Few symbols have defined the Catalan identity and received adoration in the manner of FC Barcelona. A browse through the club museum at the Camp Nou tells you the story of an extraordinary journey, from the club's beginnings in the Catalan football championship, to unrivalled European dominance in the last decade.(All the Latest Football Updates)
On June 6th last year, deep into stoppage time, Neymar played a neat one-two with now-Chelsea winger Pedro Rodriguez and slotted the ball between Gianluigi Buffon's legs to seal the Champions League final, 3-1 to Barcelona, their fourth Champions League title since 2006. No other team had one it more than once in that time period. European championships are, however, relatively new to the club despite having had Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and Ronaldo (O Fenomeno) dawn the famous Blaugrana colours in its illustrious 117-year history.
Founded in 1899 by Joan Gamper, Barca competed in the Catalan football championship until 1940, winning a record 23 titles. In 1928, the club was one of the founding members of the La Liga, winning the inaugural season in 1929. Despite the domestic success, FC Barcelona underachieved in the European Cup. Losing finals in 1961 and 1986, their first European Cup victory came in 1992, befittingly under the management of club legend Johan Cruyff. His 'Dream Team' of Stoichkov, Guardiola and Laudrup beat Sampdoria at Wembley, sending Catlunya into raptures.
Cruyff revolutionized modern football and set the foundation for a dynasty of success and along the way, the world witnessed arguably the greatest team in club football history. As Pep Guardiola stated, "Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it."
The fact that one of Cruyff's protege's would become the club's most successful manager is testament to the legacy he left behind. Barcelona's success in the 2000s has been credited to phenomenal player development. Seven players out of the starting eleven, who played against Manchester United in the Champions League final 2011 were products of the La Masia youth academy.
Having fostered the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol, the jewel in the crown for the academy is undeniably 5-time Ballon D'Or winner Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the greatest player of this generation.
The ethos of the Club since the time of Cruyff in particular, has been to promote from within. It should be no surprise that Barcelona has set the benchmark for beautiful football over the years, as the players' near telepathic on-pitch understanding proof of having played together over a number of years, making their way through the ranks. Barcelona is also the only club to win two 'trebles' - winning the La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League in the same season, doing so in 2009 and 2015. On both occasions, the teams were managed by ex-Barcelona players, who had managed the reserve team (Barcelona B), before taking over as head coach for the first-team.
Perhaps the most defining moment of my visit to the Camp Nou was when I watched a group of twenty-odd children, from FCBEscola - Barcelona's academy for children aged between six and eleven, sitting in front of a giant screen, watching replays of the goals Barcelona scored last season and celebrating each goal with vigour that would have you believe the action were unfolding live. One can only imagine what could be achieved, if such loyalty is instilled at such a young age. These kids could grow up supporting only one club, and it's not Man United.
Even though FC Barcelona is a commercial monster, valued at over $3 billion, it has managed to retain the intimacy and sense of tradition, seldom attributed with football clubs that boast a global fan base, let alone one with hundreds of millions of fans.
With a capacity of nearly 100,000, the Camp Nou is Europe's largest stadium and is often sold out on matchdays. Fans turn out in the thousands, to catch a glimpse of the greatest attacking trio in world football, with Leo Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar tearing defences apart, scoring at will and playing blinding counter attacks. It is only when the fans leave, however, that the empty seats reveal the motto, which embodies the institution that FC Barcelona has proven itself to be - Mes que un club. More than a club.