DAVID CONN, THE GUARDIAN, WEDNESDAY MAY 17, 2006
Ronaldinho, of Barcelona and Brazil
In the summer of 1999, after Manchester United fans had beaten off the attempt by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB to take over their club, London’s Birkbeck College hosted a conference on how to restore heart and soul to a game becoming ravenously commercialised. In the flush of victory Andy Walsh, a United supporters’ group leader, talked fervently about “rolling back the plc” at Old Trafford. Brian Lomax, a Northampton Town supporter, explained how disaffected Cobblers fans had formed a pioneering supporters’ trust, bought a small stake in the club and elected a director to the board.
In the front row were four well turned out men, including a little chap with a neat side parting, Joan Laporta. They were from Elefant Blau (Blue Elephant), a group lobbying for more supporter democracy at FC Barcelona, which was then tumbling from greatness under its president, Josep Lluís Núñez.
The Catalans’ presence inspired a movement here to show that supporter owned football clubs are not Utopian visions conjured up over a beer in the Gorse Hill pub in Stretford or the Butcher’s Arms in Northampton. Almost all British football clubs began as members’ organisations and here was Barcelona, one of the world’s greats, still owned by its 100,000 fan-members.
The Elefant Blau campaign had rounded on a “Barça 2000” commercial redevelopment planned around the Camp Nou, scorning it as tat – “a kind of Disneyland park,” Laporta said – and a selling out of the club’s proud traditions and values. Theirs is a history with which many British fans are now familiar; Barça became a Catalan rallying point, first against the Spanish dictator General Primo de Rivera in the 1920s, then throughout the rule of General Franco, whose fascist troops bombed Barça’s social club in 1938 and murdered the club’s president, Josep Sunol. FC Barcelona proclaimed itself “more than a club”, becoming a focal point for a region and for sporting and democratic values.
By 2003 the UK Government had backed the progressive idea of supporter ownership and established Supporters Direct to help fans form trusts, yet it has never given the organisation any funding or had the gumption to introduce reforms to big business football which might help fans gain a stake. The current chief executive, Philip French, talks spiritedly about trust-run clubs becoming “community hubs” but first he must secure money simply to keep the organisation going. Still 140 supporters trusts have formed, and, particularly after ITV Digital’s collapse in 2002, Supporters Direct’s threadbare staff, led by Lomax, toured the country helping fans form trusts. At Lincoln, Chesterfield, Exeter, York and elsewhere, trusts took clubs over minutes from the knacker’s yard of insolvency.
In the Premier League and Championship, however, the financial value of clubs has blocked supporter ownership. When Roman Abramovich resolved to drop some of his unholy oil fortune into a football club, he found that Barcelona and Real Madrid are member clubs and cannot be bought. All our great names, by contrast, are limited companies and are available.
In Barcelona Laporta had an avenue for his protest. He stood for election against Núñez’s successor, Joan Gaspart, promising a renaissance through reinvigoration of the membership and David Beckham in midfield. He won.
Since then Laporta, a lawyer, has not always conformed to an idealised view of how a fan might behave in the halls of football power. His approach has been relentlessly commercial, seeking to turn around £100m debts by signing major stars. The fans missed out on Becks so, poor souls, had to make do with Ronaldinho. Barça are not shy of the language many fans here detest: of the club as a brand, the membership an opportunity to sell merchandise.
Some United campaigners who met Laporta in London feel let down because he lent no support to their anti-Glazer campaign. The plc was dissolved not by fans but by the Glazer takeover, and Walsh and many fellow disenchanted United fans turned away to form their own democratically run club, FC United, which had a storming first season at the base of the football pyramid.
Some say that, as Barça are part of the G14 group of elite clubs and hungrily claim their imbalanced share of the domestic Spanish TV deal, they are setting no example for a more collective, sporting way to run football.
Yet that is a harsh view. Barcelona make money and are obsessively ambitious but they still take the field in Paris tonight embodying a more inspirational identity for a football club than being a private company owned by businessmen or an oligarch’s toy.
“The fans truly own this club,” Ferran Seriano, one of the club’s vicepresidents, says. “They control its destiny and can decide how it will be managed. This is totally different from Arsenal [two-thirds owned by ITV, businessmen Danny Fiszman and David Dein, and Lady Nina and Sir Charles Bracewell-Smith] or Chelsea, owned by one guy who could one day withdraw his investment.”
Laporta and his new board have turned the club round by capitalising on playing success, including two La Liga championships orchestrated by Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Deco and the rest. The membership has grown from 106,000 to 142,000. While the club does work hard to turn that loyalty into cash, democracy is real. The need for the board to be accountable and stay popular with the fans means that season tickets are affordable compared with other major clubs, with the cheapest €101 (£69), enough to make the holder of a seat at Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium weep into his credit card statement.
“It is a challenge to remain memberowned and compete against the richest clubs,” Seriano said. “For example, we run other sports, like handball and basketball – which make a loss – because our constitution states we must promote all sport in Barcelona.
“But we do compete, with pride in who we are, our history and values. Our supporters would feel alienated if we had a structure like Arsenal or Chelsea.”
Of the famous, remarkable absence of advertising across the team shirt, Seriano said that the club’s fans voted in 2003 to allow it, given the scale of the debt, but as the finances improved the club never took the plunge. Barça have decided they will not, anyway, accept sponsorship from a gambling company, as Spurs did this week, and are considering instead carrying a humanitarian message on their shirts next season. It is difficult to picture the Glazers mulling over the same idea.
Tonight the players Laporta signed may bring more glory but, whatever happens, next spring he must stand for re-election. That democracy maintains Barça’s status as a sporting beacon, a people’s club: if supporters do not approve of the people running it, they can vote them out. Imagine that at Old Trafford.
The Camp Nou way
142,000 Barcelona members or socios
4 Major shareholders in Arsenal
£69 Cheapest adult season ticket at the Camp Nou (Barcelona)
£885 Cheapest at the Emirates Stadium (Arsenal)
£579 Most expensive adult season ticket at the Camp Nou
£1,825 Most expensive at the Emirates Stadium
£84m Barça’s income in 2002-03, before Joan Laporta took over
£163m Barça’s income in 2005-6
2 Maximum number of four-year terms a Barça president may serve