Spanish football giants Barcelona’s slogan is “Més que un club” (More than a club). This means that the club transcends the sport of football, with a commitment that goes beyond the Catalan region, in which the city is based, to the wider world.
I spent last weekend in Barcelona and was exposed to the reality that football here was no longer just a game.
In Nigeria we all like to think we are a football-mad country. But how football is run in Nigeria is as far removed from what I witnessed in Barcelona as an almajiri school in northern Nigeria is different from Harvard University.
FC Barcelona is not just about running a football club. It is a $700m a year operation that takes in tourism, merchandising, a library, museum, a megastore, commercial sponsors, and so on.
I arrived in the city a day before they played Valencia and decided to take a look around the Camp Nou, as my hotel was less than two minutes away. It was like 7pm and the place was heaving with people from all over the world. For 23 euros an adult and 17 euros for a child you get to do the “Camp Nou Experience and Museum Tour”. They even had “VIP” tickets, which I didn’t bother to ask the price. While the city is rich in culture and history, the Barca museum is the most visited museum in the entire region. For 20 euros you could have your picture taken with a replica Champions League trophy.
On match-day, 106 euros got me a seat high up in the covered area of the north stand by the corner flag. Seats by the “Grand Stand” behind the dugout cost a whole lot more. But the Camp Nou is such a great work of architecture that you have a great view of the entire pitch no matter where you sat.
The game itself wasn’t the best Barcelona had played. For long spells Valencia had them under the cosh. But Barca scored in the first and last minute to win 2-0 from Luis Suarez and Messi. The atmosphere from a near capacity 92,915 crowd had to be witnessed to be believed. A woman next to me had come all the way from Japan. There were English, Canadians, etc around us. At half time there was a presentation to a boy from Toronto that had won a football award.
The main chants during the game were the anthem “El Cant del Barca”, “Messi, Messi, Messi” and more significantly “viva La Masia”. La Masia is the club’s academy where Messi was taught the fundamentals of the game from 13. Andres Iniesta was there from 11. Captain Xavi Hernandez said of the academy: “I was 11 when I arrived, and the football philosophy of this club was drilled into me from the off.” Four of the starters against Valencia were La Masia graduates (Messi, Pique, Sergio Busquets and Xavi). Two other graduates Sergi Roberto and Pedro came on as substitutes. Other La Masia first-teamers like Iniesta and Jordi Alba were injured.
Barcelona invests about 20m euros a year in La Masia, and they are unmatched among other major teams in Europe in terms of the number of academy products in the first team. Xavi said: “You can see the results of that development, with eight or nine key players in the Barcelona first team having come through the ranks. They are the base on which the team is built.”
With the chants of “viva La Masia” it was clear that the Camp Nou faithful could see the benefits of investing in youth development.
When Barcelona play football, what we see are the results of structures put in place when Johan Cruyff took over as coach in 1988 and remodelled the footballing philosophy of the club, from the youth academy to the first team, on a style of play (“Total Football”) and coaching methods first developed at Ajax Amsterdam by the legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels.
In stark contrast, there is hardly any long-term planning in Nigeria, and we always imagine we can just produce good footballers from dusty parks. There is little or no emphasis on coaching development. Coaches are meant to be teachers, and if you don’t invest in the education of coaches, you are bound to have teachers “teaching nonsense” (apologies to Fela Kuti).
While a talented young Nigerian footballer is at the mercy of a games-master “coach” in secondary school, whose knowledge of game is not beyond rudimentary, the next generation of Messis and Iniestas are under the tutelage of Jordi Roura, the Director of Youth Football at La Masia, who was assistant first team coach under Tito Vilanova. Roura and the rest of the coaches, teaching kids from 7 to 18 all have Uefa coaching licences – the highest level of coaching education in Europe.
With this level of organisation, management and preparedness, success at Barcelona is not an accident. It is not a surprise that people came from all around the world to see what has been built there for nearly 30 years.
Nigerian football is crying out for a bit of this organisation. Crowds at national league games are abysmal. Enugu Rangers, the club I support, do not even have a website. The club can’t function without handouts from the Enugu State government, yet with a website, it has the potential to reach out to fans and market memorabilia across the globe.
Odi Ikpeazu, the chairman of now defunct Nigeria National League side, Anambra United Football Club of Onitsha said in a recent interview: “You know there’s little income and no patronage. Nigerians prefer to watch Chelsea and Arsenal and the rest of them. They can even tell you the middle name of Peter Crouch’s grandfather”.
There’s little income and patronage from Nigerian fans for Nigerian clubs because English and Spanish clubs have decided to globalise in their pursuit of profit. But in order to market their product to wider audiences, they built it up to standards that made the product competitive. As I witnessed this past weekend, if you build it they will come.