Sounders FC

FC Barcelona, sports royalty with a heart

A year before embarking on a three-city West Coast tour that will include an exhibition game – oops, I mean a friendly – tonight at Qwest Field, FC Barcelona prepared for a similar match against the Red Bulls by gathering in New York City’s Central Park.

It didn’t go well.

While the visitors from Spain were conducting practice drills on the park’s North Meadow, they learned they had trespassed into an area of the park used as the outfield for softball games. In that indelicate tone of voice associated with midtown Manhattan traffic jams, the softball players told FC Barcelona to get off their darn lawn.

Except nobody used the word “darn.”

There was no such confrontation Tuesday in Seattle, where perhaps the most distinguished guest of FC Barcelona’s traveling party – 22-year-old Argentine striker Lionel Messi – climbed to the roof of the Space Needle before signing autographs and posing for photos on the observation tower.

Welcome, Lionel, to the city that kicks. Some 67,000 fans will be on hand tonight, and though that will represent a mere fraction of the 93,137 that watched the L.A. Galaxy take on FC Barcelona over the weekend in the Rose Bowl, the Galaxy’s presence was secondary – the Washington Generals to the marquee-attraction Globetrotters.

The Qwest Field experience, on the other hand, will be different. It will replicate the kind of road-game atmosphere FC Barcelona confronts during its regular season.

Although the scheduling of a friendly against the best team in Europe couldn’t come at a less fortuitous time for the Sounders FC – Seattle is attempting to regroup from a 4-0 shutout at San Jose on Saturday, its least-inspired effort of a marathon season – the opportunity to go face-to-face with sports royalty should supersede the inconvenience.

And make no mistake, FC Barcelona is sheer royalty. The Beautiful Game’s version of the New York Yankees, the club boasts all the tradition and wide-ranging legion of supporters that the Yankees boast, without a hint of the Evil Empire’s arrogant corporate culture.

Like all other European soccer clubs, FC Barcelona has ties with a sponsor that brandishes its logo on players’ jerseys. Unlike other European soccer clubs, FC Barcelona pays the sponsor. The club annually donates $1.9 million to UNICEF – the United Nations Children’s Fund – for the logo affiliation.

American sports fans tend to look at uniforms as the last refuge of integrity. To replace the hallowed “NY” on the Yankees home pinstripes with a beer-company logo, for instance, would be the ultimate example of selling out.

But what represents integrity more than a jersey logo purchased on behalf of a charity?

“Barcelona shows us that sports can be a powerfully positive force for children,” the executive director for UNICEF, Ann Veneman, said in 2006, when the unique partnership was revealed at U.N. headquarters. “The team has opened a door for thousands of children.”

FC Barcelona’s charity arm has extended to eradicating malaria in Africa, where the disease claims 3,000 victims a day. Those arriving early tonight might notice the “United Against Malaria” slogan on the visitors’ warmup jerseys.

Again, consider the contrast with American pro sports. Everybody from the caller venting on talk radio to the most dialed-in reporter uses “clubhouse cancer” as a pejorative to describe athletes disinclined to buy into the team concept. But with FC Barcelona, cancer is not a word applied casually, to describe something as inconsequential as a disgruntled teammate.

This is not to suggest every Barcelona player over the past 111 years has been a Nobel Peace Prize candidate. (Compared to Ronaldo, a prolific scorer with Barcelona during the 1996-97 season, Alex Rodriguez is a pillar of virtue, in the mold of Tim Tebow.)

Whatever the sport, a pro team needs stars to consistently win, and stars demand star money. The chance to participate in charitable endeavors is never the sole motivation for signing a contract.

And yet, FC Barcelona has distinguished itself as an organization that cares about the world lurking well beyond the sideline. During the Spanish Civil War, the club proudly represented the sovereign roots of Catalonia. In 1938, under orders of fascist general Francisco Franco, the offices of FC Barcelona were bombed.

Since its creation in 1899, FC Barcelona’s motto has been: “More Than a Club.”

The motto retains its relevance in 2009, as FC Barcelona continues its commitment to UNICEF and, specifically, the fight against malaria in Africa.

FC Barcelona plays its home games in a stadium that seats 98,772, the largest in Europe. It has won 57 domestic trophies, and 12 more in international competition. By any measure, it belongs in the conversation – along with the Dallas Cowboys, Boston Celtics and, of course, the Yankees – as among the most successful franchises on the planet.

But there’s something about FC Barcelona that makes the club stand out from this group.

It cares about the planet.