Except that instead of a beer brand or appliances company it was Unicef. And they paid the charity for it too, with over £1million annually going towards its projects.
On the pitch, Barcelona dived, fouled and cheated as much as any other team, but in between the gaps they played fabulous, expansive football. Purists adored them, millions dreamed of the opportunity to watch the likes of Ronaldinho, Xavi, Deco and the rest at the Nou Camp. They were everybody’s ‘second team’.
Mes que un club – more than a club – was the slogan they used to describe themselves. It refers to their commitment to matters beyond the football pitch, social and political affairs both local and global.
The slogan was initially invented by president Narcis de Careras in 1968, concerning their backing of Catalan society, which had been attacked by Spanish dictator Franco. Franco’s dictatorship tried to end the club’s social significance, removing the Catalan stripes from the crest.
Time passed, Franco died, Spain became democratic again and Barcelona wanted to apply their slogan to more than just Catalonia. ‘Barca has extended its social commitment to the rest of the planet,’ announces the club website, proudly. It heralded the Unicef deal as a specifically significant marker for this.
But in recent years there have been numerous decisions made by the club which have flung it from their self-made throne and down, down into the mire, with the all the other football clubs.
The shirt is in danger of becoming more like a Formula One car than a football jersey. This week they have added Turkish appliances firm Beko to it, with its logo emblazoned on the sleeve.
In the middle of the shirt is the far more controversial Qatar Airways sponsorship. It is the successor to Qatar Foundation, which ended Barcelona’s stance of refusing commercial shirt sponsorship.
The Unicef logo was been moved to another, less notable position on the shirt and from the start of the 2011-12 season Barcelona began to benefit from a £125m sponsorship deal.
Late last year, Barcelona announced a new shirt sponsorship deal, with Intel advertising inside of the shirt. Intel’s marketing officer Deborah Conrad described it as ‘more than sponsorship’. Perhaps a play on words on Barcelona’s club slogan, perhaps an unfortunate coincidence. But it highlighted how the attitude towards the previously pure, clean shirt had changed.
And sponsorships are the tip of the iceberg. There have been some dubious practices going on at the club in recent times.
The pursuit of Luis Suarez is the latest of them. This is a footballer who has been found guilty of racism by the FA. Who dives and cheats like the best of ‘em, who has recently bitten an opposition player for the THIRD time.
And yet, despite biting Giorgio Chiellini and subsequently being issued a four-month global ban, Barcelona’s club president and sporting director both described him as ‘honourable’ and new signing Ivan Rakitic said that his apology made him ‘a noble man’.
Bear in mind that this apology reads like it was spoken through gritted teeth, just days after claiming that he stumbled and fell into Chiellini. Bear in mind that Barcelona required Suarez to apologise before they could make a mood for him.
What Barcelona have been bearing in mind, above any qualms about Suarez compromising their club conscience, is that a front line comprised of Lionel Messi, Neymar and the Uruguayan would be nigh-on unstoppable.
The Brazilian Suarez will be playing with, Neymar, came to the club under a storm cloud too. The repercussions of his transfer deal affected the club long into the season, with Barcelona paying £11.1m to the tax authorities that they had evaded during the deal.
Barcelona denied any fiscal wrongdoing, stating that they were merely making a complimentary donation to the government to cover ‘any potential interpretation made concerning the contract’.
In reality the signing of Neymar which, initially, appeared as if it were a £49m deal, could have cost more than £71m. Barcelona’s president at the time, Sandro Rosell, resigned, and the man who followed him, Josep Maria Bartomeu, described the whole thing as ‘embarrassing’.
Then, there was the treatment of Eric Abidal. The Barcelona defender claimed that he was not paid while he was recovering from a liver transplant.
He said: ‘What was hard to understand was what Barcelona said during my last press conference. By saying that it was a professional choice, it made other clubs doubt. It wasn’t even a question of money. The proof being that all the months I was ill, the club didn’t pay me.’
Barcelona refuted this, saying that they had paid for it mostly, with only a ‘very small’ part coming from medical insurers.
The reason Barcelona want to buy Suarez, as well as Ivan Rakitic, Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, is because the threat of a transfer ban still looms over them.
They were given this ban for disobeying FIFA instructions over the transfers of minors, with 10 under-18 players they signed contravening legislation. On appeal, their ban has been suspended, so they are making all their necessary deals this summer in case it eventually gets upheld.
All of this has left the club’s waters murky, like the sea by Barceloneta beach after the city’s famous all-night Sant Joan’s eve festival.
If the good times of decades past at the Camp Nou were the party, we are currently in the madrugada – the twilight hour – knee-deep in filth, waiting for the clean-up operation to begin.