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Unveiling the Global Football Reign of FC Barcelona: A Journey Beyond Borders

On a recent evening, the suburbs to the west of Barcelona are calm and peaceful. However, amidst this tranquility, there's a brightly lit hillside where floodlights illuminate meticulously maintained fields, painting a vivid picture of color and movement. Approximately 125 boys, some as young as 11, are engaged in a flurry of activity on the grass. They dart back and forth, orchestrating a complex dance of offense and defense as they kick footballs with skill and determination.

Unveiling the Global Football Reign of FC Barcelona: A Journey Beyond Borders

Unveiling the Global Football Reign of FC Barcelona: A Journey Beyond Borders

  • West of Barcelona, the sub-urban areas are quiet and dark on recent evenings. But on a brightly lit hill, floodlights illuminate meticulously prepared fields, where shades and movements of colors are dimly visible. Around 125 boys, some as young as 11, dart back and forth on the grass, kicking football in intricate choreographies of attack and defense.
  • If this were any other suburb, it would be an after-school recreational activity. But these aren't just ordinary kids. Clad in their sweatpants and jerseys, they are here for a purpose: to enter the highly exclusive global industry of top-flight football. These boys have been selected by professional scouts, chosen from their small clubs across Spain and sometimes abroad. Then, like valuable orchids, they are placed in the training academy of FC Barcelona, La Masia – one of the wealthiest and most revered professional sports franchises in the world.
  • When I ask who could be the next Lionel Messi – Barcelona's superstar and arguably one of the greatest footballers in history – a staff member points towards an 11-year-old, slim boy running across the entire field in neon-orange cleats. He tells me the youngster is a star-in-the-making who comes from a humble family of immigrants from North Africa living in Barcelona. The crow says.
  • Becoming the best in football is a dream shared by countless millions around the world – it's a universal attraction of the most global sport, where children and adults from America to Uganda fill stadiums thousands of miles apart, cheering for their favorite teams.
  • In particular clubs, only a few rank alongside Barça, as FC Barcelona is commonly known. More than 100 million people follow Barça on Facebook and millions more on Twitter. Barça has developed its vast following through its extremely colorful history. Its slogan is "More than a Club," and FC Barcelona not only competes for league titles – it has won La Liga multiple times and several European Championships – but also struggles to maintain its unique culture within the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia in Spain, which has fought its own battles against Madrid for over a century. Despite all this, Barça has kept millions glued to their television sets, credited to the fast-paced style developed in the 1980s known as 'tiki-taka'.

Now, the question arises: can Barça maintain its uniqueness in an industry that is increasingly centered around big money?

