x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Barca are not selling the jerseys

Fans are outraged at Barcelona's recent venture, but sponsorship does not need to be a 'them and us' relationship.

Our columnist argues that Lionel Messi and Barcelona already had sponsorship on their shirts before the deal with the Qatar Foundation. David Ramos / Getty Images
Our columnist argues that Lionel Messi and Barcelona already had sponsorship on their shirts before the deal with the Qatar Foundation. David Ramos / Getty Images

Barcelona fans were incensed this week after the club announced an alteration to the team strip.

From next season, Lionel Messi and his chums will play in all-white uniforms, modelled on Real Madrid's, with the famous Catalan flag emblem replaced by a cartoon image of General Franco stamping on the Camp Nou stadium.

Sorry, I have got that wrong. The kit will remain exactly as it was before, but with the name of a different charity emblazoned across the chest. It was the howling of certain Barca fans which made me assume it was something more serious.

The charity is the Qatar Foundation, which will pay Dh145 million per season for the privilege of adorning the famous stripes.

To the high-minded Barcelona fans, this represents an outrageous despoiling of their previously unsponsored shirts.

To those of us who prefer rational thinking over knee-jerk hoo-ha, it would appear to be very good business for a club currently in debt to the tune of Dh194m.

Let's leave aside the fact that the Barcelona shirt actually lost its sponsorship virginity several years ago, when that strange tick - which appears very similar to a Nike swoosh - appeared over the right breast. (Did they think that was just random stitching?)

Let's also leave aside the fact the shirt already carries the name of a charity, Unicef, albeit in a free deal.

Instead, let me ask this question: what is wrong with sponsorship in sport? What is the aesthetic (or, in this case, moral) pleasure of an unsullied strip worth compared to the corporate millions invested in players, facilities and stadiums?

Does it really matter what is written on the shirt? In fact, let me go one step further: I like advertising in sport. The differing sponsors offer a fascinating social history.

Take Liverpool, for example, whose shirt sponsors from 1980 effectively track the changing obsessions of the English people: home entertainment and appliances (Hitachi, Candy), DIY (Crown Paints), alcohol (Carlsberg) and money (Standard Chartered).

Likewise, pitch-side advertising helps to place old matches in context. Watching a 1977 Manchester City-Tottenham Hotspur match recently, I found the Maine Road hoardings for long-lost brands such as Evva Prest trousers and Sure Shield Iodized Throat Lozenges almost as nostalgica as the boggy pitch and 5-0 scoreline.

Until, this being the 1970s, the hoardings were obscured by thousands of fans invading the pitch.

The Barcelona shirt is not being despoiled by commercialisation. It is just collecting a little slice of history, like the "laughter lines" on the face of a happy old soul.

Speaking of which, the Barca fans should take a leaf from Bernie Ecclestone's book. The Formula One chief, who never knowingly misses a commercial opportunity, was recently beaten by muggers who stole his fancy watch.

Ecclestone offered photographs of his injured face to be used in an advert with the slogan: "See what people will do for a Hublot."

How typical of Ecclestone to see the humour and the commercial potential of such an incident. He understands that commerce and sport does not have to be a "them and us" situation, but a powerful partnership. Sport sponsorship is selling our souls? Oh, be quiet!



An age-old problem for Australia

"Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free. We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil, our home is girt by sea."

The opening lines of Advance Australia Fair, the national anthem, encapsulate the spirit that other nations once envied so much: the Aussies were like care-free children, stranded in a bounteous paradise.

In the sporting arena, too, they were young and free. Without the burden of history, the ghosts of failures past, they competed with the simple joy of children.

It was a winning formula, particularly in cricket, particularly against the fussy old cronies from England. In the current Ashes series, however, it feels like the tables have been turned.

It is Australia who seem old, while the young larrikins belong to England: the antics of an irrepressible Graeme Swann, the pop star arrogance of Stuart Broad (now injured, admittedly), Kevin Pietersen getting caught speeding in a Lamborghini.

The Australians seem geriatric by comparison. Poor old Ricky Ponting, the aged Australia captain, seems increasingly like a stubborn pensioner who refuses to accept that he can no longer dig his own allotment. Even his youngish (29) bowler Doug Bollinger wears a wig.

And the home fans do not want to “Advance” but regress, with many calling for Shane Warne, 41, to return from retirement and bamboozle the English with his spin. They sound like my dear grandmother, pining for the return of a long-dead Winston Churchill.

The third Test starts in Perth on Thursday. If the Australia fans fancy a rousing rendition of the national anthem, perhaps they should try my amended version:

"Australians all let us retire, for we are old and past it. Our knees are shot, we ache a lot, our hair is made from plastic."