x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Barcelona's focus moves from the penalty box to the ballot box

With citizens of Catalonia going to the polls today, Andy Mitten , in Barcelona, examines the role of the city's famous football club and what independence could mean for its future.

Barcelona's football fans hold letters forming the word
Barcelona's football fans hold letters forming the word "Independencia" and wave "Estelada", the Catalan independentist flag, during the match against Real Madrid in October.

Bright election posters hang by the Font de Canalates on Barcelona's famous La Rambla thoroughfare. The small ornate fountain is where Barca fans gather to celebrate their numerous trophies. It is not as grand as the Cibeles fountain where Real Madrid fans celebrate in the Spanish capital, but it is significant for FC Barcelona.

Legend has it that anyone who drinks from the fountain will return to Barcelona. Anyone from Madrid doing that may find that they are returning to another country in the future.

Catalonia, the rich but in-debt Spanish region, is holding elections today, with independence from Spain the core issue.

Fired by Spain's deepest economic problems in memory, Catalans feel that they are supporting the rest of Spain financially. What is known as the "crisis" goes behind the cliches of the hard-working Catalan supporting the lazy Andalusian sitting under a tree chewing straw.

Catalans point to the €20 billion (Dh94bn) deficit in taxes that they send to Spain's central government in Madrid, to perceived and real disparities in investment, a pro-Madrid media and power base. Then there are the traditional reasons for independence, the Catalans' distinct language and culture.

The protests on September 11, Catalonia's National Day, stunned Spain. An estimated 1.5 million of Catalonia's 7 million population marched through the streets of central Barcelona singing and waving flags of independence.

Barca, the club, chose not to be represented at the rally, pleasing some non-Catalan fans and angering those in favour who think the club should be at the forefront of the breakaway movement.

"The club must be very careful that they can't be used for one [side] and that they can't be used for the other [side]," said former manager Johan Cruyff, who still lives in Barcelona and who named his son Jordi after the patron Saint of Catalonia at a time when such Catalan names were banned in Franco's Spain.

Pep Guardiola has been more forthcoming. He appeared on a video link up at the march where he said: "From New York, here you have another vote". That was taken as his support for the cause.

Guardiola's former president Joan Laporta is now in politics with the single aim of leading Catalonia to independence, though he has had less success at the ballot box than he did in football and there are bigger fish in the independence movement.

The independence flags now hang from balconies all around the city. They are a bestseller in the Chinese discount stores that proliferate there as what was once a symbol of a separatist politicised minority has become an everyday sight.

There are varying demands for change from increased autonomy to absolute independence and slogans such as "Catalonia, a new European state" are frequently bandied about, even though Europe has told Catalonia it would have to join a queue of other countries hoping to join the community.

Catalonia will not gain absolute independence any time soon, if at all, but if they do the issue of where FC Barcelona play will become a major one, since politics and sport are intrinsically linked. For many Catalans, Barca are the standard bearers. Former coach Sir Bobby Robson once said: "Catalonia is a country and FC Barcelona is their army."

That is not quite true, though one of the ultra groups who follow Barcelona is called the Almogavers, named after the Catalan invaders who dominated the Mediterranean in the 13th century.

What is true is that nowhere do so many Catalans gather on a regular basis as at Camp Nou. And those fans have been making their feelings felt at matches, a reflection of the momentum of the pro-independence movement.

Until this year, fringe groups have sung songs or hung a twenty-metre "Catalonia is not Spain" flag from the second tier during Barca's very biggest games, but those have long been the actions of minorities hoping for mainstream coverage. Not now.

Chants for Catalan independence rang out at subsequent games, culminating in a 90,000 piece mosaic that filled Camp Nou before the clasico game against Real Madrid last month.

Seventeen minutes and 14 seconds into the game - Barcelona fell to a Franco-Spanish army in the 1714 Spanish war of Succession - fans held those flags up and shouted for independence.

Those fans now have a chance to put forward their views at the ballot box. It may seem overwhelming in the stadium, but it is far from decided in the streets, where a sizeable number - some polls indicate almost half - of those living in Catalonia do not want independence.

But what happens to Barca, or the other Catalan football teams, if independence comes?

"If Catalonia becomes independent, it would make no difference," opined club president Sandro Rosell. "We would keep on playing in the Spanish league just like Monaco in France continues to play in the French Ligue 1, 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."

Rosell may also cite the examples of Swansea City, Cardiff City, Wrexham, Newport County et al as Welsh teams who play in the English leagues, but it may be wishful thinking on his part. There is no guarantee that Uefa or Fifa would agree to a club playing in what would be another country.

It is unlikely that Barca have enough friends in high places in organisations which have always leaned towards the establishment - and that is the Spanish Football Association.

Football's international governing bodies have not been impressed by past efforts from Rangers or Celtic, the Scottish giants, to join England's Premier League, nor by the suggestions occasionally mooted for leagues drawing clubs from different countries, from a North Atlantic league to one made up of the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

That might be the biggest warning for Barca, as a once thriving league featuring sides such as Dinamo Zagreb, the two Sarajevo sides, Red Star and Partisan Belgrade and Hadjuk Split, has been reduced to five separate leagues, where teams that once played in the third or fourth division find themselves in the top flight.

If a Catalan league had to go it alone, there would be a vast disparity in size between Barca, then Espanyol and then the rest.

The next highest performing clubs are second division high flyers Girona, Sabadell, and Barca's B team.

None attract average crowds higher than 4,000. Both Lleida and Gimnastic Tarragona have played in Spain's top flight in recent years, but both currently languish in the third tier. There are numerous semi-professional clubs in and around Barcelona (including Europa who were founder members of the Spanish league in 1929), but they would be dwarfed by Barca and Espanyol in a domestic league - not that television companies would be willing to pay anything like what they shell out now for a league which would be won annually by the same club.

The other Spanish sides would not want to lose Barca, who travel across cities laying a golden egg every other week.

Uefa and Fifa would accept a Catalan national side, though, and for a nation of 7.5 million it would provide a superb team. Barca alone could provide a current XI which would beat most countries: Victor Valdes; Jordi Alba, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Martin Montoya; Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto; Cesc Fabregas, Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello. Players like Espanyol's Sergio Garcia, Capdevila and Verdu or AC Milan's Bojan and Sevilla's Fernando Navarro would add strength, while the currently unemployed (through choice) Guardiola could be coach.

That is all for the future, as Catalans head to the polls with Catalan president Artur Mas, who called the elections, seeking an overall majority to back a referendum on whether the region should stay part of Spain.

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