x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Catalunya, a team that won't make a World Cup

Catalunya play against the other teams from Spain's other autonomous regions like the Basque country, games which attract a political atmosphere and nationalist sabre rattling in the always ultra passionate crowd.

Players in the Primera Liga are enjoying a two week winter break before the league schedule resumes on Sunday, yet several of Spain's World Cup winners will play in a game tonight in front of a capacity 50,000 crowd in Barcelona.

A Catalunya side managed by Johan Cruyff will take on Honduras in a friendly game at the city's Olympic Stadium. The Dutch legend, who has lived in Barcelona full-time since 1988, has called up Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Marc Bartra, Andreu Fontas, Sergio Busquets and Bojan from Barca. The only missing Catalan player from Barca's first team is Xavi, while Villarreal's Joan Capdevila is also out.

Seven Espanyol players have also been selected, plus Catalans playing elsewhere in Spain like Atletico Madrid's Fran Merida. Those playing further afield like Cesc Fabregas are contractually obliged to put their club commitments before those of a "country" not affiliated to Fifa or Uefa.

Catalunya play once or twice a season and have done in the majority of years since the region's football foundation began in 1904. Tickets are kept deliberately cheap (most cost €10 (Dh48) tonight) to encourage a capacity crowd and younger fans who would otherwise not get to see the star names live.

Catalunya play against the other teams from Spain's other autonomous regions like the Basque country, games which attract a political atmosphere and nationalist sabre rattling in the always ultra-passionate crowd.

For other matches they play established national sides. Brazil and Argentina have both been opponents who have attracted over 90,000 to Camp Nou in recent seasons.

A minority of less than 10 per cent of Catalans desire the absolute independence from Spain that would see the Catalan national team play competitively.

One of the strongest voices in the independence movement is the former Barca president Joan Laporta, who turned his skilled hand and significant ego to politics when he left Barca after seven successful years in June. He dreams of seeing Catalunya play in a World Cup finals.

Politics aside, many think that the Catalan national football side would be able to compete on the international stage, despite being drawn from a population of just seven million.

A first XI comprising of Valdes; Puyol, Pique, Capdevila, Fernando Navarro; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Sergio Garcia; Raul Tamudo, Bojan would trouble any team in the world. Espanyol's batch of emerging Catalan youngsters like Javi Marquez, Didac Vila, Javi Chica and Jordi Amat would make it an excellent squad.

Cruyff qualifies as coach because he has lived in Catalunya for more than ten years, not that anyone in Barcelona doubts him. He sealed his place in Catalan hearts when he named his first child 'Jordi' at a time when the Catalan language was outlawed by General Franco.

Jordi was a Catalan name - the name of their patron saint - and the streetwise Johan always grasped Catalunya's political dimension. He knew that the name Jordi was outlawed, but General Franco's influence could not be extended to Holland where Jordi was born. Back in Barcelona, Johan tried to register the boy with the Catalan authorities, but officials refused, telling him that his son's name was illegal.

"My dad said, 'My son has a Dutch passport, I can call him what I like and his name is Jordi,'" explains Jordi. "They replied, 'That is illegal, it has to be the Spanish version, Jorge'."

"Then my dad said: 'I'm not going to make a scandal, but tell your bosses it will become a scandal.' They had to accept me because I was Dutch."

Jordi thus became the first 'legal' Jordi in decades, something he remains proud of. Along with such luminaries as Pep Guardiola, Dutch international Jordi played several times for Catalunya before retiring in 2008, one of many big names in a team that is unlikely to ever play in a major international tournament.