Katalina takes Catalunya
The Catalan identity, the fight for independence and Spanish football are completely intertwined. Catalans wear their FC Barcelona shirts as a sign of their desired independence and live by the Barca slogan ‘mes que un club’ (Catalan for ‘more than a club’). Let’s see what makes FC Barcelona more than a football club to Catalunya.
Yesterday, 11th September, was the National Day of Catalunya, Diada, in Barcelona. Walking around El Born, I witnessed the peaceful yet passionate protests of the Catalan people, as they gathered at Plaza de España in the centre of the city at 4pm and walked the streets of the city with their yellow and red striped flags and their ‘pro-independencia’ shirts. Another popular shirt was that of FC Barcelona. That caught me by surprise and I decided to find out why. If you’ve ever walked the street near a football stadium post match and fans dressed in complementary colours are all huddled together, beers in hand, celebrating a win or mourning a loss – it looked like this. If you didn’t know it was Diada, you would’ve wondered why the Barca fans were so far from their Camp Nou home.
Seeing this made me think. FC Barcelona is much more than a football team from Catalunya. The history runs deeper than that – it is a focal point for Catalan identity and that is a large cross to bear on the pitch. In an effort to understand Catalan identity, the political undertones of FC Barcelona and the responsibility of the team, I’ve done some research for us all. (NB: Keep in mind, I’m neither a historian nor an expert in Catalan identity)
FC Barcelona was formed in 1899 by a Swiss immigrant Hans Gamper-Haessig. A man who fell in love with Barcelona, changing his name to Joan Gamper and establishing FC Barcelona ‘Barca’ as a paid membership club – a membership which still exists today.
In 1925, Spanish Prime Minister Primo de Rivera claimed that Gamper and Barca were promoting Catalan nationalism. In Soccer in Spain: Politics, Literature and Film, Timothy Ashton writes that during a football match FC Barcelona fans whistled and made a mockery of the Spanish national anthem. Their punishment was closure of Barca’s home ground for six months. This was later reduced to three months, however Gamper was forced to resign from his position at FC Barcelona and was exiled from Spain. This act was seen as a large contributor to the economic struggles, mental and personal hardships that would follow. These were some of the earliest expressions of oppression of FC Barcelona. Just as the political climate was collapsing around them, the team were also surviving only by the number of supporters they had and as a result, there was a decline in their performance on the pitch. This crisis was eventually overcome in a win against Real Sociedad, where Barca took home the 1928 King’s Cup. In a time where Basque teams were dominating the play, with their direct style that was respected by fellow teams around Spain, this was a real achievement for FC Barcelona.
Early expressions of Catalan nationalism and small but meaningful events throughout Barca's long history have contributed to the oppression that divided FC Barcelona from its Spanish rivals. The club and its players have a socio-political responsibility to Catalunya. They represent a large portion of the population who identify with the Catalan identity and seek to make this their nationality.
More recently in 2017, a clash between Barca and Las Palmas was met with violent protests over the Catalan Independence vote which was taking place the same day. A vote which was considered illegal by the Spanish Central government. The postponement of the game was denied by La Liga, with the teams forced to play behind closed doors instead. Violence had erupted not only because a controversial vote was taking place, but because Las Palmas were wearing a Spanish flag woven into their shirts that represented unity. Interestingly, the flag on their shirts was approved by La Liga president Javier Tebas, a life long Real Madrid fan. The likes of legendary ex-Barca player Xavi labelled the event a ‘disgrace’ and Pep Guardiola revealed that he made his vote via email. Celebrated defender Carlos Puyol even insisted that voting was a democratic right. Gerard Piqué, one of FC Barcelona’s most famous defenders, who is also just as famous for being the husband of Shakira, has openly supported the vote for Catalan Independence. He has been booed by Spanish fans and even offered to quit playing for the national team. A small event in Barca’s long history, but one which highlights its socio-political responsibility to Catalunya and the effect the team, and its players, has on its relationship with greater Spain.
FC Barcelona’s business dealings with international companies are also scrutinised by Catalans and non-Catalans alike. The dilemma is that the club are either being too commercial, which is considered ‘Madridification,’ or too separatist, which is problematic for international sponsorships. The story continues as speculation rises on what independence would look like if the football team were no longer Spanish. Tebas has said the club would not be allowed to remain in La Liga and some have even suggested they would join England’s Premier League. I know enough about football to know this seems unlikely, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.
Knowing what I know now, El Clasico has another meaning too. A football duel that is recognised globally for its prestige, but one that is also bathed in socio-political issues between Catalunya and the Spanish capital, Madrid. However, I will save the El Clasico analysis for another day.
With all this, I don’t know about you, but I can see just how the Catalan identity, the fight for independence and Spanish football are so intertwined. Diada is a day where Catalunya is celebrated and Catalans wear their FC Barcelona shirts as a sign of their desired independence. ‘Mes que un club’ is the FC Barcelona Catalan slogan, and it’s more obvious than ever just how true this statement is.
I will be speaking with locals from Barcelona and other parts of Spain over the next few weeks to gain more perspective on the cultural identities associated with La Liga. If there’s a question you think I should ask them, leave it in the comments or submit via my chat box.
Resources used are listed below. Highly recommend for further reading!
Catalonias National Day Kicks off Despite Divisions Between Independentist Parties
Marta Rodriguez Martinez & Cristina Abellan-Matamoros
FC Barcelona and the Struggle for Independence
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