Catalan Referendum Threatens La Liga and Barcelona’s Future

Catalan Referendum Threatens La Liga and Barcelona’s Future


With a referendum on the horizon that could see Catalonia declare its independence from Spain, Barcelona’s immediate and long-term future in La Liga appears uncertain.

For many, football is a way of life. It is a microcosm, an active reflection of our ever-changing societal values, beliefs, and conflicts that characterize who we are for better or for worse. It is a primitive and uncompromising medium that never fails to reveal the true character behind those who partake in it. Football might seem like a simple game, but it is so much more: it can inspire us, unite us, and divide us unlike anything else in this world.

Political undertones often play a significant role in football, at both international and club level, and serious issues are often amplified by the emotional intensity and competitive nature of the sport itself. Football has been at the root of wars and riots such as the “Football War” involving El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 and, more recently, the violent outbreak set off by a drone carrying an Albanian flag into a stadium in Belgrade that ultimately led to the abandonment of a 2016 Euro Qualifier between Serbia and Albania. Alternatively, football has also been shown to pacify violence as demonstrated by the First Ivorian Civil War’s two week ceasefire during the 2006 World Cup and the Biafra War’s infamous 48 hour ceasefire in Nigeria that occurred so combatants could watch Pele in 1967.

Political duress at home is often played out through heated rivalries in domestic leagues where political ties and the club you support go hand in hand. The Old Firm rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, for example, is an extension of long-standing tensions between Catholic Republicans and Protestant Loyalists. Numerous other contests, such as the Derby della Madonnina held between Internazionale and AC Milan, are fuelled by divisions between the bourgeoisie (Inter) and working class (Milan).

Perhaps the sport’s most prestigious club rivalry is El Clasico, the hotly-contested grudge match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The conflict has long been steeped in Spanish political turmoil and can trace its origins back to the Franco dictatorship in the mid-1930s when Barça president and Catalan political leader Josep Sunyol was executed by Franco’s troops, and Catalans were outlawed from speaking their native tongue while their regional culture and identity were brutally suppressed by fascist rule. Real Madrid, conversely, became the glorious vehicle that Franco’s centralist regime aligned itself with.

Franco may be dead and gone, but bad blood remains between the two clubs, and the rivalry has never seemed as relevant to Spanish politics as it does now in the face of a possible Catalan secession.

“Més Que Un Club” and Barca’s Active Role in Catalonia’s Push for Self-Autonomy

On November 9th, Catalonia could declare independence from Spain. Unlike the Scotland referendum, this one has a very good chance of becoming a reality.

Barcelona is central to the issue at hand because of its greater meaning to the Catalan people.

“All societies need spaces where they can express their identity. That’s what Barça is. Its symbols have merged with the symbols of Catalan identity,” claims Jordi Josep Salvador, a Spanish anthropologist who specializes in symbols as they relate to the beautiful game.

There is no greater proof of Barcelona’s symbolic meaning than the club’s official motto, “més que un club” (“more than a club”), which is explained on Barça’s official website.

“The slogan ‘more than a club’ expresses the commitment that Futbol Club Barcelona has maintained and still maintains beyond what belongs in the realm of sport. For many years, this commitment specifically referred to Catalan society, which for many decades of the 20th century lived under dictatorships that persecuted its language and culture. Under these circumstances, Barça always supported Catalan sentiments, and the defence of its own language and culture. It was because of this that, even though Catalan was not an official language, in 1921 the club drafted its statutes in the language of Catalonia. It was also in this era that in 1918 the club adhered to a petition for a statute of autonomy for Catalonia, which was being demanded from all sectors of the catalanista movement.”

FC Barcelona is representative of the regional language, ideals, and culture and has always served as a rallying point for those who have called for an independent Catalonia. Roaring chants of “Independència” have echoed around the terraces at the Camp Nou for years, and Barça hasn’t exactly shied away from the issue with president Josep Maria Bartomeu recently penning a letter to a local politician pledging the club’s support for the Catalan National Pact for Self-Determination.

Additionally, several of Barça’s homegrown superstars, such as Xavi and Gerard Pique, have publicly voiced their opinions and have been spotted at rallies for the Catalan nationalist movement.

“We have all the right in the world to vote. We need to vote, we need the people to show their opinions and I am in favor of the referendum obviously,” Xavi told reporters at a news conference last week.

