Barca no more than a club
Barcelona built their success on their unassailable moral ethos. They are eagerly, by themselves even, held up in comparison against the venal foundations of top-flight football, and its often ugly expression on the pitch.
Unlike others, they do not sacrifice beauty for success. They're too good to even consider something so gauche. Their matches are regarded as an irresistible 90-minute exhibition routinely ending in five-goal demolitions.
They have monopolised the Ballon d'Or backslapping: Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, all cantera products, and all slavishly noted as such. Even Madrid fans have had to applaud the performances of this club. There is not a broadsheet journalist who will not swoon in their favour. Andy Gray's obsession with a wet evening in Stoke aside, there is not a television pundit who does not bow to Leo Messi's sex appeal and effectiveness.
Barcelona go further still. Promoting Unicef, they give publicity to an indisputably good cause. They're run by their members, whereas Arsenal have exiled shareholders and AC Milan have a man who, in his ex-wife's words, "frequents minors". They are the antithesis of their great rivals, Real Madrid. They're more than a club.
Poppycock. They're as cynically organised as any other big club.
Their homegrown players are the finest youth team products since Fergie's kids, but we should remember that Barcelona have spent more than almost any other club for their success. Dani Alves, a full back, cost €20 million. Reluctant jogger Zlatan Ibrahimovic cost them the superior Samuel Eto'o and tens of millions. David Villa cost €40 million. Add to this Thierry Henry, Seydou Keita, Alexander Hleb, Keirrison (who's never played for Barca), Dmytro Chygrynskiy (who probably never should have) and you have proof that they've a scattergun approach to picking up players, and an unsuccessful one at finding bargains. They've paid well over the odds for most of their players. Javier Mascherano might prove this year's most unwarranted purchase, and an exercise in avarice rather than necessity.
With these huge transfers come similar wages. Few would deny a club their purchasing power. The same people would also not deny that this is simply buying success. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but Barcelona cannot pretend that it is their self-reliance that is winning the league. Their balance sheet is their 12th man. Their foreign tours, debt and gate receipts are as important as Puyol, Busquets and Pedro.
The fans and board like to pretend otherwise, but Barcelona is a business like any other club. It shouldn't be surprising that fiscal crisis intruded on this pretence in the summer. The loan of €100-150 million to pay wages suggests they are just as guilty of financial doping as Chelsea or Real Madrid. If Sandro Rosell is right, the case of financial impropriety against Joan Laporta might have even more serious consequences. Barcelona, in theory at the beck and call of their members, have been subjected to executive obfuscation just as much as Manchester United fans have been by the Glazers.
The urgent financial worries bring into light the possible deeper reasons for the Unicef sponsorship. At the time praised as an altruistic gesture, reinforcing the difference between these Catalans and anyone else, it's logical to suggest it was a diabolically effective plan to soften up the crowd for sponsorship. Flattering their crowd into putting out. It's not cynical either to suggest that choosing a Qatari pseudo-charity as the next advertising interlopers is their bridge to full corporate sponsorship. Give credit to the board: it's a brilliant manoeuvre, and there's nothing intrinsically immoral about advertising of this sort. However, Barcelona negotiated with China, human rights abusers on an incomparable scale, with a view to advertising the Beijing Olympics on their shirt. More than a club? Yes, also an organisation that considered backing the Chinese political system.
While Real are criticised for having the privilege of royal patronage, Barca are praised as football's saviours. This ignores that the two gad about in tandem for the most outrageous operation of self-interest in Europe. English television revenue, at least within the Premier League, is distributed fairly. In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid take as much money as they can, the rest be damned. It might fit with the picture of the evil Madrid empire, but it makes the praise of Barcelona as guardians of football fundamentals as disingenuous and distasteful. This isn't a spiritual institution - it's a shameless cartel. Barcelona play football the way St Arsene decrees, but off the pitch they've no moral fibre.
The opinions on Barcelona and Real Madrid differ in the transfer market, even though they act with the same lack of dignity. Real Madrid were rightly attacked by Sir Alex Ferguson and the wider media for their almost priapic pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo over three years. There wasn't a week that went past without a player or executive panting over his arrival. Far quieter is the criticism for Barcelona's explicit tapping-up of Cesc Fabregas. This is possibly the first example of Chinese water torture being used as a template to secure a signature. The drip, drip, drip of Gerard Pique and Leo Messi in interviews, and the desperate spectacle of the World Cup celebrations, is even less edifying than Garry Cook retrospectively dismissing Kaka and his dad as bottlers.
In reality, Barcelona are brilliant, devastatingly handsome, hypocritical and deeply flawed. It might annoy them profoundly, but if Barcelona were a person, they would be Jose Mourinho.