Barcelona v Celtic: Celtic go to Nou Camp as Barcelona give voice to Catalan nationalism
SIR Bobby Robson once said that Catalonia was a country, Barcelona FC its army. That was an exaggeration, but he had a point. The club where he spent two years of his managerial career regards itself as a servant of the region. When it comes to measuring the local mood, there is no better barometer.
Nowhere do more Catalans regularly gather than at the Nou Camp. The club has always been an expression of their cultural identity, a symbol of their human rights during the years when they were repressed by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Now, as Celtic are set to discover when they play there in the Champions League on Tuesday, it has become a vehicle for their growing political ambitions.
Like Scotland, Catalonia is in the throes of a debate about independence, the campaign for which is gathering strength. Last month, an estimated 1.5 million people demonstrated as much by marching through Barcelona. Artur Mas, the Catalonia president, has called an election for November 25. If his party win control of the parliament, he will call a referendum.
Support for separatism was apparent at the Nou Camp earlier this month in the “Clasico” against Real Madrid when, after 17 minutes and 14 seconds, fans chanted “In, inde, independencia”, a nod to the Siege of Barcelona in 1714 as Spain became a unified state. More significantly, all 98,000 of them were permitted by the club to display a pre-match mosaic of the Catalan flag (pictured). Next season, for the first time in Barcelona’s history, the flag’s red-and-yellow stripes will be all over their away kit.
It was the most politically-charged match against Real since 1975, when Franco’s death paved the way for democracy, decentralisation and the restoration of Catalan as the official language. Between then and the millennium, with Josep Lluis Nunez as president, the club concentrated on commercial development, but Joan Laporta, who took over in 2003, began mixing sport with politics. At the start of his tenure, he stripped the Nou Camp of Spanish flags. Later, he asked Barcelona’s junior team to boycott the Spanish anthem.
Sandro Rosell, his successor, has continued the process, especially with independence now firmly on the agenda. The club did not officially support last month’s demonstration but he was there in a private capacity. Also appearing that day, albeit by video link from his New York home, was Pep Guardiola, who led the club to 14 trophies in four seasons. Guardiola, a Catalan who played 47 times for Spain, was reluctant during his time as a player and a manager to mount the political soapbox but there has never been any doubt over his allegiance. “The law said we had to play for the Spanish team. So, if the Spanish coach called me up, I had to go,” he once said. “I was pleased to go, but one cannot betray what one feels.”
These days, as Catalonia and its club grow in confidence, Guardiola is more explicit. “Here’s one more vote for independence,” he told the rally, prompting speculation that he is destined to become an international ambassador for the cause.
Not everyone is so forthright. Xavi and Carles Puyol, Catalans who play for Barcelona, have consistently declined to say whether, given the choice, they would play for Spain or Catalonia. Before the last Clasico, Gerard Pique, also born in the region, revealed his discomfort with the political backdrop by tweeting: “The games between Barcelona and Madrid increasingly resemble Catalonia against Spain and this should not happen. It’s just a football match.”
They know how easy it would be to get on the wrong side of Spain, and its establishment. Three years ago, when Barcelona played Athletic Bilbao in the final of the King’s Cup, live television coverage censored booing of the national anthem. Spain’s foreign minister was heavily critical of the protests in the recent Madrid match, claiming that they damaged the country’s international image.
If a referendum is called, Spain will block it, not least because its constitution orders the army to guarantee national unity. The fear is that, by the time Barcelona visit the Bernabeu in March, the tension will have escalated into hooliganism. Barcelona and football are the issue in microcosm. Just as the prospect of independence has provoked debate on sovereignty, taxation and currency, so is there confusion over what it would mean for the football club. Given that rules do not allow the Spanish FA to have a “foreign” member, would Barcelona be consigned to the relative obscurity of the Catalan League, alongside Espanol and a handful of lower-division clubs? Some have even mooted the French League, given that the city is less than a couple of hours’ drive from the border.
The Spanish national side would be at risk of losing Xavi, Puyol, Pique, Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba and Cesc Fabregas to the Catalan equivalent, which is eligible at the moment to compete only in exhibition matches. But it would be an attractive proposition with FIFA and UEFA approval. What price Guardiola as coach?
For the game’s governing bodies, it is a minefield of anomalies. They allow Monaco to compete in France, as well as Swansea City in England, but they are not keen on the Old Firm moving to England. UEFA has made Gibraltar a provisional member (despite Spain’s continued attempts to block it), but the implications of doing the same for Catalonia hardly bear thinking about.
Rosell dismisses the idea that a club of Barcelona’s stature would ever have to play in the Catalan league.
“If Catalonia becomes independent, it would make no difference,” he says. “We would keep on playing in the Spanish league just like Monaco in France continues to play in the French league, despite being a separate state. I am convinced of this. Even in the situation of an independent Catalonia, we would continue to play Real Madrid.”
There is every chance that the hypothesis will never be tested. Mas called for a referendum after his pleas for more fiscal autonomy were rejected by Madrid. Some observers say that he does not want to go all the way, that his language suggests a desire to leave the door open for a compromise option. That would enable Catalonia to keep its security, its place in the European Union, its currency.
Barcelona, meanwhile, would keep its place in the Spanish league.
Of course, you won’t hear anyone chanting for “devo-max” at the Nou Camp. There, emotions are running high, as wrapped up in the political context as they are in the football. When Lionel Messi scored two late goals to see off Spartak Moscow in Barcelona’s first group match, spontaneous chants for independence rang around the ground.
As the saying goes, Barcelona is “more than a club”. On its website, it claims to be an ambassador for Catalonia that “beats, every day, to the rhythm of its people’s concerns”. Celtic have the unenviable task of interrupting that rhythm on Tuesday night.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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