FC Barcelona in an independent Catalonia

Rory O’Neill explores both the history and the future of FC Barcelona’s ties with Catalan independence

Illustration by Jenny Corcoran

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.”

This from a no less esteemed a figure than Pep Guardiola himself. Pep is the modern day embodiment of FC Barcelona and all that it stands for, in both the sporting and political spheres. Guardiola came through the club’s famed La Masia academy, which would later produce the stars of his all-conquering team of the late noughties, such as Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi. He was one of the finest midfielders in the world before cementing his legacy as, arguably, the greatest manager of the modern-day game. As both a player and a coach, he practiced the principles that made Barcelona famous – his revered “tiki-taka” possession-based style of play took its inspiration from the era of Johan Cruyff, one of the club’s greatest icons. In addition, Guardiola is a staunch advocate of Catalan independence.

News of the referendum has predictably led to a debate over the future of Barcelona and Catalan football. The fear is that Catalan independence would place Barcelona’s continued participation in the Spanish Liga in jeopardy. A split in the league would be disastrous for competition, if nothing else. We would have a Spanish Liga in which only Atlético Madrid could, in the short term at least, provide any competition to their crosstown rivals Real. Worse still, supposedly, is what would become of football in Catalonia. As one BBC writer put it: “The idea of Lionel Messi taking on semi-professional Catalan defenders each Sunday does not bear thinking about.”

The issue should, in theory, be straightforward. It is hard to imagine, national allegiances aside, Barcelona being eager to lead the way in forming a breakaway league. The club has over many years profited from the lion’s share of La Liga’s television revenue alongside Real Madrid. Exiting the league would cut off a major source of revenue for the club. Further still, participation in one of the world’s top leagues is key to the prestige of a global brand such as Barcelona. For super clubs such as Barca, international marketing potential and a global fan base is key to filling a massive stadium and fuelling merchandise sales across the globe. In sporting terms, an independent Catalan league would surely damage Barcelona’s player recruitment. La Liga is hardly Europe’s most competitive league, but there is at least a contest between two or three teams for the title each year. To play against vastly inferior teams each week and to win a guaranteed league title of little prestige or value would be a much less enticing option for the world’s top players. Although Barcelona’s executives have refrained from tackling the still hypothetical scenario in detail, one gets the sense that they would ideally like as little disruption to their current situation as possible. “We believe we are one of the leading brands in world football and any league would be eager to have us, including Spain’s,” one source told the BBC. Javier Tebas, president of La Liga’s organising body, disagrees however. “Barcelona cannot choose where it plays if there is an independence process in Catalonia.” Tebas has been criticised for his pro-Real Madrid leanings. In Spain, it is impossible to separate the rivalry between the country’s two biggest clubs from politics; Madrid were promoted by General Franco, a vicious opponent of Catalan, Basque and Galician nationalism, as a symbol of Spain itself. The prefix Real signifies a favoured club of the Spanish monarchy. El Clasico, as matches between the two are known, is both a clash of Spain’s most successful clubs on the pitch, and of rival national identities. Real epitomises Castilian dominance, the Franco era, and Spanish identity above all regional ones. During the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona’s club president was murdered by Franco’s falangist supporters and a number of its players served in the republican forces.

To fans around the world, the significance of FC Barcelona as a cultural and national institution in Catalonia may be lost. Its crest contains the Catalan national colours, which have also at various times provided the design for its away shirts. Its links to the Catalan sovereigntist movement, however, go much deeper than colours and emblems. Barcelona pride themselves on being “mes que un club,” which can be translated to “more than a club”. They are not just a major footballing power, they are a major cultural and historical institution in Catalonia.

The Spanish government has disgraced itself in reviving the brutal trampling down of Catalan national rights in recent days and weeks. The storming of local government offices and arrest of Catalan officials for organising an “illegal” referendum has sparked outrage amongst the people there. The ghost of Franco is alive and well in Madrid as they order the dismantling of basic democratic processes in the name of Spanish unity. FC Barcelona, predictably, has not remained neutral. “FC Barcelona, in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defense of the nation, to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to self-determination, condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights,” read a powerful statement issued by the club last month.

As tied up in the ongoing political conflict as Barcelona’s future is, the impact that Catalonian independence could have on the region’s footballing landscape goes far beyond the fate of one club. The Spanish national football team could be forced to undergo major transition if it were to be deprived of its Catalan-born players, and a new national team could become a force on the world stage.

The Catalan national team is not sanctioned by UEFA or FIFA, meaning it plays only uncompetitive friendlies. It also means that anyone called up to the team can play for it without it restricting their competitive international careers. In practice this means Spanish nationals born in Catalonia can play for Spain competitively and the Catalan team when called up. The Catalan team is a largely symbolic one. It plays once or twice a year, normally during the Spanish league’s winter break, and often against opponents of a similar status such as the Basque Country. Should Catalonia become independent, the next step for the team would surely be full UEFA and FIFA status, and participation in the European Championship and World Cup. During Guardiola’s stewardship of Barcelona, a Catalan national team with a Barca core would have been a frightful prospect to any opponent. A midfield of Xavi, Fabregas and Sergio Busquets alone would have had few rivals in international football, just as was the case in La Liga and European club competition. Barcelona’s Catalan core was integral to the dominance of the Spanish national team from 2008 – 2012.

Nowadays though, the team may struggle to compete at the highest level. Tales of Barcelona’s decline are exaggerated but they are not quite the overpowering force they were eight or nine years ago. Xavi, arguably the greatest central midfielder of his generation, has retired. Cesc Fabregas, although an important player for Chelsea, has reached the age of 30 and surely only has a few years left at the top. Catalonia’s footballing future is inextricably tied up with Barcelona’s La Masia academy. A number of its graduates still feature regularly for Barcelona. Busquets is still one of Europe’s finest defensive midfielders, while Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba play a key role in Barcelona’s defence. But Barcelona have so far failed to produce the calibre of players who can break down a defence and win a match to replace the legends who are now reaching the end of their careers. This is no great surprise: there cannot be a constant stream of players like Xavi and Fabregas, their exceptional ability is necessarily rare. The likes of Gerard Deulofeu and Sergi Roberto are struggling to live up to the standard set by their predecessors.

A Catalan national team at present, instilled with motivation, tactical awareness and good coaching could easily compete on an international stage where the likes of Wales, Iceland and even Northern Ireland have exceeded expectations. It could not live up to the standard set during the Barcelona golden age, where Catalan footballing artistry helped the club to achieve every major honour available to a European club. But if Barcelona can sustain its tradition of nurturing local talent and developing world class players, an independent Catalonia could never be written off. Besides, should independence come to pass, a match between Catalonia and Spain would surely be one of the most fiercely contested and anticipated dates on the calendar. If the ghosts of oppression and dictatorships past are always haunting El Clasico, they would surely come back to life on any such occasion.

Rory O'Neill

Rory O'Neill is a former Managing Editor of Trinity News, and a History graduate.