What does any of this have to do with sport? On the larger picture, every detail of Catalan culture revolves around the question, ‘are you for or against independence?’. And the biggest part of Catalan culture? Unsurprisingly, that would be the city’s football giants, FC Barcelona.
Whilst fans from further afield may just know Barça for their untouchable history-writers such as Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, Andrés Iniesta, Ronaldinho and Pep Guardiola, it’s a club whose identity is a lot more deeply rooted than just their on the pitch prowess.
Just hours after October 14th’s condemnation of Catalan separatist leaders, the club had readied a statement, brandishing their undeniable power in the region. “El FC Barcelona, as one of the leading entities in Catalonia […] Prison is not the solution”.
FC Barcelona announcement
"Prison is not the solution" pic.twitter.com/o0BWOaThgD
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 14, 2019
“FC Barcelona also expresses all its support and solidarity to the families of those who are deprived of their freedom”, it continued. A football club involving itself with a nation’s politics in such a bold way is next to unheard of in the United Kingdom and, in fact, across the globe too. And as the club’s towering centre-back Gerard Piqué took to Twitter to support the statement, it’s reach cannot be underestimated.
When the side play, 100,000 citizens crowd into the Camp Nou and the rest empty the streets and duck into local bars to catch the game in a phenomenon that turns the Catalan capital into a ghost town. For many Catalans, supporting the city’s football club is a religious-like commitment that surpasses the feelings of disillusionment and mistrust that many feel towards the current government.
The club’s maintaining of a watchful eye over politics is far from a trend that has come about with this year’s latest protests. In October 2017, on the day of an independence referendum deemed illegal and shut down by police, the club announced just half an hour before kick-off against Las Palmas that gates would remain shut in protest – creating mayhem for those police officers outside the Camp Nou. A club statement condemning the police’s actions followed, as did a visit from Gerard Piqué to the polls and the projection of a ballot box with the word ‘democracy’ onto the scoreboard.
The club’s slogan of “mes que un club”, in the region’s Catalan language of course, translates as “more than a club” and it’s clearly the case. The club’s away kit remains the colours of the Catalan flag in yellow and red and gets marched into clubs across the country and worldwide. The team’s infamous ‘Cant del Barça’ song lyrics are blown up on the big screen for all 100,000 fans to scream before matches and the club is owned and operated by its supporters.
The most tangible link to understanding the political impact of the club for fans away from Catalonia rests in the side’s duels with Real Madrid. The rivalry to end all football rivalries, it lies not just in the unbeatable nature of both the sides, but in their political history too.
Founded in 1902 and granted permission to use the status ‘real’ from King Alfonso XIII, Real Madrid’s crown emblem connects the club directly to the monarchy. For Barcelona fans, many of whom see themselves as politically and culturally independent from Spain, it’s in the Classico that football becomes a political battleground. It’s a reason for rivalry that many modern Madrid fans deny, but the execution of former Barça president and pro-independence deputy Josep Sunyol by General Franco in Madrid in 1936 is not so easily forgotten by those pro-Independence Barcelona fans still in political turmoil at home.
A rivalry story that gets re-written time and time again as Barcelona’s footballers come and go, the Classico is infamous in football culture. From ‘El Salvador’ Cruyff’s registering of his son in the city under the Catalan name of Jordi and his role in a 5-0 Madrid bashing in 1974 to 2019’s outspoken Gerard Piqué taking to Twitter last month, club heroes are plentiful.
Whilst the club continues it’s support of freedom and expression, without ever explicitly stating a political leaning, the football side’s political power remains perhaps even more important than their ability with the ball.