I’m nervous, seriously nervous. In a few hours, in the Olympic stadium in Rome, FC Barcelona (or “Barca,” as its supporters call it) will face Manchester United, the other soccer superpower, in the game of all games, the final of the UEFA Champions League, the most important club competition in Europe (and the world, for that matter). Both teams have already won two trophies this season (their national leagues and national cups, respectively), and a victory in Rome would see either one clinch the “treble.” For Barca, it would be a historic accomplishment–no other Spanish soccer team has ever won all three possible titles in one season. That’s not the only superlative in the lead-up to the game: Messi, Eto'o, and Henry–Barca’s offensive trio–have scored more goals together this year than the entire squad of any other European club.
I’ll be watching the game at a resort near Santa Barbara, and it’ll be the end of journey for me, in many ways: I have been following Barca’s triumphant season leading to today’s final in different cities all over the world on TV. I saw the team struggle against Lyon in an earlier round in a packed sports bar in Amsterdam; I bit my nails in a smelly pub in Austin when Barca remained goalless in the home tie against Chelsea; I took a day off from work in San Francisco to enjoy them trashing Bayern Munich 4-1; I was in Barcelona in a bar without any Euros but a kind bartender (the comfort of strangers) who even accepted a few lousy dollars for a beer that helped me make it through a dramatic away game; I followed games on the Internet live-ticker in Sonoma County in lack of TV; and I celebrated euphorically the decisive 1-1 goal in Chelsea in the semi-final with my best friend in Hamburg. After all these memorable moments, I realize that I am emotionally exhausted. There’s just enough sentiment left for today’s game. I will use it to cheer Barca to victory.
So I am a Barca fan, but you may wonder why in the world would an otherwise level-headed (I hope) German professional, living in San Francisco, be so crazy about a Catalan soccer team? Joan Laporta, FC Barcelona’s president, asked me exactly that question (more diplomatically phrased) when I met him briefly two years ago at an event at Stanford University, and I uttered something like “because Barca is more than a club.” I felt stupid and exposed as succumbing to the marketing formula the club had promoted for years: “Mes que un club.” But then I thought of that one remarkable moment in Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous” in which he tries to make fun of the actor who plays Jesus in a Christian theme park in Florida. Not a difficult task, it seems, until that very actor asks him back, with great sincerity and earnestness: “So you think this is all made up and crazy talk. I get it. But what if you're wrong?” There’s a short pause, and Maher, the cynic, has just been disarmed. That’s exactly how I feel about my passion for Barca. Not that Barca is like a religion to me, but it is a matter of faith. It is something to believe in–the why doesn’t matter.
And yet, I could cite very good reasons for why Barca ought to be the favorite club of anyone who loves the “beautiful game.” In fact, Albert Schweitzer must have had Barca in mind when he coined his famous aphorism: “Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.” Much has been written about Barca’s aesthical play and its underlying philosophy. Barca’s style is a showcase of sparkling creativity, but what one must not overlook is the enormous tactical discipline and the intelligent organization that serve as the platform for the magic moments of Messi, Eto’o, Henry et al. The Barca superstars wouldn’t be able to shine without the works of Xavi, Iniesta, and Toure in midfield, and what pundits have rightly dubbed an “efficient ballet” is a collective movement of great fluidity and elegance, and a unique series of human-ball, human-human interactions that are a true pleasure to watch. One must also credit the incredible discipline that coach and former Barca player Pep Guardiola has introduced to the club this year. When a few players showed up one(!) minute late to a training session last week after winning the Spanish cup the night before, Guardiola reprimanded them and fined them – a symbolic act, of course, but one that reinforced the high standards of professionalism.
One of the other key elements of Barca’s supremacy is anticipation – the ability to predict the opponents’ moves and be just one crucial tick faster than them. This ability is based on the philosophy of “Total Football” that the Dutchmen Johann Cruyff and Luis van Gaal brought to Barcelona, and that Barca still cherishes. Total Football requires every player on the pitch to master any position at any time and to “read” the whole game from any angle. In this fluid system no player is fixed in their intended outfield role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder, and a defender. Total Football depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team to succeed.
Barcelona embodies Total Football and is yet so much more than just football. To learn more about the genuine element of drama that no other club embraces in the way Barca does, I recommend you read Javier Marias' “All Our Past Battles,” a wonderful collection of stories around the “el classicos” between Barca and arch rival Real Madrid. You’ll understand the melodramatic quality of Barca’s defeats (and wins!), and the great poetry that surrounds all of its appearances, on the pitch and off. More than just once, Barca squandered opportunities to close in on a victory that was thought secure because the team’s abundantly talented players gave in to a seemingly insatiable quest for inspiration, artistry, and class rather than scoring a simple goal. The simple way is never the easiest for Barca. Barca’s striving for excellence feels nostalgic but at the same time very relevant and timely.
