What could happen if Catalonia backs independence
Barcelona have been threatened with expulsion from La Liga
Pro-Independence supporters hold up letters that reads ‘We will be free’ during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Celta de Vigo at Camp Nou last weekend. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images
There’s an important fixture for FC Barcelona this weekend, one even more significant than the club’s away match against Almería in La Liga. On Sunday, Catalonia will host an informal referendum to gauge support for a separatist state. The ballot, which flies in the face of Madrid’s government and constitutional court, is backed by some of Barça’s senior players, including Xavi Hernández and Gerard Piqué.
Piqué caused a stir in September when he tweeted a “selfie” with his 20-month-old son, Milan – whose mother is the Colombian pop singer Shakira – during a march to promote Catalan independence. In the photo, Milan is wearing Barça’s away strip, which is modelled on the Senyera, the yellow-and-red striped colours of the Catalan national flag.
In his tweet, Piqué wished his 9.4 million Twitter followers a “Happy Catalonia Day”, as it was September 11th, la Diada, Catalonia’s national festival. The marchers, which local police numbered at 1.8 million, formed a ‘V’ along the city’s avenues, Diagonal and Gran Vía, to denote ‘victory’ or ‘vote’, which was a nod towards this Sunday’s vote on independence.
When Piqué was asked during a press conference about his participation in the march, he defended his position. Piqué, like the four other Catalan-born players, including Chelsea’s Cesc Fàbregas, who played in the 2010 World Cup final for Spain, are in an invidious position. They’re Catalan, yet they play for the Spain national team. Piqué said his duality is not a problem: “No one can doubt me – I’ve played for Spain for 11 years. I feel Catalan and I’m in favour of the referendum, which is a democratic process, but that has nothing to do with the national team.”
Meanwhile, the Catalan national football team, which is older than the Spain football team, plays “international” matches every year, including a 4-2 win against Argentina in 2009. Its federation is not recognised by Fifa, however, unlike the football federation of, say, Scotland.
Instead of a competitive national team, Barça has become Catalonia’s unarmed army internationally. Its victories are touted as victories for Catalonia. During matches at the Camp Nou, banners written in English for an international TV audience are draped around the stadium: “Catalonia is not Spain”. In 2006, Barça formally backed a charter by the Catalan government, the Estatut de Catalunya, assigning the region the status of a “nation”.
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Catalan is closer to French than it is to Spanish. Madrileños call Catalans polacos because of the alien sound of their tongue. There is a clause in Barcelona’s contracts that its players must embrace the Catalan language. Barça’s captain, Andrés Iniesta, for example, grew up in Castile-La Mancha, Don Quixote country in the heart of Spain, but was schooled from 12 years of age at La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy. During radio and television interviews, he fields questions in Catalan but responds in Spanish.
When, as manager, he was leading Barça towards Champions League titles in 2009 and 2011, Pep Guardiola used to speak in Catalan during press conferences. On Catalonia’s national day in 2012, Guardiola, who was on sabbatical in New York, sent a video message in support of separatist protesters marching through Barcelona: “Here’s One More Vote for Independence.”
If Catalonia leaves Spain, it risks getting Barça turfed out of La Liga. Last month, Javier Tebas, the president of the Spanish Football League, said Barça would not be allowed to play in the Spanish league if Catalonia seceded, although there are similar cases in European club football such as Monaco, who play in France’s Ligue 1, as well as Swansea and recently relegated Cardiff City in the English Premier League.
“Barcelona wouldn’t be allowed to play. There would have to be a change made in the law in the Spanish parliament,” said Tebas, a lawyer by training and Right wing by disposition. Tebas, like Real Madrid’s former president Lorenzo Sanz, was a youth member of Fuerza Nueva, Spain’s fascista version of the British National Party. His hardline approach reflects the position of Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, who refuses to negotiate with Artur Mas, the political leader of the Catalan separatist push.
The Catalan government is determined, however, to proceed with its “consultation of citizens”. Mas is also threatening to bring forward the general election in Catalonia, which is scheduled for November 2016, so it can be used as a plebiscite on independence. Polls, though, suggests Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya – the more radical, junior partner in government with Mas, which calls for a unilateral declaration of independence – could win that snap election.
The links between Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and FC Barcelona run deep. One of its members, Josep Sunyol, was Barça’s president when General Francisco Franco’s forces killed him during the Spanish Civil War in August 1936. His body has never been found.
Richard Fitzpatrick is the author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry. It is published by Bloomsbury.