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The World's Team
GRANT WAHL
October 08, 2012
FC BARCELONA IS MORE THAN A CLUB, MORE THAN A CHAMPION AND MORE THAN LIONEL MESSI—IT IS THE EMBODIMENT OF A SPORTING IDEAL THAT HAS MADE IT BELOVED ACROSS THE GLOBE
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October 08, 2012

The World's Team

FC BARCELONA IS MORE THAN A CLUB, MORE THAN A CHAMPION AND MORE THAN LIONEL MESSI—IT IS THE EMBODIMENT OF A SPORTING IDEAL THAT HAS MADE IT BELOVED ACROSS THE GLOBE

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The FC Barcelona motto—Més que un club, Catalan for "More than a club"—is deliberately open-ended. In one sense it refers to Barça's social mission as a 113-year-old organization with 118,000 dues-paying members who vote in elections for the club's leaders. For years Barça was the only major soccer team that refused to sell space on its jersey to a corporate sponsor, before making the novel decision in 2006 to donate about $2 million a year and put UNICEF's logo there. (The big-spending Qatar Foundation replaced it last season in a $225 million sponsorship deal as Barça addressed a $430 million net debt amassed largely through bank loans to pay for transfers; but UNICEF remains on the back.)

In another sense the motto highlights Barcelona's place as a touchstone for Catalan identity. "It's the people's club," says Rosell, a former Nike executive who once served as a ball boy at the Camp Nou. "It's a club that understands what it means to be from Barcelona and Catalonia, what it means to be a club that had run-ins with a dictatorship for 40 years and survived with values opposed to what the dictatorship stood for."

FC Barcelona first became a political force in 1918, when it joined a campaign for the autonomy of Catalonia from Castilian Spain. After Barça fans booed the Spanish national anthem in 1925, the military regime of Miguel Primo de Rivera shut down the club for six months and forced its founder, Joan Gamper, and his family to leave the country. During the Spanish Civil War police supporting General Francisco Franco arrested and executed Barça's president, Josep Sunyol, after he tried to visit Republican troops protecting Madrid against a right-wing siege. Catalonia bitterly resisted Franco's coup, and when Barcelona finally fell, the general's troops bombed the building that held Barça's trophies. Problems between the club and the Spanish state only continued during Franco's 36-year rule. The dictatorship forced the club to change its name to the Spanish Club de Fútbol Barcelona and ended its direct elections. Yet Barça's stadium remained the only place where 100,000 Catalans could voice their fury at Franco, who refrained from crushing their protests.

Franco was a soccer fan. His favorite team was Real Madrid, which met Barcelona in the semifinals of the General's Cup in 1943, four years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Barça won the first leg 3--0, but Franco's director of state security entered the locker room before the return leg in Madrid and warned Barcelona's players that the regime had graciously allowed them to return to Spain from wartime exile. During a time of violent reprisals against dissidents, the menace in his hint was unmistakable; Barcelona took the field and lost 11--1.

Barça won two Spanish titles over Real Madrid in the early 1950s, but in '53 the Franco-controlled national soccer federation settled a dispute between the two rivals over the signing of Argentine star Alfredo Di Stéfano that resulted in his joining Madrid. He would lead Real to an unprecedented five straight European Cup titles from 1956 through '60 and help turn Real into the world's preeminent team.

"When I talk to Real Madrid historians, they always ask me, Was Real Madrid manipulating the military or was the military manipulating Real Madrid?" says Carles Santacana, a historian at the University of Barcelona. The Marshall Plan had given nothing to Spain, a neutral Axis ally that was isolated internationally after World War II. But relations between Franco and the former Allies began thawing in the 1950s, leading to Spain's admission to the United Nations in '55. Real Madrid became a face of that change. "Starting with the European Cup, it was a way for the Spanish authorities to say, We're something in the world, in Europe," says Santacana. "A foreign minister said Real Madrid was Spain's best ambassador."

The turning point for Barça came during Franco's final years, in the early 1970s, when more backroom intrigue sent the visionary Dutch player Johan Cruyff to Barcelona. After the Di Stéfano controversy, the Spanish federation forbade new signings of foreigners for two decades, unless those players were the sons of Spaniards who had emigrated to Latin America. In 1971 the federation allowed 38 of those so-called oriundos to join Spanish teams but nixed Barça's signings of two of them. Suspecting it was being singled out, Barcelona sent a lawyer to South America to check the documentation of the 38, according to Santacana. "Only one had legitimate paperwork," the historian says. "The rest falsified theirs. Barça put the report on the table and came to an agreement with the federation not to release it in exchange for the lifting of the ban on foreigners. And that's how they signed Cruyff in 1973."

One of the greatest players of all time, Cruyff had the attitude to match his stature, and he wasn't afraid to voice his political views: He said he would never have joined Real Madrid because of its association with Franco. In his debut season with Barcelona, the 26-year-old Cruyff led the club to the Spanish league title, its first in 14 years, including a historic 5--0 victory at Real. "You can still get older people to start crying about that day," says Sam Lardner, a former Barça ice hockey player who has lived in Barcelona since 1997 and served on the board of Cruyff's foundation. "Catalan culture is wrapped up in pact making. Catalans are not an aggressive people. They have never had a decisive strategic military victory in their history. So Johan was walking into a cultural feeling of never quite being able to win that goes way back. When he did that, it was like: wow."

Yet Cruyff's legacy at Barça has come less as a player than as the embodiment of a philosophy, one that now seeps through every level of the club down to the youth teams. Based on the Dutch school of soccer, it values skill over brawn, ball possession over quick-hit counterattacks, entertainment over pragmatism. Cruyff instilled the idea as Barça's coach from 1988 to '96, winning four Spanish league titles and a European Cup, and the style is constantly being refined. "Cruyff's first rule or idea was to defend through ball possession," says Xavi, 32. "If there's only one ball in play and you have control of it, you don't need to defend. And then the idea of attacking soccer: triangles, long possessions. We've had this philosophy since Cruyff came, and now we've had the good fortune of having a fantastic generation of players."

How that generation arrived at the top of the soccer world is the story of La Masia.

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