  • The global football business is massive and still growing rapidly. More than 3 billion people watched Germany defeat Argentina in the final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, organized by the International Football Association FIFA. This is over 30 times the number of viewers watching the Super Bowl in February. The number of viewers for the World Cup, held during the summer months in Russia, is expected to be significantly higher again, with 32 national teams from around the world participating, starting in Moscow on June 14. And this despite the fact that one of the fastest growing markets in the game, the U.S., failed to qualify. No worries: stars like Barcelona's Messi, who is from Argentina, are global brands. Indeed, year after year, it is teams like Barcelona that rake in the massive revenue and capture audiences – and both are growing.
  • Now, after a century of enthusiastic local pride, Barcelona's goal is to become the world's first club of any sport to earn 1 billion euros ($1.23 billion) in revenue annually, perhaps by 2020. Last year, according to the "Football Money" annual report by Deloitte, due to increasing TV rights deals with European football leagues and lucrative sponsorship deals signed by individual clubs, the three football teams – Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona – earned a combined revenue of nearly $2.5 billion. The report was published in January. These three are ahead of the NFL's biggest revenue generator, the Dallas Cowboys, whose sales were $700 million last year. Austin Houlihan, director of Deloitte's sports business group in Manchester, England, says special clubs like Barcelona are "the top revenue-generating sports [franchise] in the world."
  • But the alarming figures conceal some serious issues. In parts of the world, the number of TV viewers is decreasing, as more and more people are streaming matches live on their phones. Meanwhile, the salaries of top players are increasing so rapidly that they're reaching unimaginable amounts even before a year has passed.
  • Both factors trap specific clubs in a constant search for money: the harder they compete for top rankings, the more they need wealth to stay on top. The gap between the world's best players signing with a handful of teams, like Barça, who have sufficient funds to compete at the highest level, and their audiences below is widening.
  • According to Deloitte, for the 2016-17 season, Barça earned €648 million ($706.7 million) in revenue, which is a significant 25% increase compared to five years ago. (Barcelona themselves reported revenue of €682 million, but Deloitte's estimate removes factors like foreign currency earnings from consideration).
  • The obligations of big business are completely different from Barça's traditional identity. The club has taken pride in itself since its establishment in 1899 because it stands as a rival to its arch-rival Real Madrid as Catalonia's representative - which is a vivid manifestation of Spain's intense political tensions. "We know that we are not just representing Barcelona, we are representing Catalonia," the team's star center-forward Gerard Piqué told me. Piqué, a native of Barcelona, also started playing at La Masia Academy at the age of 13, just like Messi did. The 31-year-old Piqué says, "We have to compete with all those other clubs that are investing, that are offering a lot of money." an extension of four years in January.
  • FC Barcelona's Gerard Piqué talks World Cup, Barça's future with our correspondent under the headline of Barça Feature with Piqué.
  • To keep the large sum of money flowing, Barça has already negotiated some prestigious deals. In 2011, it signed a deal with the Qatar Foundation for an estimated $45 million per year.
  • The last major football club to sell rights to put logos on their team's jerseys has finally emerged. The Japanese company Rakuten now pays about $68 million annually to have its name on Barça's jersey, and last year Bartomeu struck an attractive long-term deal with Nike. Barcelona is also negotiating with corporations for naming rights on its soon-to-be-expanded stadium and sports complex, expected to open in about four years with 105,000 seats - a deal that could be worth around €300 million over 20 years.
  • Barça, deeply concerned about losing Messi, signed a new deal with him last November, just five months after signing the previous deal. The details are confidential. But in January, the German magazine Der Spiegel published documents stating that the club's origins were from the club, revealing that Messi will now earn over €100 million per year. With the new contract, Messi's buyout clause has increased to €700 million or approximately $866 million. Bartomeu says, "We were afraid someone would come and pay Lionel Messi's buyout clause."
  • Messi faced legal troubles last year when he and his father were found guilty of tax evasion in Spain. The star's 21-month prison sentence was converted into a fine of $288,000, and his father was ordered to pay $222,000.
  • Despite all of Bartomeu's concerns, Barcelona has played a significant role in the rapidly escalating transfer market. After receiving €222 million from selling Neymar to PSG, Barcelona started spending big last summer. They acquired the 20-year-old French player Ousmane Dembélé from German club Borussia Dortmund for approximately €105 million - just a year after Dortmund had bought the young player from a French club for €15 million. Then in January, Barcelona signed midfielder Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool FC for €160 million (approximately $200 million) - which is the second-largest transfer in the history of the sport, just three months after Neymar's departure.
  • For observers of Barcelona, the purchases of both players suggested that the club was feeling the pressure. Joseph Maria Minguella, a sports agent for Barcelona, says, "They didn't even pay half of what they should have." He suggests that Neymar's departure left the club's managers feeling "cheated and troubled." "They were under a lot of pressure." Since coming to Barcelona's academy from Argentina as a teenager in 2001, Minguella is credited with helping Messi secure his initial commitment to the club. Since then, Messi has begun defining the club's prestige - attracting top players and establishing the necessary prestige for attracting top players and corporate partnerships.
  • Throughout Europe, Barcelona has long been widely popular, seeing America as its primary area for development. And in 2016, it opened an American operation in Manhattan - illuminating the Empire State Building in Barcelona's blue, red, and maroon colors - drawing the club closer to its major American sponsors. This spring, it's opening an academy in Kings Park, NY, and Bartomeu says he's planning to launch a women's football team next year.
  • However, Barcelona's roots are unwavering. When Messi, Piqué, and the rest of the team walk from the dressing room to the pitch before a match, they pass through a tunnel beneath the stadium. Just before running onto the grass, what they see last is a small chapel carved into the wall of the tunnel. There, amidst the serene gaze of players, lies the symbol of Catalonia's most revered religious figure and its protector saint, the Virgin of Montserrat, cradling Baby Jesus.
  • Who knows how many players pause for a prayer? But the Virgin serves another purpose: she reminds the team of Barcelona's deep affection for Catalonia and recalls its long struggle for independence from Spain. Piqué says, "[FC] Barcelona means everything to Catalonia." He adds, "It's the most important institution in Catalonia by far."
  • Bartomeu and the board are unambiguous, and about half of their six-year term has passed. (For his day job, Bartomeu is the CEO of Adelte, an engineering company specializing in passenger boarding bridges.) All directors trace their Catalan roots back several generations. And their position in Barcelona gives them a celebrity status in the region. "Being on the board of FC Barcelona in Catalonia is more than an honor," says Manel Arroyo, the board's vice president, who is also a business executive. "It's important to understand the sensitivity of this club," he explains.
  • Maybe the founders of Barcelona did not think of this when they hosted the first pick-up game on Christmas Eve, 1899. Most people were new to this area. But in the decades that followed, people filled the stadium chanting Catalonia's songs and waving Catalonia's flag. The club's president, Josep Sunyol, a Catalan nationalist, was killed during the Spanish Civil War, and now a monument to him is kept in the club's museum, attracting nearly 2 million tourists annually. Singing Catalan songs was forbidden for Barcelona supporters in Spain under General Francisco Franco's 35-year dictatorship. The fierce rivalry that still exists today between Barcelona and Real Madrid was sparked by that persecution. Author Jimmy Burns writes in his book "Barça: A People's Passion," "As far as Barça fans are concerned, Real Madrid wasn't just supported by Franco; it was Franco."
  • In recent months, they've come back to the surface of old tensions. Last October, Catalan leaders challenged the Spanish government by organizing a referendum for independence; 90% of Catalans voted in favor (though only 42% of registered voters actually participated). Almost six months later, the independence banners still hang from windows and balconies throughout the city. After declaring unilateral independence for Catalonia from Madrid and then fleeing possible arrest on charges of sedition, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is in exile in Brussels.
  • For Barça, it's been tumultuous. Firm in their stance to remain neutral, Bartomeu allowed a scheduled match to proceed on the day of the referendum, just as Spanish police were raiding polling stations and beating voters. Canceling the game that day would have meant forfeiting points in the Spanish La Liga. Bartomeu thus gave the order to play the game without any audience members. "We wanted to show the world that something unique was happening," he says. But some members were angry, believing Bartomeu should have supported the vote; two board members resigned in protest. Caught between emotion and anger, Piqué withdrew from the referendum.
  • He first tweeted to his 18 million followers, "We will vote." And after the match in the locker room, he tearfully said on camera that it was the worst day of his professional life and even threatened to quit the Spanish national team. He confided in me after several months, saying, "We are in a very difficult situation here." "Barcelona has to become a club that represents Catalonia even more than before."

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