Sport Writer Alex Lancaster-Lennox analyses FC Barcelona’s influence over the beautiful game and politics
You do not need to be a football fanatic to know about FC Barcelona, nor to know that they are a global powerhouse in both an economic and sporting sense. However, what is less well-known is the club’s political power within Catalonia. Since its foundation in 1899, FC Barcelona (Barca) has been linked to the left-wing movement for Catalan independence.
A key moment in its history was on 1st October 2017 – when an illegal and failed independence referendum (referred to as 1-O) was held in the region. Having lived in Barcelona after the referendum, the effects were clear to me – as independentists in the club and society continued to fight.
One of the reasons for the ongoing fight for independence is Barca’s influence on Catalan public opinion. Foer (2004) points out that sports incite passion and a feeling of unity, with many identifying their favourite clubs with their nationality. He notes that Barca fans exemplify this as they use their love for the club to vent their nationalist sentiments. In Barcelona there is a clear overlap between sport and politics, which can lead to shocking outcomes.
Catalonia is considered one of the most distinctive nationalities in the world due to its history, flag, national hymn, and language. After losing independence in the ‘War of Succession’ in 1714, Catalan identity and autonomy was prohibited under the dictatorship of Franco between 1939 and 1975. During the dictatorship many Catalans, including Josep Sunyol, a former president of FC Barcelona, were executed for fighting for Catalan identity.
During this time, Barca fans used the Club and its stadium as a place ‘to vent their fears of retribution’ (Foer, 2004). Since the dictatorship, the Catalan identity has been given more freedom and has flourished. Though there was always a desire for more – total independence through a referendum. Article 2 of the Constitution ‘is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation’ which was signed in 1978 after the death of Franco.
Within this same article the Constitution ‘recognises and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions.’ This means Catalonia under the new Spanish Constitution has cultural freedoms for its autonomous community, however, cannot be a separate nation. The referendum took place, leading to protests and violence as the Guardia Civil were required to step in and prevent it.
Although Barca never commented on the referendum, some of their players such as Piqué expressed their opinions. Piqué (2017) took to Twitter days before the vote: ‘between now and Sunday we will demonstrate peacefully. We won’t give them any excuse, it is what they want, we will sing loud and proud, we will vote.’ Although the Catalan player did not explicitly say which way he was voting, he did encourage his followers to take part in the unconstitutional vote.
In context to the actions of other members of the club at the same time, it is hard not to see how Catalan ‘independentists’ might have misconstrued his tweets. For example, their previous manager, Pep Guardiola, supported the Yellow Ribbon Group who were against the imprisonment of the Catalan politicians who caused the referendum. In fact, Guardiola gave refuge to Carles Puidgemont, one of the key figures of the referendum, on his private jet.
‘Independentist’ rhetoric is not only present amongst key figures in the club, but also deep rooted in the club’s existence. At the time of its foundation in 1899 there was anti-Madrid sentiment because of the loss of the final Spanish Colony in the Caribbean.
The sentiment is present today as they carry a ‘pathological hatred’ – in Foer’s words (2004) – which is reinforced during every match played at Camp Nou where the fans sing “Els Segadores” on minute 17:14 during each half. I witnessed this first-hand; the moment is powerful as the fans commemorate the martyrs of 1714 who died protecting the nation’s sovereignty. They bang drums and fly the Catalan flag in a deeply emotional but also political moment.
Barca continues its anti-Madrid sentiment and demand for independence through the internationally broadcasted rivalries with FC Espanyol and Real Madrid. They act as a sporting representation of the inner conflict in the nation as ‘no match in the history of football has more political connotations than El Clásico’ (Vives 2013). The tension is unmatched ‘when these most successful football clubs meet on the field for 90 minutes’ it becomes clear that ‘it is more than just a game or just sports’ (Zhou 2015).
In February 2022 during the Catalan derby, Barca demanded that ‘Els Segadores’ was played in the stadium of FC Espanyol, a typically right-wing pro-Spanish club also based in Barcelona. Ortega (2022), a spokesperson for the club, said that ‘Espanyol belongs to everyone […] here we do not intend to do politics.’ The opposition to Barca’s demands, highlights that there is push-back from pro-union members of Catalan society who are fed up with Barca’s continued politicisation of football.
But if FC Barcelona are anti-Spain and continues to fight for independence, why do they continue to play in La Liga and why is it allowed? Simply, it is for the money. Around 70% of the revenue of La Liga is generated by “El Clásico” and both clubs make more than $150 million each year from television rights for La Liga.
If Catalonia was to make another bid for independence, the economic ramifications for La Liga, UEFA and FC Barcelona could be major. It would also cripple the club’s finances especially if they had to continue their weekly league games at a regional level.
But are Barca already in financial chaos?
It was revealed last August that the club was $1.6 billion in debt. To counteract this, Barca have sold 49.5% of its media production division and 25% of its La Liga rights. The sales of these assets show how the cash-strapped club is. The once economic and sporting powerhouse is faltering, meaning that it is also losing its political power.
Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, was in talks again this summer with the Catalan Government over the issue of independence. Pere Aragonès, the President of the Government of Catalonia, has stated that even with the approaching ministerial election in 2023: “Catalonia will not leave the negotiating table. And if Spain does, it will have to account for why it does”. A future referendum is on the cards, but it will be a tough sell, as it would involve the creation of a new constitution. The question is: how involved will Barca be going forward?
The history of FC Barcelona is a complex one, its economic and sporting power has made it ‘more than a club’. Through their superstar players and managers, their fans, and their rivalries, Barca were influential in the lead up to 1-O. The club played its part in the referendum and has continued to fuel the flames of desire for more in the future.
However, with new plans for a referendum being raised during the 5-year anniversary of 1-O, it will be interesting to see how involved Barca will be in aiding its success; or whether their current financial situation will leave them watching on as a mere bystander.
Check out the latest Sport articles here: