Barcelona is no longer ‘Més que un club’

My, you’ve changed.

Maybe it’s the marginalizing of your UNICEF sponsorship in favor of Qatar boosterism. Or that you bought Luis Suárez – for $120 million! Could be the 14-month FIFA transfer ban for breaking transfer rules over the signing of international players.

Maybe the allegations of misappropriated funds and tax evasion surrounding Neymar’s signing, prompting the resignation of your president. The way defender Eric Abidal was shown the door after his recovery from liver cancer. Or simply that these days the team’s as likely to include a high-price foreign import as a La Masia graduate.

When you’re at the top, the only way is down. There would have been a Barcelona backlash at some point no matter what, even if the club had announced a plan to buy a cute puppy for every sick kid in the world.

But this isn’t some fashionable ironic reversal of popular convention, like hipsters deciding that gin is the new craft beer or that George W. Bush is cool. It’s not denying that change is a constant in soccer and that clubs have a right to adapt as they pursue their primary goal: winning. It’s about analysis of a conscious, money-oriented policy shift mainly initiated by ex-president Sandro Rosell, who quit in January after the Neymar controversy broke, though he denied wrongdoing.

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It’s about watching Barcelona play Real Madrid this coming Saturday and realizing that the biggest difference between the clubs is the color of their uniforms. That the Clásico is now galácticos vs galácticos. Heck, even Barca’s new manager, Luis Enrique, played for both clubs.

No one can still truly believe that Barcelona’s values are as pure as its playing style. Like its greatest rivals and other European powers, Barça has become a star-fueled superclub with global ambitions.

It’s unfair to heavily criticize Barcelona for relegating UNICEF’s logo from the front to the back of their jerseys; after all, the original deal that saw the club pay the United Nations Children’s Fund was a remarkable act of altruism. And Barça are still contributing $2 million a year.

Despite the club’s argument that its colossal debts had to be paid off somehow, changing that shirt-front sponsorship was always going to feel like selling out, especially when Qatar came in. True, the Qatar Foundation is a charitable organization – but one with very close links to that country’s government. And why exactly would a Qatari foundation want to pay a fortune to sponsor a Spanish soccer club, anyway? What’s in it for them? Turning Barça into a tool for that state’s nation-building and promotion through soccer, amid disturbing claims of abuses of migrant workers.

Former manager Pep Guardiola was an ambassador for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid, won in murky circumstances. Then, in 2013, two years into a five-year deal worth $40 million annually, the club announced that Qatar Airways – certainly not a charity – would be the new name on their jerseys. It marked the definitive collapse of the moral high ground for a club that had previously avoided this form of corporate sponsorship.

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The partnership produced this expensive-looking “FC Barcelona land” advert.

The club already had a land. It’s called Catalonia, the independent-minded region that is making increasingly loud noises about breaking away from Spain, using the Nou Camp as a sort of unofficial campaign headquarters.

Despite its continued and distinctive role in regional politics, Barcelona has become a global brand that embraces the kind of relentless corporate shilling that got Manchester United a bad name among fans. Is it worth it, given that seeming to remain aloof from the tawdry capitalist feeding frenzy was in itself a really smart business strategy; the “unique selling point” of a brand-builder’s dreams?

Take last December’s deal with Intel that sees the company’s logo appear on the inside of jerseys: turning the lifting up of a player’s shirt after scoring a goal into a cynical corporate act. Then the club stuck the name of BEKO, a Turkish appliances manufacturer, on their sleeves. Check out this from BEKO’s website:

“FC Barcelona’s motto ‘Més que un club’ (More than a club) signifies their commitment to their fans and the wider community. Like them, BEKO continues to strive to make a difference to people’s lives through the constant pursuit of innovation and quest to be more, do more and achieve more.”

So the famous mantra — born from Barca’s special place in Catalan culture, and now referring to the club’s commitment to make a positive contribution to the wider world — is being used to sell fridges. Words designed to position the club as distinct from its rivals are now in the service of bland globalized corporate-speak: confirming similarity, not difference.

The club of Catalan independence is now the club of economic dependence. It’s not that Barça’s become worse than the rest; it’s that they’ve become like the rest.