Many Catalans (and non-Catalans for that matter) quite rightly argue that there is a certain air of negativity or arrogance that can be attributed to Barça’s motto. Bernard Niven captures this sentiment in his article “Club Versus Franchise And Some Real World Implications” for Beyond the Pitch.

“It’s a grandiose assertion that, despite having some truth in it, is liable to exasperate many other European football fans. Because those factors – culture, identity, history, a state of mind – are integral to the very idea of a football club. Barcelona may possess them on a greater scale than most, but their motto wrongly suggests that other, implicitly lesser clubs don’t possess them at all.”

Barça might tower over everybody else in Catalonia, but there are plenty of other clubs that are symbolic of the region. Still, that hasn’t stopped Barcelona from bullishly asserting itself as the equivalent of the Catalan National Team.

Prolific Catalan writer and rabid Barcelona supporter Manuel Vazquez Montalban once wrote, “The epic weapon of a country without a state or army, el Barça’s victories were like those of Athens over Sparta.”

In many ways, Barcelona has always symbolized the plight of a semi-autonomous region waging constant war against Spanish city-states.

La Liga’s Stance: Genuine or a Form of Posturing?

The possibility of an independent Catalonia is gaining so much traction that the president of La Liga, Javier Tebas, felt the need to release a statement.

“Barcelona and Espanyol would not play in the Spanish league if Catalonia split from Spain.”

“They wouldn’t do so for the following reasons: the current legislation on sport dictates that there is only one non-Spanish state that may play in La Liga or in official Spanish competitions and that is Andorra. To change this, changes would have to be made in parliament and we would have to see if the affected party were in agreement or not.”

Interrupting the meaning behind Tebas’s statement is tricky. Was he trying to be matter-of-fact or is this supposed to be some sort of thinly-veiled political threat?

It’s difficult to say. He might be bluffing and, then again, he might be entirely powerless to prevent the expulsion of Barcelona and Espanyol in the midst of bitter civil conflict. Laws can be amended, but trying to amend them after the fallout of such an emotionally-charged political drama might be next to impossible.

One thing is for certain: if Barcelona leaves, La Liga will suffer.

For starters, the duopoly that has defined Spanish football for decades would become a one horse race (even with last season’s emergence of surprise title-winners Athletico Madrid), and that’s a lose-lose for everybody.

Real Madrid’s identity would be ripped to shreds without the presence of its greatest adversary. Much like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona defines both clubs. Their coexistence as a duopoly is what makes La Liga so appealing as a competition, and while it would be grossly short-sighted to suggest that the league has little else to offer in terms of talent, it would certainly lose its luster with the absence of El Clasico.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez certainly recognizes Barça’s importance as his quote infers his club’s need for its arch-nemesis.

“If Barcelona didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.”

Without Barcelona and their Tiki-Taka, Real Madrid would lack a worthy foe to give weight to their domestic triumphs. Perez seems to suggest that Barcelona can be replaced with time, but that feat is highly unlikely given La Liga’s dire financial outlook and the implication of Spanish sides negotiating TV deals without the Blaugrana on their schedules.

Barcelona and Espanyol wouldn’t stand to gain anything either. If the Catalan clubs were kicked to the curb, would they band together and establish their own domestic league or would they attempt to join forces with France’s Ligue de Football Professionnel?

A Catalan professional league probably wouldn’t be deep enough or competitive enough for Espanyol, let alone Barça, leaving Ligue 1 as the only viable option. Regardless, Ligue 1 is easily the least prestigious of the big 5 in Europe, mainly serving as a feeder league for the wealthier clubs in Spain and England. Ligue 1 would also run into the problem of how to incorporate the new clubs into their competitive structure – would Barcelona and Espanyol be able to jump right into Ligue 1 or would they have to languish in Ligue 2 for a season?

Ligue 1 would undoubtedly welcome Barça with open arms as it searches for a real domestic challenger to megabucks Paris Saint-Germain, but the French are the only ones who would benefit from the proposed switch.

La Liga might not crumble without its Catalan clubs, but its credible reputation as one of the top leagues in the world would take a major hit. Barcelona is an irreplaceable institution of footballing prowess that is a fundamental component of La Liga’s modern DNA, while Espanyol’s overall importance shouldn’t be overlooked here either. Repercussions would be felt all over Spanish football, and decades would be required to financially and emotionally recover from the devastating loss.

La Liga would move past it eventually, but its claim to being Europe’s finest league alongside the EPL would be null and void. Whatever happens in the coming months, here’s to hoping common sense prevails in Spanish football.