Despite the season my team (Manchester United) have had, it would be hard to find any football fan who would argue that FC Barcelona have not been the best football team in the world this season. Last season too come to think about it. Those fortunate to have seen the frighteningly young 22-year old Argentine Lionel Messi single-handedly tear apart one of the best teams Britain has to offer last week in the Champions League, will I’m sure agree.
Yet besides the fantastic fast-flowing football, behind the famous burgundy and blue shirts, behind the global stardom, there is another side to the club that makes it truly unique, and means it lives upto its motto of ‘More than a Club’ (Més que un club) – it’s commitment to charitable causes. Did you know that since it’s formation in 1899 the club have never carried any form of sponsorship on their shirts? Well until 2006 that was indeed the case. But that year, the club announced it had reached a five-year partnership deal with the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, who work to protect children's rights, their survival, their development and their protection.
The alliance with UNICEF
The announcement was historic. Each year for five years, the club committed itself to donating €1.5 million (0.7% of its ordinary income, equal to the UN International Aid Target) to help fund projects aimed at combating HIV and AIDS in Africa and Latin America – a total that will reach €7.5million next season.
FC Barcelona also agreed to contribute €500,000 in publicity assets to promote the partnership each year, reminding football fans everywhere of the importance of putting children first, and if that wasn’t enough, the club broke with the 107-year old tradition and agreed to feature the UNICEF logo prominently on its 2006-2007 shirt. While the agreement at the time was only for one year, the club still carries the logo earning the club the distinction of being the first sports team to use its uniforms to advocate for a cause, rather than advertise a commercial sponsor.
The move was made when the club assessed its financial position back in 2003. Thanks to the team’s continued success on the pitch the decision was made that they did not need to consider commercial sponsorship and so as detailed in an open letter to fans in 2006, the “debate led us to agree to a different objective that would make FC Barcelona 'more than a club' in the world. The conclusion was that we had to put our greatest asset, our shirt, at the service of this ambitious project.”
Those are the words of Joan Laporta, the club’s incumbent president, who sought and pioneered this partnership. “There has always been the Barça that plays every Sunday and every Wednesday, and the Barça that beats every day in the hearts of its people,” the 2006 letter reads, “the Barça of Sunday and Wednesday is already a global club. Now, we want to globalise the Barça that cares for its people, we want to globalise the Barça of civilian duty, solidarity and humanitarianism.”
The first beneficiaries in the partnership with UNICEF to make a contribution to the Millennium Development Goals were the children affected by the HIV/aids epidemic in Swaziland. In this southern African country, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in pregnant women is often as high as 45%, so there being a huge risk of it being passed on to their children.
On a later trip to the country, Mr Laporta visited some of the 23 community support centres that had been built with money donated by the club, which provide integral aid to 1,000 children at risk, especially orphans in rural areas. Toilets and drinking water fountains had been installed into many of the country’s schools and the UNICEF reported back that over 15,000 women had been tested for AIDs and 80% of those detected as HIV positive received treatment. More than 2,000 children had begun receiving adequate treatment to prevent infections.
“We are aware of the responsibilities that this decision bestows upon us”, Mr Laporta said. “To be more than a club in the world is something we all have to do together, and we have to do it on a daily basis. The players, the managers, the directors, the employees, the members, the supporters clubs and fans, everyone is in this together.” “But we are convinced that we have the capacity to do it. Because we believe that with this project we can make FC Barcelona’s universal sentiment a reality.”
But is this about to change?
Mr Laporta is due to leave his post as club president on June 30th this year to pursue a career in Spanish politics. His successor will be announced following an election held before then, but one of the candidates, Sandro Rosell, has already angered the supporters by revealing that he would consider selling shirt sponsorship if elected.
“Everything depends on the club's finances”, he told the press. “First you have to see how the club is economically and subsequently make decisions. If you do not know the numbers, you cannot give a very honest view.” Mr Rosell wants to ensure the club is in a solid position financially, but since the club is performing well on the pitch, and the latest 2010 Deloitte Football Money League report rates Barcelona as the second most revenue-generating football club in the world, any potential future president should have little to worry about on that front.
UNICEF, on the other hand, perhaps have.FC Barcelona has attracted itself a fan base estimated at more than 60 million people worldwide, so the charitable organisation has benefited massively from the exposure. Ann Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director, speaking in 2006 at the announcement of the new partnership declared that “this partnership will help push open a door of hope to thousands of children.”
“Barcelona shows us that sport can be a powerful, positive force for children”, she said, “for UNICEF this is a priceless donation.”
The partnership deal clearly benefits both sides, and I fully expect such an arrangement to continue for the considerable future. Even if Mr Rosell does indeed get elected as the club’s next president, the partnership will live on – after all, the aforementioned Lionel Messi received the prestigious honour of being named the latest UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador only last month.
Both off the pitch, and on the pitch, FC Barcelona are showing the world just how it can be done. ‘Més que un club’? You can certainly say that again.
UPDATE (14/06/10): The aforementioned Sandro Rosell has today been elected as the club's new president. Mr Rosell, who is a former Barca vice-president, won more than 60% of the vote in a ballot of Barca's club members. So what does this now mean for club's partnership with UNICEF...?