By Neil W. Blackmon
“Mas Que Un Club”
— Club Motto of FC Barcelona
This article was originally going to run Sunday or Saturday evening, before the announcement by FIFA that Barcelona midfielder and Spanish international Sergio Busquets was cleared of wrongdoing for alleged racist statements made to Real Madrid’s Marcelo in the second leg of the Champions League Semifinals. After a bit of debate, and with mild modifications, we felt it appropriate to run the column regardless, particularly because the central thesis hasn’t changed even in light of FIFA’s decision not to suspend Busquets. A bit of background is essential.
Last week was a great week for club football, both in the States and abroad. Manchester United was playing for a point and its 19th first division championship. For those of you living in an office or a cave, they succeeded. Manchester City was playing for its first championship of any sort in nearly forty years. They succeeded as well. Glasgow’s giants- Rangers and Celtic- entered Sunday both still fighting (as they have on and off the pitch for a century) for the Scottish crown. Rangers left no doubt, winning 5-0 and securing a final trophy for legendary manager Walter Smith, a feat most would have thought impossible trailing by several points only two months ago. Several relegation battles were playing themselves out in England- most notably and sadly the fight of long-time first division side West Ham United to stay up. The Hammers played a match that was a microcosm of why they are going down: building a 2-0 lead at Wigan Athletic and conceding three goals in the final hour to seal their tragic fate. Meanwhile, stateside, Mexico’s Gold Cup roster was released (mostly without surprises) and MLS provided American fans longing for their own bitter rivalries with a first taste of what promises to be one of the best ever produced in this country—a Saturday night nationally televised match between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers. The quotes in the build-up to the match between opposing fans were priceless—the football itself didn’t disappoint. All in all—it was a week that did not lack for excitement, great soccer and high drama. About the only thing soccer fans didn’t receive was the USMNT’s Gold Cup roster, which should be announced shortly.
Given all the tremendous things happening on the pitch—it was a shame that (at least arguably) the two largest stories in the world of soccer last week occurred off the pitch. The first incident was the accusations out of England of corruption on the part of CONCACAF FIFA representative Jack Warner. This was big news for two reasons, I suppose. First, the 2018 failed hosting bid of England was implicated. Second, the accusations came directly from England. Any time a story about soccer breaks in the mother country, it is bound to garner plenty of air time and print space. Still, while this incident is undoubtedly regrettable, particularly if the corruption allegations are true, one couldn’t with a straight face suggest that the story was at all surprising. We haven’t quite reached a point where we can add “FIFA Corruption” to the phrase “The only two things in life that are certain are death and taxes”, but we’re certainly getting close. Warner has taken criticism before, especially in the wake of FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar despite strong bids from both Australia and the United States, and he has weathered the criticism and stinging accusations in all instances. There’s little reason to believe, to this point, that he won’t weather this as well, but that didn’t change the fact that his story seemed privileged over on-the-pitch happenings, even in a week with so much on the line between the lines.
The second story that clouded and crowded out a tremendous week of football on the field was the accusations surrounding FC Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets. At least to this writer, this story merited our full attention. Again, more background seems appropriate. As most our readers are aware, Barcelona and their archrival Real Madrid squared off four times in one month this April, with each match having a great deal to say about trophies, world superiority in club football, and individual greatness. These matches are always bitter, and likely always will be—but this was a frequency of on-field interaction the rivalry had never seen. The first, a league match, ended in a draw, and all but assured Barcelona would win La Liga with room to spare. The second, for the Copa Del Rey, resulted in a mild upset, with Madrid riding star Cristiano Ronaldo to glory and denying their bitter Catalan rivals any chance at a quadruple. The next two were Champions League matches, a home date at the Bernabeu for Madrid to open and a return leg at the Camp Nou, where Barcelona have been mostly invincible during their latest (and likely most glorious) run in their long-storied history. The incident in question took place in the final match, where it was alleged (and Real Madrid provided video evidence that) Spanish international Busquets said some particularly horrible racist things to Brazilian international Marcelo, a black Brazilian (think Pele, not Kaka).
