Priyansh is a freelance sports writer.
On a sunny afternoon this June, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola addressed a crowd of over 40,000 people from the steps of Montjuïc. Guardiola is a Catalan hero, having overseen the transformation of the most successful FC Barcelona side in recent times. He is also a firm believer in Catalonia’s independence.
“We have tried on 18 occasions to reach an agreement on a referendum and the answer has always been no. We have no other option but to vote. We call on the international community to support us and on democrats the world over to help us to defend the rights that are threatened in Catalonia, such as the right of freedom of expression and the right to vote.”
Guardiola’s words were met with loud approval. After all, the football coach is a representative of one of the major cultural symbols of Catalan identity: FC Barcelona. However, unlike many other sporting outfits, Barça is not just a beacon of the city’s ideas and aspirations. It is also an institution which remains an avowed supporter of Catalan independence.
Even though recent years have seen the club suffer criticism for a supposed regression from its ethics and values, it continues to affirm its centrality in Catalan politics. When the Spanish Guardia Civil raided the Catalan regional government, or the Generalitat, premises and arrested senior officials last week, Barça released an official statement expressing worry at the turn of events and reiterating its support for the “will of the majority of Catalan people.”
It was another reminder of FC Barcelona’s enduring affection for catalanisme. On October 1, the regional government plans to hold a referendum for Catalan independence from the Spanish state. If the answer is ‘yes’, the Generalitat has revealed its intention to declare freedom within 48 hours. But the Spanish government, led by the conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, maintains that the referendum is illegal and it will not be allowed to go ahead.
In light of the repressive measures, Barça’s response is an encouraging sign. Jordi Pujol, the Generalitat’s first leader after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, summed up the club’s integral place in Catalan society when he said, “Barça is like other folkloric manifestations of our people – a reserve we can draw on when other sources dry out, when the doors of normality are closed to us.”
The Spanish government’s reaction to the call for referendum has betrayed desperation. It also signifies diffidence in its democratic process, putting the very ideals of the nation state at stake. The doors of normality are closed again, with websites informing people about the referendum being blocked and the Generalitat’s access to funds restricted.
Of course, such is Barça’s standing globally that it has become a target too. The Spanish football federation’s president Javier Tebas has threatened to throw the club out of the La Liga competition if Catalonia becomes an independent state. This poses a peculiar problem for the club. If it stays committed to its political beliefs, it will continue to threaten its existence.
Without the lure of regular, elite competition, FC Barcelona will cease to be the lucrative business enterprise that it is. It faces the threat of losing its star names, like Lionel Messi. A Catalonian league will not be able to match the club’s elevated status. But the historical impulse will dictate that the politics that in some sense defines the sporting outfit cannot be rejected. This clash in priorities threatens to pull the club in multiple directions, with Barça unlikely to have a say over its ultimate destiny.
But this is not the first time that the political climate has threatened the club’s existence. Under Francisco Franco’s rule, a cultural genocide brought the subjugation of every Catalan symbol. Language has been a constant flashpoint in the relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish state and it was no different under the dictatorship. In fact, this year marks the hundredth anniversary of Catalan being adopted as Barça’s official language.
However, the dictatorship forced the club to use Castilian Spanish instead of its avowed mother tongue. As the Catalan political movement shed its moderate regionalism to imbibe more radical shades in protest of the Franco regime, Barça’s standing grew as well. In 1936, the murder of then club president Josep Sunyol by Franco’s forces for supporting the establishment of a Catalan state embellished its place within the resistance.
Former player Charles Rexach once discussed why Barça mattered during the dictatorship. “[Franco] tried to obliterate all regional rivalries in Spain, except in soccer. He promoted soccer as a healthy way for the regions to work out their tensions. But with Barça, the dictator miscalculated. As the Catalans had no political parties, no regional government and no right to use their own language, they threw their cultural pride into Barça. At a Barça match, people could shout in Catalan and sing traditional songs when they could do it nowhere else.”
It is no wonder then that with the resurgence of Catalan nationalism, in recent years, the estelades (the flag for secessionist movements) outnumber the senyeres (the official flag of Catalonia) at Barça’s home ground Camp Nou. But only a decade ago, the support for independence stood at an estimated 15%. However, in 2010, a constitutional court ruled parts of a charter for regional autonomy – which had been put into law by a referendum only four years ago – illegal. This caused disaffection within the Catalan public and support for independence has been growing ever since.
In fact, in a recent poll, over 70% of Catalonia’s residents called for a referendum overseen by the Spanish state. Other polls suggest that the majority is likely to choose to remain, with support for independence hovering in the low 40s. Despite having the numbers on its side, the Rajoy-led government is not even contemplating letting its richest region go; Catalonia contributed 19% of Spain’s GDP in 2016.
The People’s Party government in Madrid has demonstrated intransigence in face of the rising nationalist sentiment. This has resulted in a rare political union of conservatives, radical leftists and centrists, bringing together the centre-right head of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, and the anti-capitalist mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau. If the referendum does go ahead and independence is declared, however, the government in Madrid may choose to employ Article 155 of the Constitution, which would lead to the official suspension of the Generalitat. That would be another immature step. An attempt to snuff out the opposition is unlikely to endear the Rajoy-led government to the Catalan people.
Notwithstanding the questions over the referendum’s legality, it is worth remembering that an unofficial referendum in 2014 brought 80% support for independence. But its legitimacy was undermined by a low turnout, nearing a mere one-third of the electorate. One suspects the turnout will be much higher this Sunday if the vote goes ahead. Supporters of independence are likely to assert their right to self-determination and self-governance, privileging their Catalan identity over Spanish citizenship.
On the day of the referendum, FC Barcelona will host Las Palmas at Camp Nou too. The match has not been cancelled as of now. But things could change. A constitutional mode of assertion could be blocked by a coercive response from the Spanish government. However, if the trend in recent years is indicative, the desire for independence will keep growing. On Sunday, FC Barcelona could once again become a site for Catalan assertion.
As for the club’s future, a difficult road may lie ahead. The history of Soviet and Balkan clubs is a worthy guide. Teams like Dinamo Tbilisi and Red Star Belgrade lost their cultural status after the respective countries got independence. Whether a super-rich enterprise like Barça will be allowed to fail is a moot question. But it is an institution that is firmly interwoven in the debates on Catalan identity and politics. As the nationalist sentiments gathers pace, there is no other place where FC Barcelona would rather be.