"There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism – that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige." —George Orwell, “The Sporting Spirit” (1945)
“It’s a defeat, not a humiliation,” insisted new Real Madrid coach José Mourinho, in response to the first question of his press conference. It wasn’t a satisfactory answer. Real Madrid, arguably the most successful soccer club in history, had just lost 5-0 to their bitter rivals, FC Barcelona. When Mourinho was hired, he was tasked with the goal of tipping the power balance back in the Spanish capital’s favor, and yet, it seemed the gap was continuing to widen. Real Madrid had won La Liga three years prior, managed to come in second the following two seasons, and had spent a staggering €250 million over two seasons on some of the best players in the world, but Barcelona continued to come out on top. Barcelona was just better.
Pep Guardiola was appointed as FC Barcelona's coach in 2008 after a distinguished career as a FC Barcelona player, and a shorter, but successful, career coaching their youth team. He became the youngest coach to win the Champions League, Europe’s premier tournament, in his first year coaching, and in his next two seasons, Barcelona would only lose three league games (none of them to Madrid) and win the Champions League again. When Guardiola resigned after the 2011-2012 season, he had won 13 out of 16 possible major competitions in a four-year managerial stint, making him the most successful coach in Barcelona's history. Moreover, when the Spanish national team won the World Cup in 2010, seven out of 11 starters played club soccer for Barcelona. More importantly, Guardiola received universal plaudits for forcing a stylistic paradigm shift in the sport – not only was the team dominating opponents, they were doing so with a unique brand of soccer dubbed “tiki-taka,” in reference to an almost fanatical devotion to short, quick passing.
For La Diada, Catalonia’s historic unofficial independence day, Guardiola released a video of himself holding up a symbolic ballot, backing the call for an independence referendum. Though the move was met with the expected euphoria among independence marchers, Spanish journalists agreed that the most successful living Spanish coach had effectively made any future aspiration to coach the Spanish national team untenable. Of course, this may not have mattered to him; when asked about his national affiliation when he was a player, he told the interviewer that representing Spain was an obligation, but that his heart would always be with Catalonia.
First Half // Primer Tiempo // Primer Temps
Journalist Phil Ball describes the bi-annual meeting of Real Madrid and Barcelona as "a re-enactment of the Spanish Civil War." For at least the past two decades, the game, known as "El Clásico," has been the single most important event on the Spanish sporting calendar. According to a 2011 poll conducted by Diario AS, a Spanish sports magazine 44 percent of Spanish soccer fans supported Barcelona, while 37 percent supported Real Madrid. Atlético Madrid came in a distant third, with 17 percent. Today, outsiders might understandably assume that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are the only relevant teams in Spain, and yet, it was not always so.
On the one hand, Real Madrid has always enjoyed a certain global recognition. They were conferred the title "Real" (Royal) by King Alfonso XIII in 1920, and became a formal extension of centralized state power after the Spanish Civil War, when General Franco realized that backing a local soccer team with state resources would curry political favor among the populace. Privileged with state support, the team won La Liga eight times in 10 years and the European Cup five times in a row. Franco had absolute power in Spain, and Real Madrid had absolute power in European soccer.
Meanwhile, FC Barcelona was facing the consequences of resisting Franco's rule. In 1928, they appointed Josep Sunyol, a local politician, to their board of directors. Though he was not the first Catalan activist to manage the club, he would go on to be the most famous. In an early manifesto he wrote, “To speak of sport is to speak of race, enthusiasm, and the optimistic struggle of youth. To speak of citizenship is to speak of the Catalan civilization, liberalism, democracy, and spiritual Endeavour.” In 1933, Sunyol was elected to represent the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a pro-independence party in the Spanish parliament, and led an effort to secede formally from Franco's Spanish Republic.
Sunyol's Catalan independence movement represented one of the biggest threats to the dictatorship, and in response, Franco cracked down on Catalan culture, attempting to quell dissent through forced homogenization. The Catalan language was formally outlawed, and the national flag, the Senyera, was banned. Sunyol encouraged demonstrative response, and Camp Nou, Barcelona’s stadium, quickly became the largest gathering place in the city where Catalan could be spoken openly, and games, routinely attended by over 100,000 fans, acquired a distinctly pugilistic atmosphere. Supporter sections rallied around seditious chants and banners, and the fans, colloquially referred to as “cules,” routinely abused non-Catalan opposition. The fans and political dissidents shared an independence chant: “Visca el Barça i visca Catalunya (Long live Barça and Catalonia).”
