Barcelona.

His tenure as coach cannot be understated. After a difficult first couple of seasons, he managed to turn things around and was able to give FC Barcelona its first European Cup, while also playing a very entertaining brand of football. His legacy runs so deep, that his style of football became something of an organizational culture. The club managed to bring through the academy known as La Masía players like Guardiola and Iván de la Peña, then Xavi, Iniesta and Carles Puyol, and of course, Lionel Messi. The club went on to win four Champions Leagues (the rebranded European Cup) in 2006, 2009, and 2015. All of these triumphs came with styles that were in the Cruyff mold. Anyways, when results started to go the wrong way, Núñez fired Cruyff at the end of the 1995-1996 season. And that’s where the current politics of the of FC Barcelona were bred. A divide between nuñistas and and cruyffistas appeared. 

And so, there’s been presidencies where Cruyff’s possession tenets were abandoned. Like the Joan Gaspart one, right after the resignation of Núñez. Then came Joan Laporta, close friend of Cruyff, who allowed the Dutch to counsel him and reaping great benefits. With Sandro Rosell (who wanted Cruyff gone from Barcelona when he worked with Laporta) and Josep María Bartomeu, the club strayed from what Cruyff wanted, although not explicitly.

The crisis

Now, during those years of Rosell and Bartomeu, the club made some lavish signings that went on to create the financial issues. Let’s start with Neymar, who was supposedly brought in for 60 million euros, and then it was proven to be closer to 100 million euros. After PSG paid the release clause of 222 million euros of the Brazilian, the club found itself with great amounts of cash. So they just went ahead and squandered it. Ousmane Dembele, Phillipe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann, came to the club. All in exchange of well above 100 million euros plus variables. And all of it while giving contracts that had clauses that made the players better paid with each passing season. With the club doing worse and worse on the pitch —all the while paying the highest wages in Europe— plus the COVID-19 pandemic that hit hard on the finances, one can imagine the situation becoming extremely dire. The club was beyond the recommended limit of 70% of income that can be used for wages and amortizations. But because the income was so big, it was sustainable. Now, not so much.

Ferrán Reverter, the former CEO, said that if the club was a SAD (Anonymous Sports Society, that is, for-profit and not fan owned) it would have had to declare bankruptcy. The club’s net worth was negative (-€450 million), with a massive debt (€1,350 million). And of course, there is the question of the recently announced investigation into the former president’s use of the club’s money by the prosecutor’s office. Barcelona has had an extremely difficult time making signings official. They have had to comply with La Liga’s salary limit which has been set at €97 million (with Barcelona currently at €420 million). Just for comparison’s sake, Real Madrid’s is €739 millions.

Not everything is gloom and doom. The team is performing more akin to the principles that have brought success. And even though the wage bill is still way above what it should be, there have been major cuts. €150 millions since Laporta came in. 

With the return of Xavi, Laporta and Jordi Cruyff, there is promise that the economy can be healed, like Laporta did when he was elected all those years ago in 2003. Using academy players (such as Nico, Gavi, Abde, Mingueza), a tenet of Cruyff’s legacy, and better results on the pitch, the team will surely attract new sponsorships and audiences. In the end, it’s that idea that this is more than a club that will allow the club to survive. 

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