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F.C. Barcelona: By the fans, for the fans

''Barcelona is my team," said Pol Fages, while walking the street of his beloved hometown. And he means it literally. Now 24, Fages has been a socio, or member, of Futbol Club Barcelona for 23 years, or since his father signed him up on his first birthday.

"It's quite common to do that in Barcelona," said Fages, who works for the Tourist Office of Spain's trade department in New York, but who had returned to Barcelona briefly on business."My brother became a socio on the day he was born," he said. More than season-ticket holders, Fages and the other 105,172 socios are actually the club's owners for as long as they continue to renew their membership.

Every five years, and occasionally more often, an election is held among the socios for club president, and the winning candidate installs a board of directors and determines club policy. It's an exercise in democracy far better than Spain itself managed during much of the 20th century.

Fages has other rights. For his annual membership fee of about $105, he acquires the option to buy a ticket to all Barcelona home matches for another $200. That's per year, not per game. This is possible only because the club is not run to make a profit, like nearly all the professional sports teams in the United States and around the world. "The idea of the club is to satisfy its socios at the lowest possible cost to them. Nothing more," said Xavier Aguila, who serves as the club's treasurer when he isn't working as the president of a bank.

Such a philosophy is a radical departure from the unfettered capitalism that guides U.S. clubs. Fages suffers through disappointing losses like any fan, but he won't have to worry about the most disappointing loss of all, the relocation of his favorite team. Unlike baseball's Florida Marlins, his favorite franchise won't be gutted by the whim of a hardened businessman. Unlike hockey's Carolina Hurricanes, it will never have to struggle to gain a foothold in an uninterested community. His ticket prices won't ever be summarily raised 20 percent, nor concession prices doubled to give investors a better rate of return. It's a concept, most fans would agree, that's worthy of examination.

Barca's socios believe that company logos on a jersey detract from their aesthetic pleasure of the game, so they don't have to worry about such intrusive commercialism. Unlike nearly all the other top clubs in Europe, the team's uniforms remain unsullied by advertising. The unique ownership structure makes that possible. There is nothing close to it in North America, save the Green Bay Packers, but their community investors are silent partners.

Owners of American teams would suggest that failure to maximize revenue dooms a team to mediocrity. Yet despite low ticket prices and no uniform sponsors, Barcelona has been one of Europe's top teams for more than a decade. It is a perennial contender for Spanish league champion, recently winning three times in succession, and in 1992 won the European Cup as the continent's best team. Barcelona has spent so much money through the years on big-ticket players such as Argentina's Diego Maradona, England's Gary Lineker, Brazil's Romario and Ronaldo and, this past season, nearly half the Dutch national team, it regularly gets criticized for throwing the salary structure of international soccer out of whack.

At the same time, the club subsidizes money-losing entries in nearly every professional sport in Europe, from basketball to team handball to track. All wear the red and blue of Barcelona, and all excel. What's more, socios like Fages can attend all their games for free. Clearly, the club has hit on an economic dynamic worth emulating.

Not everything F.C. Barcelona does would be transferable to another situation. Because the team truly is a civic monument, as integrally linked to Barcelona as the art of Picasso and the architecture of Antoni Gaudi, the city and the surrounding province of Catalunya can be counted on for support. Much of the country, too, other than those affiliated with archrival Real Madrid. Since dictator Francisco Franco based his power in Madrid and denied Catalans the right to speak their own language during his nearly four decades in power, F.C. Barcelona became a magnet for all free thinkers and other anti-Francoists throughout Spain and beyond. (Real Madrid fans like to point out that Franco actually supported Atletico Madrid, another first-division club in the capital. But that point has been lost to history.)

This army of assorted liberals spends liberally each year. Barcelona's uniform design changes subtly every season, and hundreds of thousands of new shirts and shorts and scarves are sold to eager fans who don't consider themselves exploited any more than Saks Fifth Avenue shoppers who eagerly await the arrival of the latest fashions. Barcelona's club museum, located in the concourse of 96,000-seat Camp Nou, Europe's largest soccer stadium, draws more visitors (at $10 a head) than the city's Museu Picasso, Bilbao's Guggenheim — or any other museum in Spain, in fact, other than Madrid's Prado. As it happens, most fans end up spending substantially more than $10 at the huge, split-level gift shop. And then there's the restaurant, open to the public for dinner and lunch.

Still, Barcelona realizes less revenue than Manchester United or most of Europe's other top clubs. But its expenses are structured differently. There is no marketing department because a social club that happens to field a world-class soccer team doesn't need one. Aguilar, the second-ranking financial officer in the club, gets no money for his services. As part of the club's bylaws, neither does Josep Luis Nuñez, the construction magnate who has for years served as club president, nor any of its other officers. All work is done on a volunteer basis, just as you'd do for a local political party or theater group, Barca being a little bit of both. Imagine, say, Jerry West or Carmen Policy running their teams for free.

"Perhaps we're the last romantics left in sports," Aguila said. "Our great secret is the romanticism of the club's members, who will do what it takes to make their club work, and our goal is to reduce the financial contribution those members have to make until it is down to almost nothing."

Not all the socios agree with that goal, of course. As might be expected with a group of people that could populate a medium-sized city, there are differing points of view represented among Barcelona's members, even the equivalent of different political parties. The club went through a bad stretch last month, and the predictable criticism aimed at Nuñez was loud and long. First Barcelona shamefully forfeited a match against Atletico Madrid in the semifinal of the Spanish Cup because too many of its players were in Holland with their country's national side. That same week, it lost ground in its battle to overtake eventual champion Deportivo for first place in the Spanish league with a loss to humble Rayo Vallecano.

Soon after, it lost to Spanish rivals Valencia in the semifinal of the European Champions League, even as Real Madrid advanced over Bayern Munich. Had Barcelona's socios had the nerve of U.S. House Republicans, Nuñez might have been impeached.

As it is, elections are coming in July, and Nuñez is not expected to run again. "The worry is that a faction may take control that believes making more money is the only way to succeed in European soccer," Aguila said. "Perhaps they are right, but we don't agree. And anyway, succeeding on those terms is not the idea of Barca." Despite the recent setbacks, one of Nuñez's top lieutenants is likely to succeed him as president. And if he doesn't, well, the fans will have spoken.

While living in New York, Fages gives out his tickets to Barcelona games by lottery, the list of friends who want them being too long to satisfy. He watches the Knicks on television and tries to understand American football, and he pays his dues each year and follows F.C. Barca through videotapes and visits to its Web site. He'll return to Barcelona someday, and when he does, his team will be there waiting. It must be comforting to know that, win or lose, it will still be his team.

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