What has become one of the most glamorous of all football clubs, residing in the great soccer temple of Camp Nou, all began with a few bored Englishmen getting up a game on turnip fields on the outskirts of Barcelona. The locals were intrigued and began to play too, encouraged by the news from the city’s hygienists that football was good therapy for the ills caused by the Industrial Revolution. Then they formed clubs, as expats do: the Hispania Football Club and the Barcelona Football Club, or Barça, founded in 1899 by English, Swiss and local footballers.
Hispania (now Espanyol) was supported mainly by pro-Spain or national unity residents of Barcelona (nicknamed the periquitos), but early on Barça became linked with Catalan nationalism. Immigrant workers were fairly impervious to the charms of the choral societies and the Renaixença of Catalan verse, but most of them adored football, and Barça became the prime vehicle for them to identify with the Catalan cause—hence its famous motto 'Més que un club' (More than a club).
Early supporters could often be seen squatting on the perimeter walls of Barça's first football ground; the singular sight of rows of bottoms hanging over the fence of their first stadium, earned them their name ‘culés’ or arses from passers-by, a nickname that has stuck to this day.
Politics was never far away, and in times of trouble matches turned into mass political rallies. In the 1920s, after Barça fans had had the affrontery to laugh at a royal procession, Les Corts was closed by dictator Primo de Rivera. In 1936 the president of the club was Josep Suñol, a newspaper publisher, lawyer and politician who spoke up for Catalonia in the Cortes of the republican years. Suñol helped make the club into the nationalist icon it is today. At the beginning of the Civil War he was vacationing in the Sierra de Guadarrama, where he was captured by Franco's men and shot.
When Barcelona fell in 1939, one of Franco's first acts was to order that the club be purged of all Communists, Anarchists, Catalan Nationalists and their sympathizers.
In a 1943 cup final, Barça beat Franco's team, Real Madrid, on the first leg of a home-and-away. Before the rematch in Madrid, the boss of Franco's security police appeared in Barça's locker room and reminded the boys that they were only allowed to play by the good graces of the state. Barça got the message, and went out and tanked, 11-1, to make sure everyone else got it too.
But in spite of a Spanish Football Federation run by Falangists, Barça won five football cups in the early 1950s. They offered the best alternative to the invincible machine of Real Madrid, a club pumped full of money by the stodgy old dictator until it became the best in the world. Supporting Barça became an act of protest against the regime. It was the ‘unarmed army’ of the Catalans, and one of the few outlets available to express any kind of national unity.
Barça is one of the few world-class professional teams in any sport owned by its own members, or socis- 170,000 of them (even Pope John Paul II, visiting in 1982—the year that Camp Nou hosted the opening of the World Cup— signed the Book of Honour and accepted membership). Not having a Russian oligarch or an American tycoon in charge hasn't hurt its finances—yearly turnover in revenue approaches €400 million; a poll in 2011 showed that its players are the highest paid in the world.
It's reckoned that 32% of all Spaniards support Real Madrid, and a quarter of them are Barça fans. The team's canny management and public relations (in English) have helped to increase the number of supporters worldwide, although the team's own performance may have something to do with it. In 1992, Barça performed the rare trick of winning three cups, an act they topped in 2009 when they became the first team ever to win six domestic and international tournaments- the Copa del Rey, La Liga, the Champions League, the Supercopa de España, the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup, and they've scarcely slowed down since, winning three of those titles in 2014-15.
It hasn't all been rosy though: in 2007, Norman Foster & Partners won a bid to redesign Camp Nou in homage to Gaudì, with a multi-coloured trencadi style facade, 10,000 new seats, and a retractable roof. Estimated to cost €250 million, club president Sandro Rosell felt compelled to put the project on hold in 2010 because of concerns over austerity.
In 2015, an international competition reopened for a redesign, one that would expand capacity to 105,000 spectators, and in April 2016, the winners were announced: Nikken Sekkei studio from Japan and the Catalan firm Pascual-Ausió, who have come up with a new-look stadium without a conventional façade. If the project goes through, it will happen in stages and not disrupt the schedule, and be completed by the 2021-22 season.
Tickets for El Clásico—a match against Real Madrid—sell out quickly, but they sell out even faster for the Derbí Barceloní, when Barça play (and nearly always thump) their original cross town rivals, Espanyol.
Images by Gabriel Rodriguez, Norman Foster and Partners