x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Everything has its price, even at Barcelona

Needing to increase their revenues to stay at the top of world football, Barca eventually turned to the Qatar Foundation.

Despite tempting financial offers, Barcelona have long refused to emblazon their famous shirt with a commercial sponsor. By 2007, only Barca and the Basques of Athletic Bilbao had sponsor-free shirts.

Both clubs are owned by the fans, the majority of whom consistently agreed that their refusal to tarnish the sacred shirt was the right decision.

In spite of the brilliant football and global appeal of stars like Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barca refused many sponsorship suitors.

One would have given them the biggest shirt sponsorship in world football and while the directors agreed, Joan Laporta, the club president, did not.

He suggested that rather than receive money, Barca should pay for the honour of wearing the Unicef logo on their stripes.

At a time when some clubs were starting to carry more than one sponsor on their shirts and fans were becoming walking billboards for multi-nationals, the move generated great publicity and plenty of international goodwill.

It also benefited Unicef directly and boosted Barca's boast that they are "More Than a Club".

Laporta left in the summer to be replaced by Sandro Rossel, who was alarmed at the state of the club's finances.

The €11 million (Dh53.35m) annual profit (on revenues of more than €400m) presented by Laporta's board was audited to a €79m loss. Figures had, fans were told, been assumed, with revenue accounted for which had not been received.

The situation was so bad that Barca needed an emergency credit line in the summer to pay the wages. Barca also have long- term debts of €350m.

Barca's revenues boomed under Laporta, but so did spending and to avoid external financing, they have entered a spell of austerity.

Needing to increase their revenues to stay at the top of world football, Barca began to court potential sponsors. Like Manchester United, whose commercial model they have often followed, Barca have a series of secondary global sponsors paying around €5m per year to have their name linked to the club, access to players for advertising and pitch-side hoardings.

These figures were dwarfed by those on Friday as Barca announced they had reached an agreement with the Qatar Foundation to carry their logo on the shirt alongside Unicef.

Barca will receive €30m a season for the next five years - the most lucrative deal in football history and enough to pay the salaries of four of their highest-earning stars like Messi and David Villa.

Barca will also play a friendly in Qatar and stressed that the foundation was not as commercial as other sponsors, but cynics think differently.

"The directors know the price of everything and the value of nothing," said one dissatisfied fan before the club's enthralling victory over Real Sociedad on Sunday. "The next time it will be just to the highest bidder."

He fears Barca becoming the same as any other club, a business which seeks to maximise revenues at every opportunity.

With a former marketing executive at the helm, perhaps it should not surprise. And with an economic crisis still cutting deep in Spain and Barca's media revenues flat, the Catalans have to search elsewhere.

Their match-day income from ticket sales is also flat and they are projected to lose nearly €50m this season.

They would miss Uefa's "break even" target if it was in place, an embarrassing situation for a club which prides itself on doing what's right.

Like United, Barca's new tactic has been to cash in on their global stardom, whether that is with Chilean wine conglomerates, Indian drinks makers or Saudi telecoms companies.

The sponsorship with the Qatar Foundation is an extension of that. It is also proof that everything has a price, sadly even Barca's shirt.