Given this background (abridged as it may be), a reader might be asking at this point why is this story so newsworthy? After all, the general animus between Barcelona and Real Madrid is a story nearly as old as the game itself, and these types of things happen when people get passionate and tempers flare. That doesn’t excuse them, but one could at least make that argument. To answer it, at least in the view of this writer, requires a bit more context. The story matters precisely because of the history and at times violent nature of the Real-Barcelona rivalry. The story matters precisely because racism in soccer is a vice and excess of the game that writers, coaches, television analysts, activists and yes, FIFA itself, have spent the better part of two decades trying to eradicate or minimize. In any employment context, a racist tirade, comment or insult is unacceptable. In soccer, it is a harsh reminder of a checkered and at times dark history—and a backpedal to a time when the game was nearly as divisive as it was unifying. For that reason alone, the Busquets-Marcelo story merited (merits) our attention.
Beyond that, there was the possibility of a punishment. FIFA bylaws indicate that a player who makes a racist statement, engages in a racial tirade, or otherwise through discourse or other action insults or degrades another player on the basis of race, religion or personal beliefs is subject to a five game ban in any FIFA competition. Given Barcelona’s Champions League final at Wembley later this month, a ruling that Busquets was indeed guilty would eliminate him from Barca’s side in the final. One might argue that was in and of itself reason enough to make this newsworthy, especially given Barcelona’s battle with history right now—a treble for Barca would certainly involve them in the discussion with the great AJAX teams of the early 1970’s when one chats about the greatest sides of all time. Finally, as if there needed to be more, the incident happened in a very high profile match between two very high profile sides (Real-Barca). This isn’t to delegitimize the importance of confronting racism and violence in other rivalries—it is merely to suggest that Real-Barcelona isn’t West Ham United-Milwall. The whole world was paying attention, as it does every time these two sides get together and kick the ball around, and if ever there was an opportunity for FIFA (and each club) to take a definitive stance suggesting this type of behavior (or even the scent of it) was unacceptable, this was that opportunity. It is here, unfortunately, where the ruling by FIFA Sunday that Busquets was “not guilty” of the alleged racial insult changes the story that was being written Saturday into one that is darker and more sinister. It is here, unfortunately, that a reader’s temper may flare, and disagreement may fester. That’s okay- too—it’s what comments sections are for and certainly any dialogue about racism is probably a productive dialogue. But before that can occur—let’s review why FIFA’s ruling, and above all, Barcelona’s reaction to the controversy, was so disappointing.
FIFA’s decision was disappointing because, well, if there seemed to be any area where FIFA was consistent in mission and focus—it was its battle to eliminate (to as large an extent as possible) racism in soccer. In fairness, they have come a long way. Various campaigns to stamp out racism, deem it intolerable, unjust and unwarranted have dramatically lowered the number of reported incidents involving mistreatment of players on the basis of skin color or ethnicity. Perhaps more importantly, these campaigns have decreased a perception that existed as recently as twenty years ago that it was at least somewhat socially acceptable to treat players differently because of those superficial differences. For that, FIFA deserves a rare but full moment of our applause. Beyond that, FIFA should be applauded for the decision to award the World Cup to an African nation. There were and are still residual problems that exist in South Africa, and some are relational to the country’s decision to host—but in the end, the fact that they did more than “pull it off”- they instead hosted a great tournament with plenty of drama and culture—should be applauded. If you’ve read this site before, you are aware of at least this writer’s feelings on why the Qatar choice is not similar. Yes, the scarecrow “peace-in-the-region” argument will be made by Nobel Prize seeker Sepp Blatter and his remaining debutantes, but the entirety of the choice is antithetical to FIFA’s anti-discrimination aims. Still, FIFA has made progress, and both the letter-of-the-law suspensions issued for offending players and consistent announcements and advertisements encouraging the abolition of racism in the world’s game have pointed to an organization that takes the issue seriously. It is this consistency of cause to fight discrimination and racism that made the UEFA decision regarding Busquets’ action quite disappointing. As an attorney by trade, your writer certainly has a deep respect for due process, a fair hearing and an adversarial system where one is innocent until proven guilty, and there are certainly more than a small few who will point out that officially UEFA rejected the allegation because, it argued, the case was “weak.” That claim might be true, and yes, were the case weak, a ruling against Busquets simply to take a stand, and the attendant punishment- exclusion from the biggest match of the year—would be harsh indeed. The problem is the notion that the case against Busquets was “weak” begs a larger question. What would a strong case be? Real Madrid provided videotape evidence and coupled it with testimonials. There is at least tangible evidence that Busquets had been chirping more than sweet nothings into Marcelo’s ear for both fixtures. Against that—what exactly made the case “weak”? Did UEFA simply refuse to adjudicate a case of “he said, she said” after determining that the video evidence was inconclusive? Maybe- but the testimonials would have to be ignored as well in that situation. Worse yet, did UEFA’s disciplinary body evaluate Busquets’ history, the attendant history of the club he plays for, and the magnitude of the punishment (a Champions League Final- not a meaningless group stage game in October), and decide the offense wasn’t “damningly bad.” That might be a bit too sinister—but it raises a more interesting point: if we accept that UEFA did nothing because there wasn’t enough evidence to convict, so to speak—does that excuse Barcelona from taking any action at all? That question demands more questions, especially because Busquets does indeed play for Barcelona.
As noted in the quotation above, Barcelona’s official club motto, translated, is “more than a club.” There’s a laundry list of reasons why for a very long time, a label some may find pretentious was more than warranted. Barcelona have long been noted, appreciated and in many circles revered, not simply for the beautiful brand of soccer they play on the pitch, but for what they as a club represent off it. While Real Madrid was the club of the brutal dictator Franco, Barcelona was the Catalan club, the side taking a stand against tyranny and from time-to-time, defeating it.
After all, Franco often pointed to Real Madrid as proof that his totalitarian regime was capable of brilliance and beauty, despite global criticism. It might seem trivial to place such a bold claim of regime effectiveness in a football club, but in a world divided by so many things, there is only one language about ninety percent of the world speaks: the language of football. While Franco was busy suppressing the Catalan language, arresting political dissidents, and centralizing through violence an authoritarian state that crushed open forms of expressive local identity, Barcelona was fighting the good fight. The club became what its motto suggested: more than a club. According to Spanish anthropologist Jordi Josep Salvador, Barcelona matches became “a safe social space to express identity.” The Camp Nou became the foremost (and perhaps only) outlet for expressions of Catalan nationalism, a place where it was safe to wave the Catalan flag, speak the outlawed language and exercise local autonomy. “That’s what Barca is”, Salvador says. “Its symbols have merged with the symbols of Catalan identity.” In recent years, as Spain has started to emerge from the brutal Franco rule and change into a bilingual, open, democratic society who again appreciate Catalonia and its vast cultural contributions—Barcelona has become arguably more important, a symbol of protest that was and of surging but safe nationalism that is to be.
This is part and parcel why the Real Madrid matches have so much meaning beyond the result on the field. Every Real Madrid-Barcelona match has meaning. Post Franco, the symbolic meanings are even deeper. The danger for excess, for a moment where Barcelona fails to represent peaceable protest and dissent and Catalan pride, are always great. Yet Barcelona had, to this point, seemed to weather them, avoiding calamity. They seemed to embrace the “more than a club” motto. They wrapped their arms around peaceable causes, non-violent social protests and anti-hate campaigns. They wore UNICEF on their shirt instead of taking a lucrative sponsorship, because awareness to the hunger globally of millions of children was bigger than the game. So was Barcelona, the club said, so the partnership made sense. They embraced Thierry Henry, who perhaps more than any player in the last 20 years has made stamping out hate and rejecting racism his life’s work. When Henry needed money and FIFA sport for his latest campaign, Barca (and Arsenal, admirably) ponied up the cash. When Henry wanted to start soccer schools and educational programs in Africa, but knew the programs wouldn’t be effective without a club behind the scenes, ensuring the programs remained well-funded long after Henry’s playing days were finished—Barcelona answered the bell. Racism, violence and hatred aren’t compatible with Barcelona: that was the message of a club that fancied itself as more than a club, and it sent that message consistently in word and in action for nearly a century.
