Catalonia: Mixing football and politics

I wrote this on Catalan independence back in 2012 but in light of recent elections in Catalonia with claims that Catalonia could be declared independent in 18 months I thought this might still be relevant.

Few places on the planet meld the worlds or football and politics together as much as Catalonia and its biggest city Barcelona. As Catalonia goes to the polls in less than two weeks’ time; at stake will not just be the parliamentary seats of the regional government from one of Spain’s 17 provinces but possibly the future of Catalonia and Spain itself.

Catalonia is in a contradictory fashion both one of Spain’s most indebted regions while also being the region that pays the highest amount of taxes to Central government. Disagreements between regional premiere Artur Mas and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy over the ability of Catalonia to have more direct control over spending and taxation have led to the hot topic of the regional elections due to take place on November 25th being that of Catalan independence.

This has been demonstrated by large scale pro-independence street marches on the streets of Catalan towns and cities and in the great cathedral of Catalan nationalism the Camp Nou. During last month’s Clasico match with Real Madrid the whole stadium was turned into a giant Catalan flag while the crowd chanted “Independence, Independence”. During their recent visit to Parkhead the Celtic staff greeted their visitors not with the Spanish flag but the Catalan one flying from the stadium flagpoles, a nod and a wink from the Scots who are due to have their own referendum in 2014. Despite the international nature of FC Barcelona’s founding fathers the club has become a focal point for Catalan nationalism, Camp Nou being described as the one place in Catalonia where the Catalan language and political dissent could be vocalised during the Franco regime Its club presidents view the leadership position at the club and on-field success as important political tools and are often aligned with the Catalan nationalist movement, former President Joan Laporta was an MP with Democricia Catalana for example.  The current president Sandro Rosell is the son of former Chief Executive Jaume Rosell who was involved with the club in the final years of the Franco regime in the 1970’s. As the story goes upon hearing of the death of the dictator Rosell and a colleague began tossing a plaster bust of the Generalissimo back and forth to each other before Rosell fumbled and dropped the bust to the floor where it smashed to pieces. It’s a very Barca story.

However it’s worth thinking about where a successful independence movement would leave not only Barcelona but all of Catalan and Spanish football. Projections are suggesting that Catalan Independence parties could gain a majority in the regional parliament this month and would be in position to push for a referendum on Catalan independence. Rajoy and the rest of the Spanish National Government won’t countenance this action, declaring it illegal and beyond the powers of the regional parliament, they have also stated that any new Catalan republic would be barred from entry to the EU, something that Artur Mas has strongly contested in Brussels.

A situation could arise whereby Catalonia would almost be a rogue state within Western Europe, recognised by some but not by others, perhaps in the same way that nations like Kosovo or South Ossetia are treated depending on the political outlook of the nation in question. Even if Catalonia were to universally recognised there would be a situation where in footballing terms the new nation would have to seek membership of UEFA and FIFA as well as set up a separate league system as happened in countries like Croatia after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Although there is a separate Catalonian football association, (they have played over 200 international matches) this body is not affiliated with FIFA and the games that they have played are basically challenge matches against guest teams organised during the Christmas break in the Spanish Football calendar.

It would mean that the appeal of Barca could be greatly diminished, they would the major player in a rump league that would feature some teams of prestige, such as Espanyol but the overall quality would drop significantly. Barcelona would be the big fish in a much smaller pond, their titanic clashes with Real Madrid a thing of the past as far as league and cup games are concerned, and without their rivals, without the great competitive edge fuelled by that desire to get one up on the all-white grandees from central Spain would they be the same team? A rump Catalan league would surely hit Barcelona (and it must be said Real Madrid) in the pocket too; Girona FC are not as appealing an opponent as Real Madrid, Athetic Bilbao or Sevilla for either the stadium spectator or the TV marketing executive. A reduction in league competition could mean that Barcelona’s own exacting standards are lowered and that players, whether cantera products or foreign signings could look to other “bigger” leagues as their desired end destination. Could Barca go from from epochal super-team to stepping stone in a matter of years? The other option would be for Barcelona (and others) to seek to remain in the Spanish league. There is some precedent with this in that teams from the neighbouring principality of Andorra already compete in the lower leagues in Spain. The question then becomes whether the financial and competitive advantages of being part of Le Liga triumph over the traditional Catalan nationalist leanings associated with the club. And let us not forget that it was Jaume Rosell that said “Barça is more than a club, but above all it’s a club for all social classes. Barça includes all ideologies because it represents the whole Catalan people”, the questions of who they represent, and where do they represent them would have to be answered by the Barca board, and it is likely their response would not be greeted with universal approval by the supporters.

