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F.C Barcelona: A political vehicle in the accelerating Catalan conflict

Politics and football, a sensitive subject that has came to light in Catalonia

Touching on both sports and politics is never an easy topic, but the truth is that to two are - and always will be – inherently intertwined. We can see the power of sport as a political vehicle in Catalonia at the moment, and more specifically the effect F.C Barcelona has on the current political affairs in Spain’s second city.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll know that there has been trouble in Catalonia, with Spanish authorities clashing with citizens who are attempting to vote in a independence referendum. With the vote technically illegal, after no authorisation from the Spanish central government, the Catalan people have suffered terrible physical and verbal abuse from Spanish police. Catalan officials have claimed that at least 844 people were injured on Sunday alone. Spain as a country knows all too well about internal conflict, and the 1st October 2017 will be a date etched in their history for all the wrong reasons.

The issues have reached boiling point, and it is hard to deny that F.C Barcelona are a major player in the case. Bizarrely, Barca were scheduled to play at home on Sunday by La Liga, in a 3pm kick off against Las Palmas of the Canary Islands. This was an irresponsible decision from the league, chaired by Javier Tebas. Tebas, a lifelong Real Madrid fan, has a long running dispute with Barcelona, who are uncomfortable with how openly the Chairman flouts his allegiance to their El Clasico rivals. Come Sunday, Barca were adamant they could not play the game at the Nou Camp. The club felt that it would not be appropriate or safe for the people of the city for the game to go ahead, yet La Liga (and Tebas) remained firm and threatened the club with a six-point deduction if the game did not take place as requested. The squabble went to and fro until just 25 minutes before kickoff, where the club announced to all fans (including thousands waiting outside the gates) that the game would go ahead – but behind closed doors. And it did. Barca played out a 3-0 win in Europe’s largest stadium, but there was not a fan in sight. With only media and stewards allowed inside the ground, images circulated the internet - a surreal sight. Yet, this sight was intended to shock those around the globe and done so in protest to both La Liga and the Spanish government.

Barca’s club motto is "more than a club" and never has that been more significant following this weekend, as the Nou Camp became a focal point for the city. The club have always been an inherently political, stretching back to the early 1900’s were the stadium was aired as political arena for the people of Catalan. Match day was an opportunity for the people of Catalonia to speak their language, to wave their flag and to sign their songs. It was a method of expression, and has remained so. Despite cementing themselves as a club at the very top of the game in this age, the club had only ever won one European cup before hitting their golden era in 2006. Yet, despite this, the club have regularly filled Europe’s largest stadium. The club and its people have flourished in the post Franco-era, where the dictator had previously banned the use of the Catalan flag or even the language. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the club is at the centre of a story unfolding all around them.

The club has remained neutral throughout the ongoing issues over the last few years, yet, on the outbreak of trouble a club statement read; “FC Barcelona … in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defence of the nation, to democracy, freedom of speech and to self-determination condemns any act which may impede the free exercise of these rights.” Although it attempts to remain neutral in some aspect, the angle of the statement is there for all to see.

There was also the display of ‘Democracia’ on the screen displays within the empty Nou Camp on Sunday, with Las Palmas controversially granted the request to display the Spanish flag on their match shirts. When Barca visited neighbours Girona last month, cries of ‘Independicia’ were heard throughout the ground where Catalan president and Girona fan Carles Puigdemont, now threatened with prison, was present. He received a hero's welcome when he took his seat. Football could not be closer to politics in this instance.

As Barca edge closer to direct involvement with the ongoing disputes, there is someone significant bridging the gap. Gerard Pique, a club captain and academy graduate, has never shied away from voicing his opinion. Fighting back tears after Sunday’s game, he said "I am and I feel Catalan", but also added "people can vote yes, no or abstain. We just want to vote". He even offered to quit the national team before the World Cup finals if his presence within the political heat was causing a problem. The defender was booed, quite heavily, during an open training session for Spain on Monday, yet he continued with his duties professionally. He has become a divisive figure within the camp, not for the players, but for the fans.

Yet, Pique and his Catalan team-mates are so integral to the success of the national team. Five of the starting XI in the 2010 World Cup final were born in Catalonia. And, given that eight of the 14 players that ended up on the pitch that night played for Barcelona, the triumph came to be closely associated with Camp Nou. This was a huge factor in Real's policy change. The club was embarrassed in being under-represented, and is now in the midst of a hugely successful strategy of bringing in the best young players. Aided by the stewardship of Zidine Zidane, they now dominate the national team.

So, what’s next?

It is hard to see whether the vote will actually take place or not, in its entirety – legal or illegal. Polls consistently suggest Catalonia is divided around 50-50 on the question of independence, meaning the realism of the state exiting Spain is still a long-way away. However, Barca (as well as Espanyol and Girona) will remain central to the movement. The clubs are establishments of expression and give the fans an opportunity to show unity for one another. There has been debate over whether the clubs would be able to continue in La Liga if Catalonia did go independent. Barca’s president Bartomeu even discussing the possibility of the club playing in England, France or Italy. However, the credibility of these claims remain to be seen, as of course without Barca, not only would the league be left bereft, but so would Tebas’ Real Madrid.

Football does not have the ability to change history but it can help along the way. Look back to West Germany's World Cup win in 1990; it came at a perfect time to drive the force of unification. Compare it to the 'kneeling' in the NFL. Sport as a platform has a massive connection to current affairs.

Politics aside, this all comes at a time when Barca seemed in danger of losing its identity, with Luis Enrique gone - the last visible link to the Guardiola era had vanished too. Yet, the club has stormed to the top of the league and if they were to find continental success at the end of the campaign, there would be no doubt that Catalonia would prosper on the back of the club’s success. If Catalonia ever does become independent then we know that Barca will have undoubtedly played a part.

Published by Lewis McKenzie