Enter Sergio Busquets. Enter disappointment. As noted above, it is true that UEFA technically cleared Busquets of wrongdoing, claiming the “case was weak.” We won’t review why that’s a fascinating ruling given videotape evidence and testimonials again, although it is worth mentioning that Busquets international World Cup winning teammate, Iker Casillas, who has played with Busquets a very long time at various levels of football, said anyone who believes Busquets innocent of racial abuse “must be blind.” That’s an interesting development in the story because they’ve played together internationally for a long while and having just won the World Cup together last summer, Casillas seems an unlikely candidate to throw a teammate under the bus. Yes, he plays for Real, but it is still unlikely. No one, for example, would expect Clint Dempsey to throw say, Tim Howard under the bus so publicly.
Getting back to the disciplinary ruling- what it does mean, of course, is that Busquets is clear to play at Wembley later this month. Barcelona is and was never required to take any action of its own against Busquets. Even had he been suspended by UEFA, that would have been enough—Barca would not be required to make its own disciplinary assessment. What’s so disappointing, however, is that Barcelona didn’t even consider this type of independent action, and in fact, defended the under siege midfielder in a way that was puzzling, given the club’s storied history. Barcelona’s defense of Busquets is worth noting.
First, Pep Guardiola immediately stated that he felt his midfielder was “innocent.” A manager defending a player—not surprising, even at Barcelona. While a “we would like to wait for UEFA to decide” type comment would have been nice, even this bright-eyed idealist understands Guardiola will defend his man. However, defenses of Busquets, particularly before judgment was meted out, should have stopped at the gaffer. They didn’t. Naively, one could consider the fact that all manner of Barcelona representatives came forward to defend Sergio as a ringing endorsement of his character. More accurately, one could analyze the way they defended him and one should be appalled. Most shockingly of all, the Vice President of the Club, Josep Maria Bartomeu, issued the following statement, not only defending Busquets but criticizing Real Madrid for even reporting racism on the pitch:
“”[W]e would not do this. We don’t do it and we won’t do it. We respect what happens on the field and we won’t get involved with what happens on the field. It appears that Madrid is not doing this and they are losing this señorío that the club has always had. I don’t want to talk about the issues of a club that is not mine, but I will just say that we would never do it because it appears to be an exaggeration to us.
“I don’t understand why Busquets should miss out on the final. That’s something that surprises us a lot. The referee is the one who makes decisions on the field. Depriving Busquets, who is having a sensational season, of the final seems very excessive to us and we’re very upset. I don’t know what Señor Busquets said and what they were talking about, but they are things that happen all the time in football. If we have to put a camera on each player to follow what they say or do, this will become a circus. Football has triumphed, along with fair play…”
Coming from any executive of any business in the world, this quote would be troubling. Coming from an executive at Barcelona, they who are “more than a club”, it is sickening. An opposing team shouldn’t report racism on the pitch? They should just let it stay on the field, where, as Bartomeu put it, most disturbingly, “it belongs?” Really? This coming from the club that supported Henry’s anti-hate campaigns—campaigns that began, mind you, when Henry experienced on-pitch hatred from both players and opposing fans? That type of incident doesn’t even merit reporting? That’s a fascinating (using red bow language) turn of events for Barca, and one that bears a bit more analysis.
