From UNICEF to Rakuten – How FC Barcelona sold its soul

Barcelona have historically been a socially conscious club.
Barcelona have historically been a socially conscious club.
Raj Das

Since their inception in 1899, FC Barcelona have been known for their commitment to cause outside the football field. The club, which is a symbol of Catalan resistance, was actively engaged in anti-Fascist stances against the dictator General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

As a club, Barcelona have always been known for their charitable outlook. Over the years, they have shown significant commitment for social causes like the protection of young children from critical illnesses and sending messages of support for Ecuadorian earthquake victims.

In 2008, Barcelona launched the Més campaign in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It was an attempt to raise funds to help refugee children receive education and realise their sporting aspirations.

The name 'Més' has been inspired by Barcelona's motto Més que un club or ‘More than a club’.

More than a club – that is what FC Barcelona stands for, or at least that is what we are supposed to believe. In truth, Barcelona do more for social causes than most other clubs.

However, what makes the Catalan giants very different from almost all other clubs is that they did not have a jersey sponsor for many years into the 21st century.

Barcelona have lagged behind Real Madrid in promoting themselves as a brand

Real Madrid have always been conscious about their brand image. Here, we see Bwin, a betting company as their shirt sponsor.
Real Madrid have always been conscious about their brand image. Here, we see Bwin, a betting company as their shirt sponsor.

Since its inception, Barcelona have had the identity of a ‘social club’. It is in stark contrast to their great rivals Real Madrid who have always taken their business model seriously.

In other words, Barcelona have been negligent in mapping the business aspect of the club when most other top European teams have always been clear about their financial goals.

Real Madrid had their first jersey sponsor in 1982, aeons before Barcelona would even think about such an approach. That year, Zanussi, an Italian company specialising in home appliances, became Real Madrid’s first sponsor. The deal between the two parties continued for the next two years.

The Madrid club’s next two sponsors were Parmalat, a dairy and food company, again from Italy and Otaysa, a Spanish automobile company.

It was also the time when German giants Adidas became Real Madrid’s kit manufacturers. In stark contrast, Barcelona had Meyba, a local textile company founded in 1940.

What becomes clear, therefore, is that the then six-time European Cup winners were taking small, baby steps towards transforming Real Madrid into a global brand, an appealing conglomerate that achieved success not only through its football but also in its yearly financial statements.

Barcelona instead tied up with UNICEF in 2006. It was an unprecedented gesture by any football club.

The Blaugrana wear the UNICEF logo on their jersey, not because they receive any fee from the global body, but as a testament to the club standing shoulder to shoulder with UNICEF in their commitment to the welfare of children worldwide.

Carles Puyol wearing a Barcelona shirt with the UNICEF logo
Carles Puyol wearing a Barcelona shirt with the UNICEF logo

The partnership with Barcelona has yielded € 19 million in revenue for global UNICEF programmes that has been spent on providing more than 1.5 million children with access to quality education, sport, as well as programmes to protect children from deadly diseases.

Early steps taken by Barcelona to manage their finances

Jose Luis Nunez built Barcelona’s La Masia academy.
Jose Luis Nunez built Barcelona’s La Masia academy.

When he came to power in 1978, Barcelona president Jose Luis Nunez understood the importance of being financially conservative.

Unlike their six-time European Cup-winning rivals Real Madrid, Barcelona were a club still struggling with the after-effects of the Second World War and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Real Madrid had the favour of the dictator, and was generally regarded as the pro-fascist club, sentiments that can still be seen today.

Nunez came to power as Barcelona president three years after the death of Franco and set about realising his life’s greatest mission - rebuild his beloved Barcelona.

To reduce financial burden, he initiated a plan to build a farmhouse-school to nurture young players who could one day play for the first team. It was called La Masia. The word Masia means ‘farmhouse’ in Catalan.

The objective of developing the youth academy was to help avoid Barcelona buying players from other clubs at exorbitant prices.

Nunez, though, was also adamant about not increasing players’ wages. He infamously declined to provide an improved offer to Diego Maradona in 1984, the best player in the world at the time.

