Monday, January 10, 2011

on Barca and shirt sponsorship

On the day the news broke, I was filled with unreasoning anger. If you asked me to articulate why I was so mad, I would have had trouble, which is really not very good going for someone trained to make well reasoned arguments.

There's been a lot of link spilled on the topic already, whether in support of the Qatar Foundation deal or in opposition to it. I read with interest the results of polls in both El Mundo Deportivo and Sport which were evenly split between those who agreed with the decision of the board and those who didn't. It's clear that this issue is just as divisive amongst Cules as Rosell's membership policies, and for good reason.

I wanted to set out the reasoning behind my opposition in part to set this issue to rest in my own mind and in part because for all the excellent articles I've read voicing opposition - including that of Our Spiritual Godfather (TM) Johan Cruyff - I venture that I can still contribute something to the debate.

Let me begin with the Cruyff column which has been so widely excerpted:

This club is unique in the world. Nobody has kept its shirt intact over its history and at the same time still be competitive as anyone else. Will you sell this uniqueness for 6 or 7 % of your budget? It is what Barca stands for and what differentiates it in this world; are there no other avenues that can be used to increase the club’s income? Have the new executive board thought this thing through? Do they think the previous board is so empty-headed [not to have thought about this]?

[With thanks to Total Barca for the translation. The whole column is very interesting and worth a read.]

Normally I tend to agree with Cruyff despite myself. This time I disagree with him despite myself. It seems to me that an argument constructed upon the supposed uniqueness of Barca amongst football clubs is a difficult proposition. The moral high ground is a perilous place for any club with an eye on having their name in lights, particularly under the conditions of modern football. The higher you put yourself, the easier it is for others to knock you down. And us Cules know better than anyone else how shaky any claims of moral supremacy are, because we're the ones staring the rotten bits in the face day after day. Furthermore, the whole we're so special routine carries a certain sanctimoniousness that I - and a lot of neutrals, at a guess - find off-putting on general principle.

So, then, if I don't think Barca are too special for shirt sponsorship, why do I oppose it? We might as well recast the question: why do we - generic we, as in football fans - cherish the traditions of our clubs? They don't have to make the club special - as in better than other clubs - but they are part of the DNA of the institution. Maybe some particular trait of your club is a major reason for your support. The reason doesn't even have to make sense. (These things often don't.) It's probably been in place for so long that it's become part of your life as a supporter.

The particular culture and tradition of a club doesn't make it better or worse than any other club. That's not the point. But what is a football club if it can't depend upon its own painstakingly constructed identity, its colours, quirks, the things that make up its personality? It might as well not exist.

The lack of shirt sponsorship was part of Barca's longstanding identity. Personally, I always liked that the front of the shirt was bare. It was another mark of identification, just like the blaugrana and the hideous away kits of [insert highlighter colour here]. The introduction of the UNICEF logo was acceptable because it at least meant some money going towards an organisation that needs it, however small the amount. (Your mileage may vary, depending upon whether you believe incremental good matters when done under the backdrop of other dubious deeds. Which is actually perfectly illustrated by the whole UNICEF logo being right under the Nike logo on the current shirt. But that's a discussion for another day.)

The Qatar Foundation deal, on the other hand, helps the club pay for approximately 6% of its budget. That's it. The current board will point to the economic necessity of such a move, to sustain other aspects of the club's existence. Some of us have serious doubts about their maths. By which I don't just mean their accounting, but the maths which led to them weighing up the money to be gained via the deal against the intangible, long-term loss represented by the introduction of shirt sponsorship and deciding that it would be worth it.

Or, putting it into terms that businessmen like Rosell and co. understand: the blow to brand identity caused by this deal over the long term seems like a triumph of damaging short-termism to me. (And now I have to wash my mouth out for talking about brand identity and football in the same sentence. Excuse me.)

On a final note, I'd like to ask for your pardon in two respects: 1) it was perhaps a mistake to attempt to rationalize an intensely emotional reaction, but I felt that the attempt might be worthwhile given the intensity of the debate, and 2) this is too much sentimental mush for these cynical times, I know. It's not cool to be this eye-bleedingly sincere about football these days.

It won't happen again for at least another two weeks, I promise you that.

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