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Don't put your shirt on Barca being football's saviours

I N a world gone a notch or two above insane, it is easy to look back at Wembley last Saturday and see something intrinsically noble that rose tall above the tawdry spectacle that was FIFA Congress in Zurich on Wednesday and served as a timely reminder that away from the panjandrums of world football and their risible insistence on referring to themselves as "family", the game remained a thing of beauty and had a soul still worth fighting for.

Could any right-minded official have left Switzerland without the urge for a long, hot soak to wash the stench of FIFA machinations away? This was simple football politics, we were told, a morbid justification from UEFA federations for their morally bankrupt support of Sepp Blatter. The logic that it was in essence a vote for Michel Platini, who is in line to succeed Blatter in 2015, was self-serving and truly reprehensible.

And who's to say Blatter will be of a mind to relinquish his grip on FIFA in 2015? Didn't he say the same thing to the unfortunate Mohamed Bin Hammam the last time around? So what if he will be 79 when the next election date crops up. Juan Antonio Samaranch served at the IOC beyond his 80th birthday.

Amidst such murk and squalidness, it was tempting to think of the European Cup final as a restorative antidote. Yet that wasn't an entirely straightforward business either. The notion of FC Barcelona as purveyors of the soul of the beautiful game might once have had solid currency, but rings hollow nowadays. Lovely team. Impressive youth system. Shame about the club, though.

It has always been easy to capture the mystique and romance of the Catalan club in a single word: Barca. Barca stood for something more than crass commercialism or consumer greed. It was the club of Maradona and Cruyff, of the imposing Camp Nou, of a history so noble and inspiring its "more than a club" motto seemed no idle boast. Most of all, they had those majestic blaugrana shirts, free of commercial logo or design, a defiant symbol of a club that belonged to the people and wasn't for sale.

Barca belongs to a nobler past. As Cruyff grieved in a recent magazine column, they are just another club now. More successful than most, perhaps, but just as greedy and inexorably chained to the bottom line. Whatever happened to the club that stood heroically against fascism and became the most expressive symbol of Catalan identity? In truth, the modern FC Barcelona monster remains as loyal to its roots as the Glazer-owned Manchester United holds true to the spirit of the Busby Babes.

Followers of Spanish football are wont to brag sometimes that with their system of members-owned clubs, or socios, there is no prospect of clubs falling into the hands of foreign speculators trying to turn a quick buck. It's an empty enough boast, however. Every four years, for instance, the Barcelona socios get to elect a president who, regardless of his mandate, will use the club as a vehicle for his own power and prestige.

Last year they fell for the charms of Sandro Rosell and ousted Juan Laporta, who had built Barcelona into the force it is now, tripling its revenue to almost €400m annually. One of Laporta's ideas had been to make Cruyff, a Barca hero, honorary president of the club. Rosell immediately had it revoked. Such tit-for-tat political feuding is a regular feature of the soap opera that FC Barcelona has become.

Rosell's opening salvo was to paint Barceona as a club in crisis, weighed down by a mountainous debt that required intensive care. A story was circulated about the club's need to secure a bank loan in order to pay players' wages. This was all calculated spin, of course, designed to discredit Laporta and, many supporters believe, pave the way for the sale of a cherished commodity: jersey sponsorship.

That came last December when Rosell announced a six-season deal with the Qatar Foundation worth €30m. The noble gesture of actually paying Unicef for the privilege of carrying its name was greedily abandoned. It was one thing for supporters to see their beloved shirts already sporting a Nike swoosh, now they had a link with the country so controversially awarded the rights to host the 2022 World Cup to contend with and the prospect of further "benefits" accruing over the life of the association.

It's not difficult to see where Rosell is coming from. What better time to cut lucrative but unpopular deals than when your team is cutting a swathe through the football world and objectors just seem like moaners still living in a dreamy past. And for all the plaudits dished out to La Masia, he knows that gems like Messi and Xavi won't be unearthed every few years and it will take millions of euro worth of imported stars to keep them at the top over the coming decades.

And right now FC Barcelona are in a strong position. The manner in which they and Real Madrid hoover up most of Spain's television revenue, stubbornly refusing to renegotiate deals that might help less well-off clubs and make La Liga a healthier, more vibrant entity, ensures they will remain dominant in the future. Given that imperative, nothing is sacred anymore.

For disillusioned fans the last remaining outpost is their beloved Camp Nou. But even that battle is being lost. One end already goes by the name Gol Sud Nike and, although Rosell insists the name will never be sold, few supporters would willingly stake their lives on such a promise. Anyway, when the club's soul has already been hawked for a few pieces of silver, does it really matter all that much what happens to the shell?


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