Soccer is much derided for its violent fans and general mayhem, but as Barcelona celebrated its victory over Manchester United in the European League Championship last night the atmosphere here in the Catalan capital demonstrated the strength of the communitarian approach to playing sports.
Barcelona’s leading daily, La Vanguardia, estimated over 100,000 people took to the streets of the city center in celebration of "a collective success," one that Americans can conceive of as the "Super Bowl of soccer."
The paper reported 99% of supporters were in “civil and in good spirits.” Fans chanted Visca Barça, or "long live Barcelona football," well into the morning hours punctuated by firecrackers and marine flares. Strangers embraced. Beer was guzzled. Sleep was lost. Unity through football after all is one of the few things Catalans have in common with the rest of Spain.
Outsiders should note Spanish soccer teams are controlled by their fans. Supporters who buy season tickets not only have a good seat on game day but wield the mighty power of the ballot. A popular election is held among socios, the season ticket holders, to choose the president of the football club among other important decisions.
English teams like Manchester United and Arsenal have a different business model—one might say a more “free market” one. These clubs typically have the financial support of playboy billionaires who prefer top foreign talent over homegrown heroes. Decisions are made top-down by billionaire elites when they are not jockeying in other spheres of society or politics.
Spain—whose current president, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is both a socialist and a Barcelona fan—has an approach that encourages a community to create a winning soccer team, rather than a soccer team that creates a community. When Manchester fans came to Barcelona earlier this year for a regular season game, hordes of fans took metro stations hostage and their post-game celebration was appropriately relegated to an area far from the city center.
The Spanish are nothing if not passionate about soccer, but this is less a matter of raucous national identity than one of passive socio-political engagement. While professional soccer is big business—any company with the rights to broadcast games or sell official merchandise brings in plenty of bacon—it's the sport's popularity in a society that shows its true significance. Rules that encourage democratic participation in professional sports teams make a formula for success both on and off the field.