For years FC Barcelona was held up as the one leading club which was holding out against the complete commercialisation of football, and doing so in the most visible way possible by not besmirching their iconic blaugrana with a big brand name. Then in 2006 previous club president Joan Laporta agreed an arrangement which saw UNICEF's name appear in the sponsors' spot on the club's jersey. Once the slippery slope had been reached, it was no surprise when last December a multi-million euro shirt sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation was announced by current president Sandro Rosell.
This sliding into the commercial mire has not gone down too well with all of the club's fans, especially those of a more traditional or idealistic bent. And with Barcelona being a members club, where in theory its socios get to decide on the most important club matters, this coming Saturday at a specially called Asamblea de Compromisarios a vote will be held on whether to accept or reject the new deal (although it does seem a bit late considering the season has already started, with the team already wearing the sponsored shirts).
The Qatari angle in particular has drawn severe criticism from some Barca supporters, as they say it clashes with Barca's ethical, humanist and Catalan traditions.
"The club is not being open or transparent," said a statement from disgrunted group Consulta Qatar reported in yesterday's AS. "Until now, Rosell has been unable to negate the accusations about the Qatar government's denial of human rights, such as the links between Qatar Foundation and the philosopher Yosuf al-Qadarawi, who is an apologist for Islamic terrorism."
Consulta Qatar say that the club's board will not listen to their concerns, and have gone as far as taking down banners at games in the Camp Nou and expelling protesters from the stadium. They would prefer a referendum where all Barcelona members could decide on the issue, rather than the more limited asamblea which they say favours Rosell and club insiders. They claim the support of over 5,000 socios, but need 7,000 to force the full vote and have asked those eligible to attend on Saturday to show their disapproval by leaving their voting slip blank.
On Tuesday, Barca boss Pep Guardiola entered the debate by saying he was in favour of the Qatar deal.
"It's very good that we debate this and also a very good decision of the board's to let the members decide on it," he said at the press briefing ahead of the mid-week game at Valencia. "It's one of the healthy democratic values we have."
Pep went on to give his own positive view of Qatar, formed when he played two seasons at Al-Ahli in Doha from 2003 to 2005.
"I lived for two years in Qatar and my family and I received wonderful treatment," he said. "Qatar is opening up to the Western world and I know the efforts that the Foundation is putting in to do some really good things. We often don't understand the Muslim world - nor they us. Qatar is the most open Muslim country and the closest to the Western democracies, but they need time."
Guardiola also helped build bridges between East and West in his more recent role as an official Qatar 2022 Bid Ambassador (alongside Gabriel Batistuta, Zinedine Zidane, Ronald de Boer and Roger Milla), which saw the tiny country controversially win the vote to host the finals tournament. Here he is starring in a promotional video for the Qatar bid which includes well-known Barcelona sights like the Sagrada Familía and Las Ramblas. It seems likely that these links with the Gulf-state didn't hurt when Barca were casting around for new revenue sources.
Rosell has warned those giving out about the deal that if Barcelona turn up their noses at the huge cash involved (€165 million over five seasons) the Qataris might just take it elsewhere, and has hinted they could choose bitter rivals Real Madrid. This is pretty obvious scaremongering, although the protesters raising the spectre of Islamic terrorism is not really cricket either. El País has reported in the past about confusion between one Qatari foundation which does good works and another with worrying links with Hamas.
Guardiola was right when he said that, wherever it comes from, the club certainly need the money as they, just like most teams in La Liga (and the Premiership and Serie A too), are in deep financial doo-doo. According to the most recent published accounts Barca's debts have fallen by €67m since Rosell took over, but are still at €364m.
Meanwhile, as Barca's more idealistic fans protest against the source of the money needed to pay the wages of their home-grown superstars, four of La Liga's second tier sides - Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Villarreal - have started the season without any shirt sponsor at all. Some might say that the protesters should just be thankful that they get to support perhaps the best club side of all time, but still you have to admire their adherence to the more ethical end of their club's traditions no matter how old-fashioned and impractical that might now seem.