01 June 2014

Més que un club? A pox on that.

I used to feel an affinity for Barcelona, as if they and Arsenal were kindred clubs bonded by a shared commitment to a different approach to football, an approach defined by a belief in attractive, stylish football built from a foundation of development from within, nurturing young talent, and noble ideals. Our mottos espouse similar beliefs—their més que un club and our Victoria Concordia Crescit each proclaim something loftier than merely winning matches or hoisting trophies, as is each victory heralds some kind of milestone, not just for football, but for humanity itself. The risk of painting oneself in such colors, of course, is that it invites ridicule. And so it is ridicule that I offer.

I'll admit to feeling no small amount of envy when I consider Barça. After all, they have played a style of football that we at Arsenal strive (and struggle) to emulate, and they succeed at it far more often than do we. We are Barça Juniors, so to speak, a pale imitation of how Barça play, not to mention how often they succeed. Before I got into this business of blogging, I bought into the myth that Barça were fundamentally different, above the fray somehow, knights in shining armor who fought valiantly against the darker forces embodied by Real Madrid. Real, of course, offered a convenient, caricatured counterpoint, a dastardly villain who would resort to the darkest of arts in pursuit of glory. Buying all manner of galácticos. Hiring Mourinho. And so on. Ironically, they rode into battle, los Blancos, as if they were the pure of heart. Meanwhile, for many years, it was Barça that emblazoned its kits not with a betting site but with UNICEF, announcing a clarion call to the heavens of its putative purity.

However, as we've plumbed the depths of Fàbregas's possible return to Arsenal, I can't help but feel that something has been lost, that this nobility emanating from the Camp Nou, is looking a bit thread-bare, a bit shabby. I don't bear any ill will against the club for the many players who have left us to join them—Henry, Petit, Overmars, Hleb, Fàbregas, Sylvinho, Song—I can't help but feel that the number of transfers, not to mention the quality of players involved, peels back the curtain on a more-sordid way of comporting oneself. Now, it's a bridge too far to suggest that Barça are cut from the same cloth as their rivals Real Madrid, but the fit is a bit too close for comfort. They're not quite stocking the squad with galácticos, but they sure are aggressive in the transfer-market all the same. For years now, they've racked up transfer-deficits in millions and millions of pounds, the most modest being 2012-13 when they went into the red by "only" £12m. Here's a quick run-down of their transfer-dealings:
  • 2013-14: £37m deficit.
  • 2012-13: £28m deficit.
  • 2011-12: £11m deficit.
  • 2010-11: £23m deficit.
  • 2009-10: £78m deficit.
That may not be quite as eye-popping as the deficits at the Etihad, Bernabeu, Parc des Princes, or Stamford Bridge. Then again, only Barça professes any kind of deeper ideology beyond winning. If anything, the aforementioned four horseman of the apocalypse have the good taste to announce their amorality up-front rather than cloaking their venality behind a veneer of virtue. I realize that I walk a fine line now as we enter the silly season and lust after various players who might elevate Arsenal to the next echelon—on what footing will I stand if we again drop a cool £40m or more on a player?—but I wash my hands of Barça. They are not the club I believed them to be. Even the club's commitment to development from within has been tainted with the announcement of FIFA sanctions because the club was "found to be in breach of art. 19 of the Regulations in the case of ten minor players and to have committed several other concurrent infringements in the context of other players, including under Annexe 2 of the Regulations. The Disciplinary Committee regarded the infringements as serious and decided to sanction the club with a transfer ban at both national and international level for two complete and consecutive transfer periods, together with a fine of [£310,000]". In other words, they're not even trying to pretend that they're developing players from within.

I don't regret the time I've spent respecting them. It won't be the first time that I've learned someone or something I've respected wasn't all I made them out to be. We're all human, after all, and institutions are little more than a collection of those humans. Inevitably, we're destined to fail, and to do so more often than we succeed. So it goes. The question then becomes, how do we portray those failures? Barça continues to whitewash, to cloak itself in this holier-than-thou mentality that offers as much substance as a gossamer négligée, one that leaves precious little to the imagination.

Here's where the splitting of hairs, the cognitive dissonance, comes in. If our pursuit of Fàbregas is legitimate, are we (a) acting just as Barça act, or are we (b) rescuing the man from a rapacious club?

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