If Nunez was a miser, he was forced to be so. He had the long-term interests of Barcelona in mind and was ready to sacrifice short-term success. His building of the La Masia youth academy proved to be the greatest singular contribution by a Barcelona president in the club’s history.

Only Joan Laporta’s appointment of Pep Guardiola as the first team manager in 2008 comes close in significance. Indeed, Guardiola benefitted enormously from the La Masia academy.

How Barcelona sold its soul

Neymar was unveiled at the Nou Camp. He wore a Qatar Airways-sponsored jersey.
Neymar was unveiled at the Nou Camp. He wore a Qatar Airways-sponsored jersey.

Barcelona did not have a main jersey sponsor till 2006, a staggering 107 years after the club’s inception.

But when they finally did have a shirt sponsor, it was UNICEF. But instead of generating revenue through the deal, it was a move to raise money for the Children’s Fund.

In fact, 2016 marked the 10th anniversary of the partnership, in which the Catalan giants increased their financial commitment from €1.5 million to €2 million per year.

However, things have changed recently.

For much of their history, the Catalan club have been underachievers, compared with their arch-rivals Real Madrid. However, the success of Pep Guardiola, and the rise of Lionel Messi propelled the Blaugrana chiefs to take some bold decisions.

In 2010, Barcelona signed the most lucrative sponsor deal in the sport’s history with Qatar Foundation. It was a deal that was potentially worth €150 million and was called a ‘remarkable milestone’ by senior club executives.

Barcelona now wanted to compete with Real Madrid in the financial ball-game.

In 2016, the club signed a four-year deal with Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten that would net the Catalan giants a generous $58 million in annual revenue.

Barcelona are today sponsored by Rakuten.
Barcelona are today sponsored by Rakuten.

Next came Qatar Airways and Beko, a Turkish consumer electronics brand.

The message was clear – there would no longer be mere charity. Deals were now signed to elevate Barcelona’s financial stature by leveraging the impressive achievements on the football field.

From being a ‘social club’, Barcelona were taking decisive steps towards making them a profitable business organisation, which is what necessarily all football clubs are.

It was Sandro Rosell, the predecessor of Josep Maria Bartomeu, who began the implementation of these changes. After Rosell assumed power in 2010, his first task was to shift Barcelona away from their age-old models and turn them into a money-making super club.

Some of the decisions taken by him are worthy of investigation.

The way in which Neymar Jr. was brought in from Santos raised eyebrows. Rosell was later jailed in 2017 for the misuse of club funds during the process of signing the Brazilian star.

During Rossel’s presidency, Barcelona’s focus shifted away from promoting academy players by creating their version of the Galactico project, which is essentially buying big-name superstars from other clubs at mouth-watering transfer fees.

Josep Maria Bartomeu, who was the vice-president under Rosell, continued his predecessor’s trend. A billion pounds’ worth of players were purchased since he assumed power in 2014, but very few of them went on to establish themselves in the first team.

Sandro Rosell (left) shifted away from Barcelona’s core values.
Sandro Rosell (left) shifted away from Barcelona’s core values.

It is often tempting to buy big-name players because academy players are young and take time to adjust. However, it is generally expected that experienced superstars will deliver results right from the get-go. But that has not been the case at Barcelona.

Except for Neymar and Luis Suarez, who arrived in 2013 and 2014 respectively, most other ‘star’ signings have been massively underwhelming. Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann have been flops.

Other promising youngsters such as Ousmane Dembele have been injury-prone, and Malcom was never given adequate opportunities to prove himself.

Instant profits and instant success is now the mantra at Barcelona.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu presenting Antoine Griezmann
Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu presenting Antoine Griezmann

There is no Jose Luis Nunez at the helm who will steer Barcelona towards long-term planning. The aim now for a Barcelona president is to retain power for another term.

Barcelona were once a club that stood for more than football. In reality, they still do more than most other clubs. They still donate for humanitarian causes and do charity work. But the club’s core has shifted from its intrinsic identity.

It is not wrong to have profits; they are necessary for the survival of any institution. But they should never come at the expense of the philosophical values for which an institution stands for.

It now seems that Barcelona have sold its soul to the devil. The shift from the humanitarian UNICEF to Qatar Airways and Rakuten tells us everything we need to know.

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Edited by Bhargav


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