Franklin Foer also dedicates a whole chapter to the “Blaugrana” (Catalan for blue/red) club and its political undercurrents in his excellent “How Soccer Explains the World.” FC Barcelona was one of the first soccer clubs to be founded in Spain, and it became a haven for Catalan sentiment when Catalan self-government and culture were proscribed during Franco’s dictatorship. The club emerged as the playful manifesto of Catalonia’s spiritual independence, and since then, nowhere has soccer been more fundamental to the sense of identity than in Barcelona. Former Barca full back Oleguer even published a book which was about politics as much as his own career. Barca supporters joke that he only played when he was not on a protest march.
It is ironic that a club rooted deeply in Catalan nationalism has such an international following. But Barca’s appeal is so global precisely because its roots are so local. Barca represents the Catalan people while at the same time creating a sense of \belonging to “beauty and quality.” The meaning of Barca transcends the boundaries of sports and nations, and embodies the universal values of sportsmanship and integrity.
Every brand can take a page from Barca’s “magic ingredients”:
Aspiration: Barca has always set itself and its members daunting challenges to strive for and rally around. The latest one is “The Great Challenge” campaign which aims at growing the membership, fostering Barca as the biggest and greatest club in world soccer. Before the beginning of this season Barca also declared that its goal was to win all three competitions it participated in. Some may call this arrogance, but for Barca it's a brand driver. The “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” set by excellent teams always need to exceed the past ones. Motivation originates in the belief and opportunity to achieve the extraordinary–no matter what it takes. Underpromise and overdeliver is just good execution. Overpromise and overdeliver are the signs of a class act.
Only the best: Barca’s management and members are never satisfied with average, and they despise mediocrity. They understand top quality, tactically advanced soccer as a moral obligation. Only the best players make it to Barca where the competition is brutal. Analogous to GE's famous 10 percent rule, the lowest performing players in the team usually have to leave the club.
Social responsibility: Barca is fully owned by its members, unlike most other big soccer clubs--which are either in the hands of large corporations or American (Manchester United) and Russian (FC Chelsea) billionaires--and they possess significant voting power. This “power to the people” tradition reflects a distinct social conscience that is expressed in many ways. Sure, other clubs are using the power of their brands as well to do good, but no other club’s social responsibility is so deeply engrained in its DNA as Barca’s. Based on its spirit of independence, the club has always taken on broader social issues and played a pivotal role in promoting diversity, tolerance, and peace worldwide. Barca’s partnership with UNICEF is a statement of the club's continuing efforts to be at the forefront of solidarity projects with a global reach. Under the agreement, which bears the slogan “Barcelona, more than a club, a new global hope for vulnerable children,” Barca contributes to the financing of UNICEF humanitarian projects and endorses UNICEF on its shirts–as the only major European team not to wear an advertisement. Club president Joan Laporta rules out any type of commercial shirt sponsorship and instead seeks to promote a humanitarian message: "FC Barcelona is not only a football club, but a club with a soul.”
The real thing: To a European soccer fan living in the US who has grown accustomed to hyper-commercialized sports events, it is reassuring to see how purist the soccer experience still is in Barca’s stadium, the Camp Nou – a few pre-game commercials, no half-time show whatsoever, and all attention on the players, even during their warm-up exercises before the game. In Camp Nou, it is all about the “beautiful game.”
Charismatic reference point: Messi, arguably the world's best soccer player, serves as a reference point for team mates and fans alike. There is no one else like him, and he outshines all other soccer superstars with his playfulness.
Disruption: Powerful brands need an element of surprise. They should always take the freedom to ignore the quest for consistency and do what they want--irrationally, passionately, and with no regrets. Every three years or so, when a cycle ends, Barca’s management disrupts the existing team structure and builds a new squad. The rule is: Always change a winning team! By all standards of modern business, Barca is a professionally managed club but yet there is a sense that anything could happen anytime – almost like in a soccer match.
The Champions League final today will be another milestone in the saga of the Barca brand, regardless of who wins (2-1 for Barca, my prediction). Humility and hard work have been the traits of Barca's season so far, and in the end, dignity will matter more than titles and trophies at a club that is “more than a club.” And that exactly is the hallmark of a great brand: “Keep yourself clean and bright. You are the windows through which you must view the world,” the ancient proverb goes.