Barcelona Have Lost Moral High Ground

Decision to change famous kit is proof that Spanish giants are now as willing to cash in as any club.

Published: 05th December 2014 10:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th December 2014 10:49 AM   |  A+A-


Even with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in the team, a growing number of Barcelona fans are restless for change. AP

Decision to change famous kit is proof that Spanish giants are now as willing to cash in as any club

The front page of the Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo this week was unequivocal.

"No Gusta" ran the headline above a picture of Barcelona's new home shirt to be worn next season. Though No Thanks was probably a lot more polite than most reactions when fans saw the design. Instead of the traditional vertical red and blue stripes, the new shirt has gone all horizontal. Seventy-eight per cent of those Barca fans questioned by the paper were against the concept of tinkering with the stripe, fulminating about the insult to tradition. Hoop dreams this was not.

Getting shirty about a change of football kit seems an entirely first-world problem. Not to mention a battle that was long ago lost. In the endless pursuit of the pound in the fans' pockets, clubs change outfits more often than Tiger Woods changes his swing. Every season, marketing departments emerge with twists on old concepts, replete with fashion babble about breathable, wicking yarns for superior moisture management. Or, in the case of Cardiff City, featuring an entirely new colour.

Yet for Barcelona to be quite so cavalier with their own tradition is a depressing marker of where the game now stands. This, after all, is Barcelona, the outfit whose very motto - written large across the seating at the Nou Camp - boasts that they are mes que un club. Their own website explains that this expression of being more than a club means it is an institution rooted in its community, one whose primary purpose is to support and promote Catalan identity.

And for generations, that has gifted the club a certain moral superiority. Owned by their members, they could look down with disdain on those engaged in the grubby process of trying to extract cash from their supporters. For decades Barcelona refused to allow advertising to besmirch the front of the team shirt. Even when, in 2006, they finally allowed a logo to join the club crest, it was that of Unicef. What a telling gesture that was: while others sold their soul to the highest bidder, Barca gave their space to charity.

How things have changed. These days Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are weekly ambassadors for Qatar, cheerfully giving up the most iconic advertising space in the world of sport to promote the state airline of a country which utterly undermined the integrity of football's grandest competition, the World Cup. Now no different from their hated rivals in Madrid, they are as shameless an advertising hoarding as the rest of world football.

And the change of shirt design is an indication of how far they have slipped into the cesspool long occupied by their rivals. Even those involved in the brutally Darwinian economics of baseball treat the playing uniform as sacrosanct, refusing to carry commercial logos and retaining long-standing designs. Barca, though, can no longer afford such niceties. This is about economics. Despite having the second largest annual income in the world game, despite earning 10 times the television revenue of the side finishing bottom of La Liga, they trade at an eye-watering annual loss. Currently they are hamstrung by debt totalling half a billion euros. If their commercial partners at Nike are advising that hoops will sell, who are they to argue? Sell away.

But then maybe we should not be surprised. This, after all, is an outfit prepared to compromise its finest asset, La Masia, where so many of the best players in the world learnt their craft. In part it was the grandeur of La Masia that allowed the club to adopt a haughty disdain of those who bought success rather than develop their own.

Yet, even there all is not as it seemed: the academy's primary ambition to develop local Catalan talent was long ago subverted in pursuit of profit. Fifa imposed a two-window transfer ban on Barca over concerns about the international transfer of minors. The worry was that there was institutionalised disregard of rules drawn up to protect young players' welfare. And when Fifa finds your activity indefensible, you really do know the moral high ground has been lost.

Barcelona's reaction to the charge was to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. During the process of appeal the transfer ban was suspended, a reprieve the club celebrated by spending pounds 128?million this summer. Today (Friday) the CAS will announce its findings and Barca will discover whether they can bring in new players next month. If the club win, doubtless the arrivals will be pictured in the new hooped shirt.

That is the sadness of this week in the life of Barcelona: these days they have demonstrated they are no different from the rest. More than a club indeed.


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