Caught in the middle: on FC Barcelona and the Catalan referendum

The Catalan referendum has also put FC Barcelona and its football players in a predicament

Updated - October 05, 2017 12:05 am IST

Published - October 05, 2017 12:02 am IST

Gerard Pique is a Catalan footballer and an experienced central defender of the Spanish national team and FC Barcelona. He was recently jeered by Spanish supporters for his defence of the recent Catalonian referendum and his critique of the Spanish government’s violent response to it, even though he has not publicly explained where he stands on the question of independence. Pique’s predicament is not unlike many of FC Barcelona’s fans, for whom the club is “mes que un club” or “more than a club”. For the large legions of FC Barcelona supporters and socis (members) outside Spain and Catalonia, this is just a slogan that exemplifies the way the team plays on the field and the fact that this is entirely a supporter-owned club. The uniqueness of FC Barcelona’s style of play symbolised the club and gave the slogan its meaning to the new adherents and supporters outside Spain. Today, FC Barcelona is among the richest sporting teams in the world, a consequence of the globalisation of its support base. The player mix in its team today is quite diverse and it owes its style to Dutchman Johann Cruyff’s Total Football philosophy which was improved upon and honed by former coach Pep Guardiola. It would be unfathomable for FC Barcelona’s global supporters to see the club out of the La Liga and playing only against other Catalan clubs in a newly independent country. After all, FC Barcelona is a club that is symbolised by its difference from the other major Spanish team, Real Madrid. One cannot exist without the other. The rivalry with Real Madrid defines FC Barcelona as it much as its style does.

For Catalans who speak the language, the motto means something deeper — the club has long been seen as a symbol of Spanish federalism, Catalan nationalism and opposition to unitary Spain, especially Franco’s Spain. In the years when Franco’s regime persecuted Catalans for speaking in their languages, the home stadium Camp Nou was where they could converse without fear. FC Barcelona’s triumphs in Spain were seen as Catalan victories, especially in the strongly contested El Clasicos against Real Madrid, the team that symbolised central rule. This was also because Franco patronised the club as his own. FC Barcelona’s golden era in the last decade coincided with the rise of Catalan nationalism — a portion of which turned pro-independence lately. With the exception of former right back Oleguer Presas, no club player has openly supported independence, even as they endorsed the right of Catalans to decide their future. The club itself stayed ambivalent on secession but supportive of Catalan nationalism. The hastily held binding referendum which does not consider other federal solutions leading to a boycott by many parties has put not just such forces but the club and its Catalan players in a predicament. Perhaps the secessionists should learn a lesson from the club’s fortunes itself — the more globalised and more open FC Barcelona has been to ideas and support, the greater its rivalry with Real Madrid, the better it has been on the field and richer overall. Is not that an argument for a truly autonomous and open Catalonia within Spain?

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