Franco tried to subvert the movement by undermining Barcelona’s chances of sporting success. In 1943, when Barcelona won the first leg of the two-leg Generalissimo’s cup, players were threatened by the Count of Mayalde, Franco's director of state security, and they went on to lose the second leg 11-1, thus keeping the trophy in the capital. It wasn’t an isolated case. In 1953, Barcelona agreed to sign Alfredo Di Stéfano from Milionarios in Argentina, only for the deal to be nullified by the national soccer federation and opening the door for Real Madrid to sign him instead. He would go on to be Madrid’s all-time greatest player. Starved for financial backing and openly thwarted by the administration, Barcelona would win a paltry eight titles in the 45 years that Franco was in power. For cules, the low point of the era was when Sunyol was detained and executed by the military in 1936. He was posthumously prosecuted for vague “political crimes” and for being “anti-Spanish.”
Halftime // Medio Tiempo // Mi-Temps
On September 11, 2012, an estimated 1.2 million Catalan nationalists marched on Barcelona, chanting in Catalan "independència ja," or "independence now," forgoing the Spanish "independencia ahora." In one sense, Catalan identity is intimately tied to the Catalan language, but this latest flash point has revealed that the conflict runs deeper; almost four decades after Franco, Catalonia still deeply distrusts the central government, especially given the current economic climate.
Spain was hit harder than most by the 2007 sovereign debt crisis. Going into 2008, their trade deficit was 10 percent of GDP, and a property bubble that had seen real estate prices rise 200 percent from 1999 to 2007 had developed as a result of a massive increase in personal debt and an unregulated credit market. When the bubble popped, the construction industry collapsed, and since the labor market had also been experiencing a bubble, the Spanish labor force was left suddenly uncompetitive and unprepared. The result? Almost 25 percent aggregate unemployment, €60 billion worth of austerity measures and welfare cuts, and a precipitous drop in foreign investment.
More critically, a staggering 54 percent of Spaniards aged 16 to 24 are unemployed as of September 2012. As early as May 2011, youth activism became the focal point of organized social unrest, when millions marched in the streets in Occupy-style protests against the government's continued bailouts of troubled banks in an age of austerity. The Catalan independence movement seized the opportunity and made economic inequality the main theme of a renewed effort to define a sovereign nation of Catalonia. The core of the dispute, according to President of the Generalitat of Catalonia Artur Mas, has been the Spanish central government's refusal to address imbalances in the tax system. He argues that Catalonia's inability to meet internal budget goals (such as health care payments) should be grounds for a renegotiation of the regional tax agreement with Madrid. Currently, Catalonia receives less in social services than it pays in tax. Of course, given Spain's holistic economic problems, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is in no position to accept such an agreement without grave consequences for the rest of the nation.
And yet, there is the impending sense that a failure to broker a deal could lead to something significantly more damaging. Though protests have been peaceful thus far, the Spanish conservative right has reacted angrily to any suggestion of Catalan separatism, rekindling unwelcome memories of Civil War divisions. When asked about his views on the subject, Spanish Army Colonel Francisco Alamán said that Catalonia would be independent “over my dead body and that of many other soldiers,” and Vice President of the European Parliament Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca has similarly called for a paramilitary suppression of any independence movement. BBC correspondent Paul Mason argues that the militarization of the conflict threatens to reawaken a Catalan memory that had been suppressed by years of liberalization-fueled advances in the standard of living. The new threat of perceived aggression, coupled with economic hardship, could result in a reactionary Catalan rebellion that would make peaceful settlement nearly impossible.
Second Half // Segundo Tiempo // Segon Temps
Seventeen minutes and 14 seconds into each half of the first clásico of the 2012-2013 season, 100,000 FC Barcelona fans chanted for independence. The timing was a reference to 1714, the year of La Diada, and the move represented the most overt FC Barcelona challenge to central authority since 1975, when fans began smuggling Senyeras into the stadium just weeks after Franco's death. It was probably the most highly publicized challenge as well, with over 400 million fans across the globe watching the match on TV. In this sense, Barcelona seems to identify with its Catalan roots more today than in the past thirty years. The truth, however, may be more complicated.
