Barcelona pioneered a fusion of finance and football. Others are now playing the same game while the Catalan club itself is embroiled in a crisis.
The jailing, even for one night, of the former president of Futbol Club Barcelona is not the first, and will not be the last, time it has happened in this club’s history.
The departure, this summer or whenever it happens, of Lionel Messi will be a symptom, not the cause of the club’s extraordinary decline.
And it is no coincidence whatever that, come Sunday morning – pandemic or no pandemic – 140,000 members of FC Barça will cast their votes for the 41st president to lead their club from probably the most ruinous debt in world football, claimed to be as much as £1.1billion, with £236million to be paid to the banks by June 30.
Barcelona, we know, is more than a club. Its motto, “Més que un club” was coined during the inaugural speech of the lawyer Narcís de Carreras when he became president in 1968. It embraces everything from Catalan separatism to the recruitment of minors such as Messi to Neymar, whose transfer from Brazil cost another previous president, Sandro Rosell, his liberty.
Aspiring to the Barça presidency should come with a public health warning. Recasting the team, post-Messi, is like asking what comes after the messiah. He still, at half commitment, transcends the team.
However, there is another ageing performer at Camp Nou who better defines the meaning of football in this part of Spain.
He isn’t Messi. Not Xavi or Iniesta. Not even Pep Guardiola, who learned all that he knows under Johan Cruyff in the Barcelona dream team, and now manages Manchester City.
Beyond all of the above, I suggest that Gerard Piqué is the player who most captures the drive, the thinking outside the norm, the entrepreneurial desire that drives men of Catalonia to be more than players.
Piqué, like Messi, is slowing. And some would argue that he was never blessed with pace, so he had to use guile to win all the trophies that Leo won at Barcelona (indeed, to win a World Cup, with Spain in 2010, which Messi never did with Argentina).
Piqué, incidentally, is putting his body on the line by rushing back from traumatic knee injury far sooner than the doctors advised. But it is in other ways that Piqué is so rare.
He is entrepreneurial. He puts his mind to business (and at times politics) in ways that footballers are not renowned for doing. He self-manages the fortune he made through being a part of the Messi era.
Piqué charmed the Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira, and his considerable business brain clearly appeals to the money men who follow football. Indeed, it is arguable that the Barcelona directors and team owe whatever financial stability they currently have to Piqué’s business acumen.
The club shirt sponsorship shifted from Qatar Airways to Rakuten in 2013 following a dinner Piqué had in San Francisco with Hiroshi Mikitani, the co-founder and chief executive of the Japanese online retail chain Rakuten.
The Qatar contract was worth €35 million (just over £30 million) per year. The Japan deal, helping to push the image of Barca in Asia and to make the Rakuten brand global, can reach €59 million in a good year.
Besides all this, Piqué plays a mean hand at poker, and a persuasive one with his own business account. He founded Kosmos Holding, a sports and media group that has Mikitani and an American billionaire Larry Ellison on the board.
Add Nike and the other main ‘partners’ Barça attracts, and you can work out how, if at all, the club can afford its superstars. When trust breaks down, as it clearly has between Messi and the recent president Josep Maria Bartomeu, it is evident that the player is more valued than the bosses.
Kosmos is in partnership with the International Tennis Federation, helping to transform the Davis Cup, and also has a majority stake in two football clubs, Andorra and Gimnàstic Manresa in Catalonia.
Give him time and you can bet Gerard Piqué will stand for the presidency of FC Barça.
The most recent occupant of that seat, Bartomeu, was arrested this week on allegations that his board paid an agency to boost Bartomeu’s social media image at the expense of Messi, Guardiola and Hernandez among others. We will not unravel the legal case any time soon – certainly not before Sunday’s election in Barcelona.
What we can say is that Barça’s name is renowned for what it achieves on the field, and the manner of its play which to my eyes has no peer. The other game played by so many former Barcelona presidents, was Machiavellian almost beyond belief.
Except that it has its rivals in Real Madrid and in Juventus and Milan, and nowadays in Paris St Germain and, yes Manchester City.
Here is where the trail leads. Man City is no longer a club, it is an empire. The owner who turned City from the poor neighbour in the shadow of Manchester United is Sheikh Mansour of the ruling Abu Dhabi family.
After buying City in 2008, the Sheikh set out to buy the world’s greatest prizes in the greatest game on earth. His recruitment process was a straight line to Barcelona.
He hired Ferran Soriano, who managed Barcelona’s finances from 2003-2008. Soriano recruited another Catalan, Txiki Begiristain to be City’s director of football. Together they tempted Guardiola, an old team-mate of Begiristain.
It didn’t stop there. Soriano is the driver of the sheikh’s concept of building not just a club in England, but an empire of clubs worldwide. At last count, the Abu Dhabi United Group own or partly own clubs in Manchester, Melbourne, Montevideo, Lommel (Belgium), New York, Mumbai, Girona, Sichuan (China), Yokohama (Japan) and Troyes (France).
The Sheikh owns 78 per cent of this global collection. After a visit to City’s Etihad stadium by Chinese president Xi Jinping, the China Media Capital investment group bought a 12 per cent share, and Silver Lake, the Californian investor in global technology, paid $500 million to own 10 per cent of the City Football Group.
So the Catalans have moved on from Catalonia. Their fusion of and football and finance is global. El Barça was the conception, but Manchester and nine other cities are now playing the football and banking game that Catalonia thought it had pushed to the limit.
More than a club, for sure.
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