I was one of the hundreds of millions of television fans who watched the 2009 European Champions Cup Final between Manchester United and FC Barcelona, a football match that the Catalan giants deservedly won, mesmerizing Manchester United with the wizardry of their brilliant passing game.
Those watching the Champions League Final might also have noticed that each team wore logos on its shirts.
Barcelona wears the UNICEF logo, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund which is dedicated to improving the lives of billions of poor children and women throughout the world. In 2007, its annual revenues which largely come from governments, were US$ 3.013 billion.
By contrast, Manchester United wears the logo of AIG, American International Group which is listed on the stock exchanges but in effect is now owned by US taxpayers. AIG was the largest insurance firm in the world when it collapsed in 2008. Since then, according to BBC figures, it has received a total of US$180 billion in bailout funds from the US Federal Government: a sum almost 60 times the annual revenues of UNICEF.
AIG was one of the many Wall Street corporations that engaged in extremely risky and highly leveraged financial derivatives and it was at the very heart of the Wall Street Crash of 2008-09 that almost brought down much of the US and world economy.
There are a couple of other things that we might highlight with respect to the logos.
First, AIG corporate security has warned its employees not to wear the AIG logo in public because it fears they may be subject to violent attacks from members of the public. Presumably this does not apply to the MUFC players?
Second, although Barcelona have no shirt sponsor, they are still a wealthy club and one of the most heavily sponsored teams in world football.
Nevertheless, again according to BBC reports MUFC will receive around £14m per year from AIG until 2010, whereas Barcelona make a 1.5m Euros annual donation to UNICEF as part of their agreement.
A tale of two teams
No single entity, and certainly not a private business, owns FC Barcelona. Barca is essentially an association with 155,000 members, who each pay up to 140 Euros annually in membership fees, fees that entitle them to privileges and discounts on tickets. They govern the club by electing a President to the Board of Directors every four years — making Barcelona one of the most democratically controlled football teams in the world. In addition, randomly selected members become delegates who participate in the general assembly that approves the annual budget of the club.
By contrast, Manchester United is controlled by an American billionaire, Malcolm Glazer, who bought the team in 2005 against fierce opposition from the team’s supporters. The BBC has listed Glazer’s net worth at US$2.2 billion. Glazer also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an American football team that benefits from a favourable lease agreement on a state of the art local stadium that was built at public expense. The stadium cost US$200 million and it was funded by an increase in local sales taxes. [Americans call their national game of gridiron “football” and the beautiful game “soccer”].
Glazer turned Manchester United into a private company, saddling it with large debts when he took it over. In protest, thousands of fans did not renew their season tickets, arguing that the club should be controlled by the supporters, and not by a private businessman. Since Glazer took control at Old Trafford, in a period of very low inflation, ticket prices to the so-called “Theatre of Dreams” have increased by 42%.
Barcelona beat another “English” team, Chelsea, in the semi-final of the European Champions tournament. Chelsea is also owned by a billionaire, Roman Abramovich, who obtained his large fortune during the post-Soviet privatizations of the 1990s that were promoted by the regime of Boris Yeltsin — a regime in which Abramovich served. According to Forbes Magazine, in 2009 Abramovich is the 51st richest person in the world with a net worth of US$ 8.5 billion, a sum that shrank by several billion dollars as a result of the drain on his assets due to the global financial and economic crisis.
Today, Barcelona as a club stands in stark contrast to a sporting world where teams are routinely bought and sold as commodities by the plutocrats, potentates, speculators and investors that are the principal beneficiaries of the new era of capitalist globalization, and that are gaining control of the “global sports market”.
Finally, we might also remember that football in Spain has never been simply a form of recreation or a cultural institution — it is also a political affair. As Orwell wrote, Catalonia and Barcelona were the epicentre of resistance to the Fascist dictatorship of Franco which took power after the Civil War of 1936-39 (Barca’s traditional rivals, Real Madrid, were the Fascist regime’s team). As many as 500,000 died in the Spanish conflict — a war that in important ways anticipated World War II, 1939-45. For Barcelona fans, football is a representation of their history, their resistance and their struggle for freedom and autonomy.
So perhaps football fans around the world can celebrate a victory of sorts, and not only for a team that epitomizes what Pele called “the beautiful game.”