Barcelona won their first European Cup in 1992 under Dutch playing legend Johan Cruyff, anointed an honorary Catalan for his exploits as a Barcelona player and manager, as well as for his famous proclamation that he chose Barcelona over Madrid because he could not play for a club associated with Franco. Though Barcelona was always considered an important club worldwide, attracting some of the best players and coaches in the world, it was Cruyff's European successes, coupled with the advent of lucrative sports sponsorships and globally televised club soccer, that positioned Barcelona as a truly elite organization. Over the next 10 years, Barcelona and Real Madrid would jostle for the position of best-supported club in the world, both spending lavishly to ensure that they had access to the world's best players. If Madrid spent €100 million on Zidane, Ronaldo, and Beckham, Barcelona spent the same on Overmars, Geovanni, and Saviola. However, Barcelona tried to stay true to their slogan, "més que un club," or “more than a club.” The socios, or shareholding fans of FC Barcelona, refused to license stadium naming rights or shirt sponsorships, clinging to an anti-establishment ethos, and advertised for UNICEF instead. And when Luis Figo moved across to Madrid after winning the World Player of the Year with Barcelona, the Boixos Nois, an extremist nationalist fan group, threw a severed pig's head at him during El Clásico for his disloyalty.
Unfortunately, years of disdaining sponsorships and engaging in player largesse caught up to the club. In 2010, despite having achieved considerable sporting success, they were forced to take a €150 million short-term loan to cover a single year’s loss of €80 million. Furthermore, they were finally forced to sell their shirt branding to the Qatar Foundation, causing fans of Espanyol (the other, less supported Barcelona team) to wave a banner that said, "Qatar is not Catalonia." And yet the notion prevailed that certain things were “més que” the club. Sandro Rosell, the newly elected President of FC Barcelona, did what his predecessor Joan Laporta had failed to do, and "reclaimed" Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal for €40 million, despite already having several players in the same position. Fabregas was the "prodigal son," a Catalan Barcelona youth product who had become a pivotal figure for club and country after moving abroad. His presentation ceremony was conducted entirely in Catalan to a crowd of almost 40,000 people.
Postgame // Después del Partido // Després del Partit
Both the Basque country and Catalonia have campaigned for independent national sports teams. Asked about this as a player, Pep Guardiola said, “Yes, the Catalan team, the Basque team, great, but what would we call the other one?” The official relationship between the cultural and legislative statuses of the various Spanish territories is a longstanding point of contention in Spanish regional politics. Guardiola’s response speaks to the inherent semantic difficulty of defining a Catalan team apart from the national “Spanish” team within the current political framework.
The Spanish notion of voluntary unification is a relatively recent one, established only after the fall of the fascist Franco dictatorship in the late 1970s. The 1978 Constitution established 17 autonomous communities, as well as three recognized “nationalities,” Catalan, Basque, and Galician. As such, local governments are continually suspicious when shifts to the right in Madrid threaten to supersede local interests. There is no doubt that a successful Catalan separatist movement would trigger a similar Basque one and vice versa, but the other communities would certainly have grounds to fear their status in a new, significantly weaker Spain.
More worryingly, while the Catalan and Basque justifications for self-governance have been debated ad nauseam, plans for transition have been conspicuously absent from the discourse. Which international organizations would agree to broker a peaceful two (or three) state solution, given the potential need for military intervention to prevent conflicts between ETA, the Basque separatist group; the Catalan militia; and the Spanish armed forces? To what degree would the nations need to be "separate" to constitute sovereignty? Certainly, Spain would not agree to shoulder Catalonia's debt obligations, and Catalonia would be loathe to take any such debt without structures and plans in place to pay it off. Catalonia's biggest private company, Caixa Bank, receives bailout funds from the central government, and another significant driver of the Catalan economy is tourism, which would necessarily decline without a functioning system of established consulates, trade and travel agreements, and transportation infrastructure.
Meanwhile, it's evident that an independent Catalonia would mean the end of FC Barcelona as we know it. First of all, even if Barcelona is a Catalan club, many of their pivotal players are not Catalan. Though Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Pedro Rodriguez went through the La Masia, Barcelona's youth system, they are from Argentina, Castilla de la Mancha, and the Canary Islands, respectively. Barcelona has always had a host of foreign superstars in its lineup. These players would have little reason to stay at a team not participating in La Liga, and more importantly, the Champions League, which only allocates competitive spots to Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) sanctioned domestic leagues. An independent Catalonia could not be assured of its right to immediate European league access. Meanwhile, Barcelona's tremendous debts would be hard to cover if the team lost its Spanish TV revenue as well as its commercial sponsors, who are only interested in funding the most successful teams and players. The team’s operating costs in 2011 were a massive €475 million, only barely offset by its equally massive revenue. They seem to be caught in a paradox that is emblematic of the larger issue - that in this case, cultural obligation is mutually exclusive with political pragmatism.
It seems President Mas may be playing a game of détente without a coherent plan for the end game, riding populist angst in a hazy but haphazard attempt to broker a better economic relationship with the Capital. He, as well as Sandro Rosell, had better be careful where such political expediency takes them – they aren't playing in the little leagues anymore.