Some 140 kids are doing college-level soccer drills in the steamy heat at the Middlesex School in Concord. On one level it looks like your typical, albeit intense, summer soccer camp. But something is different here: The campers are wearing Barça soccer shirts — azulgranas, blue and scarlet — bearing the emblem of the legendary fútbol club out of Barcelona, where what most of the United States calls soccer is followed with a religious fervor that is hard for most Americans to understand.
FC Barcelona’s fans possess a devotion that may be at least equal to sports-crazy Boston’s love for the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins combined. Barça’s fans jam Camp Nou, its 98,000-seat stadium, game after game. The club has 61 million followers on Twitter and Facebook, making it the king of sports in social media (as Forbes put it, that’s more than what the 30 richest NFL teams have combined). The value of the franchise is estimated to be the third largest in the world of sports at $2.6 billion, behind Real Madrid and Manchester United. Quite possibly two of the best players in the world wear a Barça uniform: Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar. But what makes Barça unique beyond its disciplined style of play and 14 championships (out of a possible 19) is its focus on its extensive youth academy, La Masia, from which it draws much of its talent. It cultivates players from a very young age, as early as 6.
Thus it was a litmus test when the cult of Barça was brought to the Boston area for the first time this summer. Would anyone care? The answer was yes, a gratifying response for David Evans, who created a partnership with FC Barcelona to start the camp in New England. One ad in The Boston Globe last spring was all it took, he said, and word of mouth took care of the rest. Although most of the campers came from the Boston area, some traveled from Canada, Philadelphia, Texas, and even Honduras and Colombia. About 20 percent of the kids who signed up were Hispanic, and the male to female ratio was approximately 4-1.
While the results this inaugural year have been promising, they also highlight the gulf between the popularity of the sport in other continents and the United States, an ongoing enigma despite some recent strides. Since 2007, Major League Soccer has put an emphasis in youth development with its homegrown player initiative. Our very own New England Revolution have two players who came from its youth system (Diego Fagundez, born in Uruguay and raised in Leominster; and Scott Caldwell, from Braintree). But there is something about soccer that fails to engage the undying loyalty of most Americans. Think of the Barça camp in Boston as one of many missionary efforts to spread the word. They think they have an approach that can catch on in the United States.
According to one Barça expert, Isaac Oriol Guerrero Hernández, the obstacle for American fans is getting used to a sport that emphasizes intense teamwork and ball possession.
“Here, you guys are used to sports where there is a winner and a loser, with a high score,” explains Guerrero Hernández, who is general school coordinator and head of methodology at FC Barcelona’s Escola. “But a fútbol game can end in 0-0.” Yet he doesn’t think US fans have to learn to love a game they think is boring. The key, he says, is to give Americans a product they can be more interested in. More offense. More pizazz. More Barça.
Thus, the team decided to bring its program to Boston. “We don’t want to sell shirts — we want to sell our methodology, give these kids a taste of that methodology because most likely the fútbol they’ve been playing is very different,” says Guerrero Hernández, who had never been in the United States before.
The goal is to build fan interest in soccer, one kid at a time. Judging by the diverse group that came out for the camp, a growing love of fútbol will not only help Barça extend its global fandom and already dominant brand, but give the emerging communities of Boston a new point of connection.