Note the final paragraph of the quote. That type of thing happens all the time in football? Okay. So that means we shouldn’t report it? As Brooks Peck wrote at Dirty Tackle—that’s outrageous. A brief thought experiment explains this tragedy, taken to its logical progression: What, a young woman says she was sexually exploited? That type of thing happens all the time at fraternity parties. What’s more—Bartomeu, speaking for the club brass, actually had the audacity to suggest that because Busquets was having such a brilliant year as a player—to deprive him of the final in Wembley would be harsh. Again…really? Results matter more than fair play, human dignity and decency? Even at Barcelona? Color me heartbroken. That UEFA or FIFA found the case “weak” and ruled in Busquets favor raises some troubling questions—among them, as Oliver Holt asked eloquently at Mirror Football, how serious are UEFA and FIFA about their pledge to stamp out racism and hate in the beautiful game? What Holt omits, however, is more troubling. Why did Barcelona defend Busquets so vigorously? And why did that defense go beyond a “we’ll wait till UEFA rules” type dialogue, which, while a bit callous, would have been at least baseline fair?
To these questions, this writer has no answer. What seems clear, given Barcelona’s reaction, is that they aren’t at all “mas que un club.” Quite the contrary, they’ve become no better than any other giant, competitive corporate soccer conglomerate. Gone is the UNICEF shirt soon—replaced by a high-profile Qatar sponsorship that will rake in the euros. That, the optimist and apologist alike could argue is simply a sign of the times in international soccer. More concerning is the defense of Busquets and its relationship to the dignified, peaceable protest against hate that made Barcelona so likeable even without the prodigious talent that is Leo Messi.
Barcelona, the fan and writer alike always thought, was bigger than the death drive towards competitive domination and trophies. They were the epitome of excellence, on the pitch and off it. In one of this writer’s favorite soccer books, How Soccer Explains the World, the fine journalist and former New Republic Editor Franklin Foer explains the intellectual, liberal; speak truth to power draw of Barca:
“If you have liberal politics and yuppie tastes, it isn’t easy to find a corner of the soccer firmament that feels like home. The continent has too many clubs that have freaky fascist pasts bleeding into a xenophobic present. And this is only the first obstacle to finding a team. You could never accept clubs with a cloud of virulent racism trailing after them. (Remove from the list of potential favorites, then, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Glasgow Rangers, Red Star Belgrade, and almost half the teams in Italy.) And for the sake of the underdog, you couldn’t possibly abide the multinational conglomerates, like Manchester United and Juventus, which buy championships every year….Barca elegantly fills this vacuum.” (My bold added to text)
Franklin Foer was unavailable for comment despite multiple requests, but I wonder if he feels as disappointed today as your writer does. Barcelona used to have an inherent dignity because it was a defender of dignity, and a promoter of the wonderful potential of the globe’s game to serve as an agent for social change. Their handling of the Busquets situation suggests that is only a ruse, and one their executives at the very least don’t privilege over competitive excellence.
The truth is Barcelona is such a “brand name” now in the marketplace that not only could it have defeated United without Busquets; it could weather the world without him. An appropriate response to this incident, even in the present day where UEFA has cleared him on the “not enough evidence to convict” theory? Simple. Suspend him anyway, independently of UEFA. Tell him the cloud of virulent racism surrounding the incident is unacceptable for a “Barca man.” We are, “mas que un club”, Mr. Busquets. Or let him play. Fine. But sell him in the offseason. What? You can’t play with integrity and in accord with a century of ideals regarding human dignity and fundamental decency this club has always stood up for? Then we will find a player who will—after all—we’re Barcelona—and you don’t see Google struggle to find comparable talent. Nor will we, Mr. Busquets. Good luck at Sevilla. Alas, that didn’t happen, just as UNICEF won’t remain at the center of the Barcelona shirt.
On a weekend where stateside the Atlanta Braves and Major League baseball honored Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and many of the heroes who made the most American of games a vehicle for social change before the rest of society was ready to budge, it was all the more sad for this American to see the global game he loves sullied by the behavior of a club that had, like the Dodgers did with Jackie, stood above the fray of, as Foer put it, “freaky fascist pasts bleeding into xenophobic presents.” Barcelona’s embrace of Busquets, its open willingness to be associated with even the speculation of racism, is a crushing blow. Losing one fan will never affect them—but as Dr. King reminds us, that “creative dedicated minority” willing to speak out constantly against injustice is what makes the world a better place. More than a club? Not anymore.