A soccer club that for decades was identified with regional pride has morphed into a global phenomenon, in large part through its philosophy as well as through its players and fans.
“Més que un club,” more than just a club, is the Catalan motto of Fútbol Club Barcelona. For years, FC Barcelona symbolized Catalan regional pride in the face of Spanish centralism based in Madrid.
But the game of soccer has changed since the early 1980s, when the migration of the best players from all corners of the world towards the best European clubs began in earnest.
FC Barcelona finds itself now at the crossroads of a massive and deep transformation: from a club representing a unique past to one that can carry its motto into a new, global arena successfully.
In this Herculean task, Latino players have had a central role. Today, players like Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Uruguay’s Luis Suárez, and Brazil’s Neymar, arguably the top three South American players in the game, carry the mantle once held by other Latin legends like the Brazilians Ronaldinho, Romário, Ronaldo Lima and Rivaldo.
Lionel Messi is not only the main face of Barcelona (or Barça as it is widely known throughout the world), but is the best player on the planet. For some, he is the best player the game has ever known, even surpassing his compatriot Diego Maradona, who also starred for Barça, in the 1980s.
Rising from a humble background in Rosario, Argentina, Messi had a medical condition that limited his physical growth. His parents, both factory workers, could not afford the medical treatment he needed. Barcelona stepped in and covered the growth hormone therapy. He eventually joined La Masía, Barcelona’s famed youth academy, and the rest is history. In this sense, Messi is emblematic of Barcelona’s philosophy, which is to teach soccer as a form of education and personal growth, not about winning at all costs.
Can Barcelona adapt its way of doing things to a new environment so it is “more than just a club” at the global level?
One important strategy is to expand its mission and identity in the Americas.
Barcelona has set up headquarters in New York City, the second club after Germany’s Bayern Munich to do so. One advantage it may have over the German club is that La Liga, Spain’s top league, is avidly followed by countless Latino fans in the United States and Latin America, in large part due to the language and cultural ties.
Mexico and Brazil are surpassed only by Indonesia in the number of Barcelona fans. Like the German club, Barcelona has a multi-pronged strategy, which places it ahead of its perennial Spanish rival, Real Madrid.
Arno Trabesinger, Managing Director of the Americas, and Arturo de la Fuente, Business Development Director, Americas at Barcelona’s New York City office, provided an exclusive look at the inner workings of its global strategy to NBC Latino.
Intuitively, one could think that the highly local roots of the “more than club” identity could only work in Barcelona or Catalonia. However, Trabesinger and his team are showing that it is possible to retain the spirit of a club and reshape it for a global audience.
In fostering Catalan pride throughout its history and especially during the difficult times of the Franco regime in Spain, Barcelona created an entire culture of a tight-knit community that values aesthetically-pleasing football, not just results.
The idea of playing beautiful soccer for one’s community and not just for money or for the glory of one single player is Barcelona’s trademark. The great Dutch master Johan Cruyff can be credited for this ethos, and la Masía for the continuity of the legacy of grassroots community-building. This approach should appeal to many U.S. parents who want their children to take a holistic approach to the game of fútbol.
These twin pillars of playing a beautiful game while doing for one’s community are being translated into a transnational and cosmopolitan vision. The club’s expansion into the U.S. is part of a large strategic plan started two years ago by the current President, Josep Maria Bartomeu, to make Barcelona the most prominent sports entity in the world by the year 2021.
The initiative first started in Asia, with the setting up of a Hong Kong office to address the demands and needs of fans and commercial partners in Japan, India and even China, which is now becoming a major player in global soccer. While China poses a challenge to Barcelona owing to the massive economic investments by Chinese government and private entities, the club’s brand is well positioned to deal with the growth of this new market.
FC Barcelona is owned by one hundred and forty-five thousand members, or socios, something that makes Barcelona different in its structure from other major clubs. It is now focused on helping promote the growth of soccer in the U.S., the world’s biggest economy and a country that has a particular view of sports as entertainment.
There is a soccer boom in the U.S., and as Arturo de la Fuente underscored, the més que un club philosophy “is part of the DNA of the club’s organization.” It is an idea that the club preaches to its partners, and it means promoting social responsibility along with the club’s values. Barcelona was the only European team to offer a benefit game with the Brazilian club Chapecoense, which suffered a tragic airplane disaster in 2016 that resulted in the death of most of its squad. Barcelona has partnered with UNICEF, and promotes women’s professional sports as well.
These values, for de la Fuente, are the reason why the club is number one in social media among fans. As he stated, ‘’we are proud to say that we are a Catalan club, but més que un club is the mentality of the club; we develop human beings, we are socially responsible.” The club’s philosophy is not geographically bound to any country, nation, or city.
On the ground, the club’s foundation has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and it has set up the FutbolNet program, which addresses social issues through soccer with linkages to NYC public schools. The aim is to eventually replicate this idea throughout the U.S.
In addition, the club has established escolas (Catalan for schools), which teach the Barcelona style of play. There are currently two FCBEscolas in the U.S. (Florida and North Carolina), which help children learn the values of teamwork. There are plans to expand the number to six this year (including Illinois, Texas, California and Virginia) and eventually to 20-25 academies in the U.S. and Canada.
FCBEscolas are soccer schools for children with integral training provided to students, modeled after La Masía. Hispanic communities are part of the club’s overall strategy, for “the Latino community is very important to the club, especially in the U.S.,” as Trabesinger stated. There are FCBEscolas in Latin America as well, including Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Santo Domingo, Lima, Bogotá and Guatemala City.
While Barcelona competes with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and other major clubs in Europe, in the U.S. it seeks to work with them to promote the growth of soccer.
The sport must compete with other sports and leagues, such as the NBA and the NFL, as well as with other forms of entertainment, such as Hollywood or Broadway. This is why one of its greatest legends, Ronaldinho, has participated in NBA events, and why El Clásico, the most famous soccer game in the world— between Barcelona and Real Madrid— will take place in Miami in July. A “mini Super Bowl” is being organized by Relevent Sports to promote this match, which will draw fans from all over the U.S.
Such ‘mega-events’ are also paralleled by more community-minded programs. The club promotes penyas, well-organized fan-clubs that have close ties to the central office in Barcelona. The headquarters in New York City has a special space where local fan clubs are invited for viewing parties. The més que un club identity runs throughout the club, and is also evident in another new idea, the Barça Innovation Hub. It promotes the idea of playing well, with style, and sharing the club’s lessons with the world. In this way, the club shows that while globalization and cosmopolitanism are now the contexts of world soccer, it has retained and expanded its core philosophy to become, in a sense, an educational, instructional, and pedagogical organization. Young people, especially children, can learn about how to play the beautiful game and care about social issues, not just focus on results and winning.