Okay, okay—this blog will not devolve into the FC Barcelona-centric equivalent of SapphicErotica.com (hello, web traffic!), nor will it be an all-soccer-all-the-time nerdfest. (Well, no promises there, actually.) But as the post-Cup praise for the new Champions of Everything that Matters slobbers on—and given the permanent business-world vogue for trying to clone the “corporate cultures” of any mega-successful entities—I think it’s worth reflecting on what Barca’s triumph can teach us about how to do things with success and style, in sport and beyond.
“Mes que un club,” etc., etc., blah blah, insert cliché regarding Catalan national identity and peaceful resistance here. It is true, though, that this organization possesses something very few other organizations of any kind can match. In vulgar but current terminology, the FC Barcelona brand means something that other sports brands do not. The club’s set-up and approach produces excellence that money alone can’t buy—as evidenced by the extraordinary fact that seven of the Barca starting XI in yesterday’s match came up through the club’s developmental system, as did brilliant rookie manager Pep Guardiola. In the Guardian, Richard Williams writes:
Barcelona’s style is nurtured and honed at La Masia, the old building that houses their cantera, or academy. When Camp Nou was being built in the north-western outskirts of the city in the mid 1950s, it was used as a headquarters for the architects and builders working on a project that eventually produced one of the world’s great football arenas. The metaphor is irresistible: now La Masia is where the plans are drawn up for the world’s most beautiful football team, starting with its foundations.
Beyond that impressive commitment to homegrown talent and investment in future “human capital,” what sort of Good to Great-esque, PowerPoint-friendly wisdom can we distill from FC Barcelona? Without even charging my usual massive consultancy fees, I hazard the following:
—Quasi-commie democracy and deep roots can work: Item One will not come as particularly good news to our Masters of the Universe-style biznesmeni, but Barcelona owes its mystique and, I think, its success to its collective ownership model. As I noted in a previous post, 163,000 fans control the club, and executives must win often-contentious elections. This model is not unusual in Continental football, and even my limited understanding suggests that it’s far from perfect. However, it would be very interesting to see an American sports franchise—or, really, any kind of business—give this much real authority to its most committed supporters. The framework also means Barca can never be sold or moved. Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders promise to try a watered-down version of fan control—an experiment worth watching.
—If you have an identity, stick with it: You’d never catch Barcelona doing what, say, the Detroit Pistons did in the early ‘90s. They would never cashier their time-honored crest or iconic uniforms in favor of some short-term rebranding. Times and fashion change, but FC Barcelona does not—it is always modern, always venerable, always fashionable. The entire National Hockey League could learn from this approach.
—Figure out what you’re about and stick with that, too: At least since the golden age of Johan Cruyff, Barcelona has more or less insisted on playing an intricate, aesthetic passing game. This approach demands that very good players develop exceptional rapport with one another, and does not guarantee perpetual success. (In fact, the muscular berserkers of Chelsea came within a few minutes of blowing it to ribbons in this year’s Champions League.) Barcelona keeps playing that way, it would seem, for two reasons. One, it’s cool. Two, this style expresses the more intangible values at the club’s core: freedom, social solidarity and the creative spirit of the city of Barcelona itself.
—Don’t sell out (for cheap): For years, Barcelona held the line against soccer’s standard shirt sponsorship, until its red and blue strip became the most coveted advertising real estate in football. Then—no doubt infuriating their rivals—they struck a deal with Unicef, reversing the usual arrangement by offering a cash contribution for the right to advertise the organization’s seal. This genius piece of marketing jujitsu no doubt paid off double in shirt sales and positive PR.
—Take risks to promote your people: When Barca went looking for a manager last year, they could have hired anyone. Anyone. A lot of people wanted them to hire ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, the consummate results-oriented tactician and a proven winner in the Champions League, England and Italy. Instead, the directors gambled on youthful Pep Guardiola, a former star player and FCB lifer who understands the club’s culture in his blood and bones. Recent results speak for themselves.
So there it is, would-be billionaires: Collectivize your businesses; exalt your most archaic values; turn control over to thousands of anonymous shareholders; insist on operating in high style regardless of results; give tons of money to international charities; hire totally untested talent for your most important jobs. It’s…the Barcelona Way!