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Barcelona's changing colours

Hermenigil Sebastia Rivera has been a member of FC Barcelona football club for the past 50 years. In all those years of going to the mythic Camp Nou with his wife, his team has never carried a paying sponsor on their shirt.

"Where the husband goes, the wife goes too," he told ESPNsoccernet, proudly displaying their membership cards with two red and blue striped seat cushions dangling from his left hand. But traditional values appear to have abruptly ended when he was asked about Barcelona's new sponsor from Qatar.

"Brilliant news for us," he said. "As the Catalans say: the money is the money. The deal is good. It's from Qatar and Pep was there for two years as a player. I feel this is good for the club, because right now we have to save money and pay what we owe to the banks."

From UNICEF's golden logo to Qatar Foundation's green tree, Barcelona's shirt is changing for the coming season. According to president Sandro Rosell, the club's debt is currently in the region of €600 million, making the deal a financial necessity. But not everyone is as convinced as Rivera, causing a fine Catalan controversy this past week.

FC Barcelona lost something forever: their status as the only club in top-level football still without a sponsor on their shirts. As the current coach of the Catalan national team, and Barcelona legend, Johann Cryuff said: "With this deal with Qatar, Barcelona isn't more than a club any longer, it's just one more club."

Critics say that new President Rosell is indeed selling the club's soul to the devil, so to speak. The opposing sides seem to be entirely irreconcilable: traditional idealism on the one side, financial realism on the other. But which one will prevail at the club which turned 111 this year?

Rosell arrived at last week's packed press conference with a confident wink at the audience. 'Look what a big fish I've hooked for us', he seemed to say with his body language, which then turned a little less contented with the flood of critical questions coming his way.

But the most interesting aspect of this flashy ceremony was that the questions were more fiercely against Qatar's human rights and socio-political track record rather than at the general idea of taking on a sponsor, which seemed to be accepted with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Rosell himself, highly involved in brokering the deal after having made previous business with the Aspire Academy in Doha, epitomised this line of resigned realism by likening the club to a huge cross-Atlantic luxury liner with a powerful motor. A luxurious array of world class players and coach Pep Guardiola, but with upper level leaks which need to fixed through deals such as this one.

It was an alarming analogy to club members because we all know which luxurious ship famously sunk in the cold Atlantic, and we can all deduce which wise captain is now in the process of bending the liner around to the warmer waters of the Middle East and Qatar.

While it is the Qatar Sports Investment company which is paying the world record fee for the next six years, amounting to €165 million in total, another organisation is to be placed on the new Barcelona shirt.

This is best explained in that the deal is a matter of Qatari national prestige rather than advertising need, and there is no more prestigious project than the green-tree lined Qatar Foundation, which is aiming to turn an economy based on oil and gas riches into a vibrant knowledge-based economy of the future.

The flagship project is Education City, a sprawling complex of world class university faculties which will incidentally also see the creation of a brand new stadium for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Last year, standing on a football pitch inside Education City in the sweltering heat of summer, watching the son of ESPNsoccernet's Spain columnist Phil Ball playing against a selection of Qatari youngsters, it was noticeable that many of them were wearing the various Barcelona shirts already. So can the deal have any real influence on the young generation of Qatari players growing up with the added impetus of their local World Cup in 12 years' time?

It may not in itself, but further deals have already been alluded to by Rosell's team, and one might well be some form of cooperation with the Aspire Academy. La Masia could be the perfect place for the Qataris to find inspiration to make a splash at their home World Cup.

And talking about splashes, what about the reactions within that luxurious liner heading to the Middle East these days? Rosell was unfazed by Cryuff's criticism, saying rather ironically "legends are always right". And it seems that at least for this particular deal, the majority of club members are behind their ambitious new president.

On that free-scoring mid-December night in Camp Nou, there was not a single fan who did not support the agreement with Qatar Foundation, with many pointing to the benefits of having an educational organisation on their shirts.

So Barcelona changing shirt colours may have the support of their members for now, even if shouts of 'sell-out' can be heard from the blaugrana ranks here and there. But talk of many such deals to stop the leaks in the FC Barcelona ship may really test the patience of even the most long-standing club members, like Hermenigil and his loyal wife.


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