Hello Spotify, farewell illusion, aka “What can we sell next?”

When I came to Barcelona on the heels of that legendary Rivaldo chilena, it was an amazing time. I didn’t know what to think but knew I wanted to be part of it, to feel that emotion, that explosion. Even as I barely knew what “making Europe” meant.

That the FC Barcelona president at that time is now an ex-con and the player himself is a supporter of Jair Bolsonaro is quite an apt depiction of the arc that football has taken.

So why not Spotify as a principal sponsor with naming rights for one of the most venerated and venerable home stadiums in the history of the game?

FC Barcelona is like the overextended debtor who runs around looking for stuff to sell until they collapse, realizing there is nothing left — not even their soul. It’s all been EBayed and pawned and Craigslisted.

For those who console themselves with, “It could be worse,” or “Now they can buy Haaland,” this post isn’t for you.

For those who, like me, haven’t bought a Barça shirt since they sold the front, romantics who fell hard for the idea and the ideal of a club — even as a self-constructed thing — and have watched it sold, piece by piece, to the highest if not the best bidder, welcome. There aren’t many of us.

And this isn’t about the “mes que” hooraw that was already a marketing tool long before people started misappropriating it. It’s a connection. Not business. Nobody comes to a football club saying, “Well, the fiscal outlook for the third quarter of this year is super exciting.” If you aren’t born into a club then something catches your attention, makes you interested and before you know it, you’re hooked. Then you’re a soci, and you get that “Congratulations for xx years!” email from the club and you realize it’s all been a blur. A thing is suddenly a relationship.

Yet relationships that fail are a consequence of an unsettling blizzard of little things, dings in confidence, small cuts that amalgamate into a gouge. Then it’s too late even for stitches.

Spotify becoming the shirt sponsor for men’s and women’s first teams, along with stadium naming rights isn’t that big a deal, right? Right? I mean gosh, it’s not like it had to remove more than 100 episodes of its most popular podcast for racist language, or had to answer allegations of its most popular host spreading vaccine disinformation, or platforming a person who made a bigger name for himself by saying an American mass shooting in which little children died in a hail of gunfire was a hoax, or hosted a program in which a person offered “scientific” evidence that Black people have a gene that makes them predisposed to violent behavior. I mean, it would suck having that company as a sponsor.

Yes, football sucks, is money hungry and ugly and eyes are wide open to how nasty it all is and how it could indeed be worse. But when did we become okay with the basement not being the root cellar? This post comes to you from America, where more than 900,000 have died from COVID, where people work to convince you that 450k deaths a year isn’t all that bad, really. “Cancer kills more, so what’s your problem, snowflake? And take that mask off. Don’t live in fear. Freedom.”

America is also a place where vaccine and other mumbo-jumbo can do real harm when presented via a platform with millions of listeners, where celebrity itself instills individuals with a veracity they don’t deserve and shouldn’t have.

Spotify of course is the Swedish whatever they legally call themselves — conduit for content? — where everybody who is anybody hangs out, from Beyonce to that baby band whose bass player you know. It’s a place that you have to be if you’re a band with aspirations, which means that Spotify can pay you at rates that a Depression-era fruit picker would blanch at.

A performer who did the math claims that if your song gets played 1000 times, you make about $3.

Unless you’re Joe Rogan. If you’re Joe Rogan, representative of the future of content pumping, that pipeline signs a licensing deal said to be worth more than 100m for the pleasure of hosting your podcast, which is these days under just a smidgen of attention. That very same content pipeline is the sponsorship face of the club we love, for a rumored sum just under 300m. Or maybe 232m. Or maybe just over 180m. Other “reports” claim the deal could result in as much as 650m. That’s enough to buy about one and a half Haalands and what else matters, right? We got money. Let’s go buy some stuff. It could be worse.

It could be worse. The new standard.

Culers find pride in various things. At one time it was that the club we support could field one of the best teams in the world without having to sell the shirt. The need for money led to a “for sale” sign. Then came Qatar Foundation and eyebrows shot to a height sufficient to give bald people bangs. Some culers raised questions about the appropriateness of the sponsor. Whether the club listened or the sponsorship ran its course, nobody quite knows.

When the latest sponsor, Rakuten, decided to skedaddle that vein was left open, in dire need of a money injection. In a world of crypto folks, sportswashing and gambling sponsors, where is a money-hungry club to turn?

To be precise, just another club. Just another big, money-hungry club that for a while was part of a SuperLeague project many predicted would do incalculable damage to the game. They didn’t care. When that didn’t pan out and payment was due to the best player in the history of the game, a man who grew up at the club, who came to the place where he made so much magic to sign his new deal, that didn’t pan out either. That icon left in tears, and is now in Paris. Bottom line.

Once you cast out an icon, what’s left? You have to sell stuff, have to get the money for that next fix. Sell what you can. The Camp Nou is iconic, and there is a project under way set to plunge the club even farther into debt, a gut rehab all set to turn it into a soulless modern sporting arena. Why not sell the name of the joint? If Spotify has its timing right, the nou Nou — or however Spotify will choose to exercise its naming rights, likely Spotify Camp Nou, will be open for business during the final year of its deal with the club.

There has been silence from the club about this. The only sign we have that anything is on are the reports of a done deal, and a bunch of suits from Spotify, posing for a photo op in the stands of their newest acquisition. A key board member, Ferran Reverter, has resigned, rumoredly over the deal, but who knows? Gaining in steam in the whisperstream is that Spotify is paying 5m per for naming rights for the Spotify Camp Nou. A piddlin’ sum but again, who the hell knows, even as there are things that are clear.

Barça hasn’t just sold the Camp Nou. They have sold everything. Arguably after punting Messi and lining up at the prospective SuperLeague trough there wasn’t much soul or illusion left. That musty-smelling, faded old thing was all they had. Last time I was there, over the summer, the Camp Nou was kind of a shithole. Parts of it were nice and shiny, work done when a sportswashing project festooned the chests of its warriors. It’s an old place, but a place with soul, with memories, even with the piles of construction debris strewn hither and yon. It’s a place in need of a rehab. A modern team needs a modern stadium, a bright, soulless thing to match the club’s view on the world, a mirror in which you can see yourself as you pump money into it. And if you have to align yourself with a sponsor that is repugnant, then that’s what you do.

You can pay some bills, buy a player or two, renew some folks. The fountain is on. Until the next big hit is due. And guess what? Can’t sell your soul, because it’s already gone.

Romance is illusion, a concept. When romance and passion morph into love, a couple settles into a life together, bound by romance and passion then sustained by the remnants of those things. That 70-year-old man looks at his wife of more than 40 years and still has stars in his eyes because he can still remember that romance, that moment when he was amazed and so lucky that she said “Yes.”

Is there room for romance in sport? There has to be because if there isn’t, then what the hell are we doing? But there also has to be a sense of right and wrong. Because if all we have is, “could have been worse,” then what do we have? Reality? Sure. Cold and ugly and where’s the fun in that? This corporate football game might as well just be like the mythical league in the movie “Rollerball,” where we cheer for corporations.

Hell, maybe it already is.