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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Barcelona's 'more than a club' motto rings true thanks to work of ABJ in supporting former players

Financial assistance and social support just a part of the Association of Former Barcelona Players impact as the organisation prepares to celebrate 60 years

Lionel Messi, left, alongside Ramon Alfonseda, who has been of the ABJ chairman for 14 years. Courtesy Andy Mitten
Lionel Messi, left, alongside Ramon Alfonseda, who has been of the ABJ chairman for 14 years. Courtesy Andy Mitten

Pep Guardiola did more than make his mark as Barcelona’s greatest ever coach with the trophies his side won between 2008-12.

Along with then club president Sandro Rossell, they persuaded Barcelona’s first team players to donate 0.5 per cent of their wages into a fund to help former players, with another 0.5 per cent to Barca’s charitable foundation which supports projects such as help for refugees.

Guardiola did this a decade ago, the year when Barca won all six trophies they contested. His players agreed and their donations help another, very pertinent, organisation which will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year.

To this day Association of Former Barcelona Players (ABJ) survives because of the generosity (€1.5 million in 2017) of the players.

The association has an office near Camp Nou which is paid for by the club and boasts 1,272 members, most of whom played at various levels for Barca. The numbers have increased from 844 total members a decade ago and include Guardiola and almost every member of Johan Cruyff’s "Dream Team" which won the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

More recent members include Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, with the Brazilians Jose Edmilson and Juliano Belletti, both 42, among the most active. They also play for Barca Legends, a separate group of high-profile former players who take on the veterans of rival giants including Bayern Munich and Manchester United.

The rest of the members are friends of the association who want to support it financially or attend social events – and there are many.

“The social aspect is the most important for me,” Pepito Ramos, a 67-year-old who was Barca’s right-back for seven years between 1976-1983, told The National. “I get to see my former teammates.

"But for others it’s the sporting aspect because they still play football every week. The players can be in tournaments around Catalonia and they enjoy going out to towns and meeting fans who can remember them from many years ago.”

Andres Iniesta, right, is an active member of the ABJ. Getty Images
Andres Iniesta, right, is an active member of the ABJ. Getty Images

Those players also do what they once did best and play football twice a week on pitches by the club’s mini stadium given to them by the club for free. They’re split into three age groups, with the oldest featuring goalkeeper Albert Maiquez, a spritely 78. For many it’s the only way they keep in contact.

“There are some really good players still,” Ramos said, “though they run a little less than they used to.” There are also 90 female former players who are members and they play games using the same facilities.

Importantly, the association exists to help former players, who might require financial assistance to pay for a private operation or to help with mortgage payments. But not every former player, especially those from the 1980s onwards, needs money.

Instead, they can receive other types of support – from access to educational classes or a dedicated job seeker who comes in the office three times a week and tries to match their CVS.

"There are English classes and English classes with an emphasis on football for those who want to go on being involved in football in some capacity,” Ramos explained. “And the Association has really come to the help of those who have suffered bad luck, who have no work, who have fallen on economic hardship or have bad health.”

During his time as Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, along with then president Sandro Rossell, persuaded the first-team players to donate one per cent of their wages to the ABJ and other charitable causes. Getty Images
During his time as Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, along with then president Sandro Rossell, persuaded the first-team players to donate one per cent of their wages to the ABJ and other charitable causes. Getty Images

For example, a former player might arrive after spending all his adult life in football but now finds himself with no money or academic qualifications. His career may have started at Barca before appearing for teams mostly in the third division.

The group will pay for classes to get him into a position where they can get a job and use his skills – which is often football-related and may involve coaching. Emotional support is also provided.

Lionel Messi is unlikely to ever need €9,000 for a private hip replacement, but players before the 1980s received relatively modest wages. Among those who have received help is Antoni Ramallets, a legendary Barca goalkeeper between 1946-1962 and who died, aged 89, in 2013.

Among the key early members were Laszlo Kubala, a former teammate of Ramallets and the greatest player in Barcelona’s history until Messi came along. There is a Camp Nou statue of Kubala, a Hungarian forward who played for Barca between 1951-61 and was voted the club’s greatest ever player in a 1999 poll of fans.

Laszlo Kubala was one of Barcelona's greatest ever players an a key early member of the ABJ. AFP
Laszlo Kubala was one of Barcelona's greatest ever players an a key early member of the ABJ. AFP

The group’s current president is former player Ramon Alfonseda, 71, who has been in the role for 14 years. His contemporaries get into the community, they have strong links with the 1,000 plus official Barca supporters’ clubs and they also go to local hospitals to watch Barça games on television with patients.

That works for the players who feel they are giving something to the community and the patients who enjoy watching with a former player.

The group was also able to send two younger former players to Old Trafford last year for a week to study how Manchester United work and learn their values, to practice their English and to meet Jose Mourinho.

There is an annual dinner at Camp Nou too, one which the senior members and players support and attend. Barca’s motto is ‘More than a club’. When you see the work that extends to helping and supporting former players, that claim doesn’t seem hollow.

Updated: April 8, 2019 04:30 PM

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