Catalan independence is, perhaps, not the most obvious topic to be gracing the Sport section of this newspaper. With recent domestic experiences still fresh in the memory, our Comment writers provide a quite excellent take on what is represented increasingly as a seismic shift in the Spanish political landscape.
It sits in this section, however, due to the inescapable link between the region of Catalonia and its most famous export, FC Barcelona. The push for complete Catalan autonomy is one that has long been a central question is Spanish politics, however, FC Barcelona’s place atop the footballing pyramid since 2007 has served to consolidate and legitimise this position. The structural causes are not hard to identify: a brief visit to the National Museum of Catalonia in the historic El Born district that nestles behind a shiney, multi- cultural, internationalised, self- confident waterfront will suffice. Football is placed at the end of the experience, the lasting impression and the blood red decor is clear metaphor for the cause. Four hundred years of hurt does not stop them dreaming.
This link is for many reasons, but simply, in the eyes of its fans – and for that read almost all of the Catalan region – FC Barcelona is Catalonia. They proudly proclaim themselves as més que un club (more than a club), a sentiment that defines their recruitment policies, their managerial structures, and even their training processes.
The 2012 clásico was perhaps the most high profile example of this belief. FC Barcelona hosted their greatest rivals, the singular representation of Spanish subjugation, Franco’s team, Real Madrid. They were irrefutably the world’s two best sides, stacked with all of the world’s best players, and instead the build-up was focused on how it was the most political match since the death of the dictator.
Giles Tremlett, writing in The Guardian at the time, called it ‘about far more than just the historic rivalry between two legendary sides.’ The event itself was stunning on the field, a typically high-tempo 2-2 draw, with two goals apiece for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Before the game, whilst Barcelona’s team hymn is sung by the home fans, two gigantic red and yellow striped Catalan flags were unfurled at either end, with innumerable smaller flags waved by the masses. Then, after 17 minutes 14 seconds, the cries of ‘Independence, Independence!’ echoed around the 98,000 seat stadium.
Sid Lowe, in his tome on the rivalry between Spain’s two biggest sides, Fear and Loathing in La Liga, recounts how Catalan Member of Parliament Toni Strubell believed that the day that the Camp Nou chanted for independence would be the day independence arrived, and whilst this has not yet been fully proved correct, it further places FC Barcelona as the tangible extension of Catalonia.
Indeed the two goalscorers that day perhaps sum up why now, as much as ever, this rivalry is central to the independence debate. Lionel Messi is a world superstar cultivated in Catalan surroundings using Catalan methods. He is the spearhead of a side containing on average six other players brought through La Masia, the FC Barcelona academy. They make their own talent, teach them a playing style that has been passed (no pun intended) through generations and take on the world with it. And usually win.
Real Madrid’s star, on the other hand, was at the time the world’s most expensive player, one of the world’s best paid players and arguably the most high-profile player. Cristiano Ronaldo was the greatest mercenary money could buy, and of course, Madrid, a side that has been able to employ the world’s most expensive player since 2000, would be the ones to buy him. FC Barcelona is an identity, Real Madrid simply identifies with success.
It is this home-grown success that has emboldened the Catalan spirit. FC Barcelona prove to their fans that Catalonians can survive in their own right; not just survive, but flourish. They can stare down Madrid’s Euros and not blink, not take a step back. It has provided the disenfranchised, disillusioned youth of the region with heroes they can relate to, heroes who speak their language, that play football for their homeland. Xavi Hernandez, Pep Guardiola and the current club president Joan Laporta were among the people tied to FC Barcelona that voted in last week’s symbolic referendum. There is little doubt that they will have been part of the 80.7 per cent who answered both that Catalonia should be a state, and that said state should be independent.
The late Sir Bobby Robson, manager of FC Barcelona between 1996-7, once stated that ‘Catalonia is a country and Barcelona is its army.’ It is the continued strength of this army on the field since 2008, four Liga titles, two Copas del Rey, four Supercopas, two Champions Leagues, two European Super Cups, and two Club World Cups that proves that the country can survive on its own.
Barcelona is, and always will be, més que un club whose on-field success help shape the political landscape of Spain and Catalonia. Political observers from across the world watched in awe at the sea of waving red and yellow flags congregated in front of the National Museum in El Born on the eve of last week’s vote. Sports fans knew that the spectacle will be repeated every alternate weekend throughout the season.