x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A break from the norm in Catalonia

Catalonia and the Basque Country give fans a chance to see the stars at cut-price, writes Ian Hawkey.

Barcelona fans show their support for Catalonian independence in a match against Valencia earlier this year.
Barcelona fans show their support for Catalonian independence in a match against Valencia earlier this year.

European football's winter break can seem desolate for the diehard supporter: vacant weekends, empty stadiums and only a trickle of speculation on what the transfer window might bring in to, or take out from, your favourite club. Germany's Bundesliga has three more weeks of holiday, France's Ligue 1 another two. Italy's Serie A and Spain's Primera Liga resume in seven days.

But there is significant action, at least in corners of Spain, over the coming days. In San Sebastian this evening, as little as €15 (Dh73) buys a ticket to a prestige encounter featuring a World Cup-winning star, and several Athletic Bilbao players who took part in the last Europa League final.

There should be a decent crowd at the Anoeta Stadium. Four days later, in Barcelona, tickets to watch several of the finest footballers in the world are going for as little as €8.

Catalonia against Nigeria, on Wednesday, and today's meeting between the Basque Country and Bolivia, are part of a unique Iberian tradition, friendly matches with a passionate edge, at least for some spectators, that take place around Christmas and New Year.

For some, watching their regional teams, waving Catalan or Basque flags, means imagining a future in which the federal state that is Spain will be made up of independent countries, with their own national football teams. For others, these fixtures are simply a happy celebration of locale.

Eight of Barcelona's current squad have been called up by the honorary coach of Catalonia, Johan Cruyff, for the visit by Nigeria to Espanyol's Cornella Stadium. Of the senior Spain internationals employed by Barca, only Pedro, Andres Iniesta and David Villa are not Catalans by birth.

Ask the players who are if they see any contradiction of representing Catalonia as well as Spain, and they answer diplomatically that the two things can comfortably coexist.

But separatism in Catalonian society is a hot political issue, and although a once-a-year State-of-Origin match ought not to inflame tensions, it has done in the past.

It certainly encourages some local chest beating. If Catalonia existed as a nation under Fifa, the question poses itself: might they win a World Cup?

Seven Catalans - Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Joan Capdevila, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas - did so with Spain in 2010. Might an independent Basque Country squad challenge for a European Championship? Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso -who will be playing in his Basque jersey in his hometown for tonight's match against Bolivia - Arsenal's Mikel Arteta and Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez would certainly form an impressive midfield.

Nobody fears such a break-up is imminent, although the central government of Spain worries that the recent progress of Gibraltar's long campaign for sporting autonomy within Uefa - the tiny territory, part of Iberia but governed by Britain, has been allowed to compete independently in the next Euro Under 17 and U19 Championships - might provide a precedent for Catalonia's long-term ambitions for something similar.

On Europe's political atlas, borders can alter quickly. Twenty-five years ago, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia were all represented by the national team of Yugoslavia. Kosovo is now pressing vigorously to add its name to Uefa's roster of sovereign national teams.

In another 25 years, Europe could look very different. Its football championship could feature quirky fixtures like, say, Wallonia - where there is a significant political lobby for independence from Belgium, or at least from the Flemish part of that country - against Brittany; or Kosovo versus a newly independent Corsica.

All of whom would probably welcome the possibility of a Spain broken up into separate states and teams, diluting the power the united Spanish now exert over most international competitions.

sports@thenational.ae