And what of the national teams of Spain and Catalonia? As mentioned previously there are annual Catalan international challenge matches played each year in December. Last years’ squad featured the likes of Victor Valdes, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, and Cesc Fabregas, all World and European Champions with Spain. A formidable core to have in any international team, but how many of them would be likely to declare for the new Catalan national side, it’s one thing to play a challenge match in the knowledge that you can go back and join your World Champion team-mates during the next international break, it’s quite another to walk away from the most successful international side in the modern era. Despite the rivalry and occasional aggression between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the national team replete with Catalans, Castillians and Basques has been harmonious, the players have stressed that regional divides and identities mean little and this attitude has brought them unprecedented success. Players face similar choices in Ireland with players born in Northern Ireland presented with the option of playing for the North or the Republic. Patriotism, a sense of community, identity and belonging, career advancement all play a part in a players’ decision to declare for either team. The same complex choices could face the footballers of Catalonia and Spain.


The international dilemma brings us back to Catalan nationalism, despite over 1.5 million people taking to the streets in Catalonia calling for independence, many from the region are migrants, or children of migrants from other parts Spain especially the south, or indeed a more recent influx of migrants from areas like North Africa who moved to the larger, wealthier cities of Catalonia to earn a living. For them is Catalan nationalism  as much of a priority? They were the outsiders coming into an area that spoke a different language, Catalan and they had to adapt to their surroundings.

One of those ways was through football; Barcelona as well as being a symbol or perhaps even a vehicle for Catalan nationalism are also the club of the foreigner, their founders included Swiss and Englishmen, their heroes have had names like Kubala, Cruyff and Stoichkov, they celebrated an openness internationalism at the height of Spain’s post war isolation and are the global dream team for millions. Barcelona is rightly lauded for focus on home-grown talent but it is also a bit about Argentinian, Brazillian and Dutch brilliance. The immigrants and their children are as much a Barcelona cule as the died- in-the-wool Catalan nationalist, will they appreciate a marginalising of their club or the potential weakening of their all-conquering national team?

Spain has been down paths like these in the past. In the early 80s the country was still in the nascent phases of democracy after the death of General Franco, they were also preparing to host their first World Cup in 1982. Although awarded to Spain as part of a voting pact back in 1966 (some things never change) it became a chance for Spain to continue its reintegration into the Western world after the years of dictatorship with membership of the EEC also on the horizon. However, in other matters there were similarities with modern day Spain as it was also a time of huge economic stagnation, massive unemployment, regional tensions over the devolving of powers; including an active terrorist campaign from Basque separatist group ETA.

Against this background an attempted coup was launched by right wing and military forces in Spain and on 23rd February 1981, 200 armed guards entered the Spanish parliament led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero. The swift and determined intervention of King Juan Carlos I who made a televised address denouncing the coup and calling for a return to the proper running of the democratic government saw the coup collapse by the early hours of February 24th. Only a week later Barcelona striker Enrique Castro Gonzalez, better known as Quini was kidnapped at gunpoint shortly after he had helped Barcelona to a 6-0 victory over Hercules. Although the kidnapping turned out to be the work of common criminals and economically motivated  (Quini was eventually released unharmed after 25 days in captivity), early reports suggested that Quini was kidnapped by a Spanish nationalist group who did not want a “separatist” team like Barcelona winning the title.

As ever football and politics seem to be uneasy yet constant bedfellows in Spain, whether the current talks or referenda on Catalan independence is a political ploy, a bargaining chip to gain greater authority over finance, or a political pledge soon to be realised remains to be seen, the fate of a nation and the greatest club and national teams in a generation hangs in the balance.

Originally posted on in November 2012

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