Despite Payroll, Barca Keeps Fans
Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 00:10
It’s easy to hate the New York Yankees. In American sports, the teams that spend the most money tend to provoke the most animosity. The “Evil Empire” is the most blatant example: If you’re not a Yankees fan, you’re probably cheering against them.
The Steinbrenners paid their players just under $198 million in 2012, the highest payroll not just in the league, but in all of North American professional sports.
New York’s loose purse strings enable the Yankees to steal players away from smaller-market teams. That turns baseball fans off because it’s viewed as the wrong way to play the game. Either way, it exposes an undeniable truth: The financial landscape — especially in non-salary cap leagues — is unequal.
But having a lot of money and playing the wrong way are two very different claims.
That is clear because one European soccer team has found a way to have the best of both worlds.
FC Barcelona, for two years running, has been the highest-paying sports team in the world, with an average annual salary of $8.7 million per player. You don’t, however, see the type of animosity towards Barca as you do towards the Yankees.
This hatred, therefore, must go beyond the money. Barcelona, after all, stole Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas from the Gunners for close to $70 million and had previously purchased stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho, Deco and David Villa from smaller-market teams for large sums of money. Yet they never seem to get as much backlash for it.
And just as the Yankees have won 27 World Series titles, FC Barcelona has been incredibly successful on the world stage. The Catalans have won 21 La Liga titles in Spain and two of the last four UEFA Champions League titles.
Success, therefore, can’t differentiate this Spain heavyweight from other, more hated franchises, either. But something must.
In the first of a new series of features on the world’s biggest soccer clubs, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl — or at least his editors — chose to name his opening feature on FC Barcelona, “The World’s Team.”
He describes the club as “the embodiment of a sporting ideal that has made it beloved across the globe.” Everybody knows Lionel Messi, the greatest footballer on the planet — maybe of all time — but this story isn’t about Messi himself: It is about what he represents.
Barcelona didn’t buy the 5-foot-7 Argentine for $130 million dollars from a competing club, as Madrid did with the equally well-known Cristiano Ronaldo.
Messi started with Barca’s youth academy from a young age, as did stars Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who, along with Messi, were the three finalists for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or for best player in the world in 2010. Fabregas also began his career with Barca’s youth squad, making his 2011 repurchase a homecoming of sorts.
It isn’t uncommon, in fact, to see as many as eight or nine products of Barcelona’s academy, known as “La Masia,” or “The Farmhouse,” in its starting 11. While most of the world’s top soccer teams have youth academies, none is comparable to Barcelona’s: Madrid bought Ronaldo, Manchester United bought Rooney and Chelsea bought Fernando Torres. Messi was homegrown.
Does this account for the overwhelming support for the Spanish giants?
It certainly plays a part, as much of the respect for small-market teams comes from their commitment to young players and development. Despite having enough money not to do so, Barcelona has championed these same principles.
This strategy, perhaps because of Barca’s success, is starting to become more prominent, as businessmen realize that money — and reputation — can be saved by investing in grassroots-level sports.
Even the Yankees — at least since the beginning of general manager Brian Cashman’s reign — have started to build up their minor league affiliates. The Bronx Bombers have signed CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira to insanely expensive contracts, but they have also developed stars like Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes from within their organization.
There is obviously more to the story: Barcelona plays a beautiful brand of football, has won more than any other team in recent years and has a remarkable club history. But to a growing base of soccer supporters, it is an example of a rich, successful team that is neither arrogant nor entitled. That is something to be prized.
Arik Parnass is a sophomore in the College. CANDID CANADIAN appears every Tuesday.