WASHINGTON — European champions FC Barcelona are widely considered the best club in the world, winning every trophy available on the back of some of the world’s greatest players like Lionel Messi and Xavi.
What’s next on the list? Rid the world of polio.
Renowned philanthropist and former Microsoft chief Bill Gates unveiled on Thursday a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and FC Barcelona with the express goal of eliminating a disease that still claims roughly 1,500 children annually in countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Chad and the Congo.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cases [of polio] have been eliminated,” Gates told attendees of the event held at the Newseum. “We still have this one percent left and it’s a serious problem. The last one percent is the most difficult of all and that’s why I’m spending time on this.
“And we were talking about what’s the most fantastic thing we can have to help remind people that we haven’t finished and we need to re-energize this campaign. And someone was explaining to me this unbelievable soccer team.”
Gates was referring to FC Barcelona, who arrived in the USA on Thursday for a three-match tour as part of the 2011 Herbalife World Football Challenge. The club is intent on proving that it takes their mantra, “More than a club,” seriously and joining forces with Gates reinforces that it’s not just a catchphrase.
“I talk for myself as a person, but also a club to be in a partnership with Mr. Gates, because he’s a hero for us because he shows the way to help the people who needs more than the other ones,” FC Barcelona manager Josep “Pep” Guardiola said, using imperfect English.
The Spanish club will use its reach through social media — including 18 million Facebook fans and millions more on Twitter — to fundraise and generate awareness for the disease. Barcelona fans will also be prompted to text a donation to Rotary International to raise money for the fight against polio.
“Soccer is something that people in Africa, in the countries where there still is polio, they know FC Barcelona and they know soccer and they’ll be seeing the ‘End Polio’ on the jersey,” Gates said. “And the countries we’re counting on for their generosity that funds this ‘End Polio’ campaign, of course they’re rabid soccer fans.”
Thursday’s event, which also featured Barcelona president Sandro Rosell, had a lighter side, with one traveling journalist from Spain asking if Gates’ business acumen could help the team land Arsenal captain Cesc Fàbregas in what has been a protracted negotiation.
“I’m going to ask him,” Rosell said with a laugh. “I don’t know if he’ll have time … but we’d like to make him a socio [member] of Barcelona.”
Gates would likely be intrigued to become a socio after the Microsoft co-founder admitted reading up on the ownership structure of the club — featuring 180,000 shareholders — on the same day of the event. He called it a “very unusual structure” but one that Gates’ foundation is counting on in one of the most high-profile global efforts involving soccer.
“We’re very close with polio and success would energize a lot of the global health effort and, if we don’t finish, it will be a huge setback,” Gates said. “A lot of people have lost sight of the fact that we’re so close. We have one magic thing we can do in the next two to three years. Things go well in the next two to three years, we should either be done or very close to done with having any polio cases anywhere in the world.”
With the help of the European and Spanish champs, polio’s days are numbered. Perhaps FC Barcelona and Guardiola, who Gates says is a “genius” based on results, would be up for another challenge? Like helping the impasse in Congress with a lesson on teamwork?
“It’s a tremendous question,” Guardiola said when asked of the proposal. “This morning we went in front of the White House just to make some stretching and they didn’t let us stay there. Imagine having to try to solve or give an idea of this important issues about Republicans and Democrats. I think Mr. Gates knows more than me, so I pass the ball to him.”