Barcelona football club will wear its nationalism on its sleeve next season when players will wear a red and yellow strip in the form of the senyera – the Catalan flag – at away games.
The move puts Barça firmly behind the movement for independence.
In recent seasons, the shirt has carried a small Catalan flag on the collar but the new strip, with four red bars on a yellow background, is an openly political statement, especially when the club travels to play any of the four Madrid clubs currently in Spain’s primera liga.
FC Barcelona styles itself a “més que un club” (more than a club) and, thanks to its international renown, is seen as the flagship of the Catalan nation. During the Franco regime, the Camp Nou stadium was one of the few places people could give voice to their nationalist sentiments without fear of being arrested.
Sandro Rosell, the club president, is an outspoken nationalist and when José Ignacio Wert, the Spanish education minister, recently threatened to reform the Catalan education system in which Catalan is the only vehicular language, the club made an official statement supporting the status quo in schools.
“The club will always remain true to its history and its beliefs,” Mr Rosell said.
“We will always stand by people’s right to decide their future. We are always open to the world and only ask that we be understood and accepted for what we are – Catalans.”
Lionel Messi, the club’s star striker and current Fifa World Player, also voiced his support of the system known as “Catalan immersion.”
Spanish, which has equal official status with Catalan, is taught as a separate subject.
“I have no comment to make about independence,” he told a press conference. “But we are talking about education. Since I came here I have learnt and studied in Catalan and I’ve never had any problem, on the contrary.”
Messi, who is Argentinean, was brought to Barcelona at the age of 11 and was educated at la Masia, the clubs’s school-cum-training camp for young hopefuls.
More than half the current first team are products of the la Masia. Anyone schooled in Catalonia during the past 30 years speaks Catalan but, although Messi understands the language, he is never heard to speak it.
Three years ago he said that his younger sister had returned to their hometown of Rosario in Argentina because she didn’t understand Catalan and couldn’t find a school in Barcelona where she could be educated in Spanish. “When Maria Sol went to school everyone spoke to her in Catalan and she didn’t like it and started to cry. So they took her and my brother Matías and Rodrigo back to Rosario,” he said.
The strip, which this season carries the Qatar Foundation logo, will be sponsored by Qatar Airways from next season, adding Barça to the legion of clubs sponsored by Middle Eastern airlines.
Whether then new “independence” strip is a commercial success outside Catalonia remains to be seen.
More than half of FC Barcelona’s 1,800 supporters clubs are in the wider Spain. It would be a test of these fans’ loyalty to walk around Madrid or Málaga dressed in the Catalan flag.