What lies ahead for Barça in an independent Catalonia?
Club dragged into independence debate but is threat of expulsion from La Liga realistic?
Football fans hold Catalan flags before FC Barcelona’s match with Girona at the Estadi Montilivi. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images
On the pitch, good – nine wins in nine league and Champions League games this season – off it, troubling for FC Barcelona. It is entering uncharted waters after a few weeks of tumultuous events and almost daily protest rallies in Barcelona, capital city of a divided Catalonia.
Barça’s future in La Liga hangs in the balance. As Catalan politicians threaten secession – or trundle towards an official referendum on independence – Barça is faced with a conundrum. What would the club do if Catalonia separated from Spain? Would it be tossed out of the Spanish league, as the president of La Liga, Javier Tebas has warned? Would it look to play in another league?
“This is a situation that is out of the ordinary,” says Josep Maria Minguella, a one-time Barça presidential candidate and the agent who helped broker the deals that brought Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi to Barcelona.
“In the almost 70 years that I’ve been a socio [member] of Barcelona, I’ve never witnessed a situation like this being tabled. It’s never happened. Even during the Spanish Civil War, the league was suspended for three years, from 1936-1939, and it resumed when the war finished. They played again with no problem. This is the first time [a situation where Barcelona could leave the league] is being discussed.”
Recent events in Catalonia have shown how divisive an issue Catalan separatism has become, right across Spain, and how it is impossible for football to escape the debate and its ramifications. It was striking to watch regional television news reports, as police reinforcements set off for Catalonia from towns and cities around the country to block last Sunday week’s unsanctioned referendum on independence.
Family, friends and neighbours lined the streets and cheered them off, brandishing Spanish flags, as if they were troops going off to war. “A por ellos, oe!” they sang, exhorting them to “go get ‘em!” echoing the chant you hear bellowed around Spanish football stadiums every weekend.
When Barcelona played Las Palmas on the day of the referendum, Las Palmas’ players’ stitched Spanish flags on to their jerseys in a show of solidarity for Spanish nationalism. After the game, images of Barcelona player Gerard Piqué’s tears while being interviewed on television flew around the world. He was in despair at the police bludgeoning of Catalan voters during the day, which included the sight of women being dragged by the hair from polling stations.
The Spanish state’s repression of the referendum has hardened Catalan separatist sentiment. I live in Barcelona. You can feel it when you talk to people here who wouldn’t normally be extremist or independentista. They’re being pushed into a corner. It’s interesting to hear Catalans in the city applaud former British prime minister David Cameron for his statesmanlike handling of the 2014 Scottish referendum.
Catalan’s regional government is making political hay, meanwhile, and shaping up to unilaterally declare independence (which would likely unleash a direct rule order from Madrid). It could set in motion a date when Barça would have to decide where it plays its league football.
Victor Font, a potential presidential candidate at FC Barcelona in the near future, stresses it remains a hypothetical issue, saying: “We don’t have a crystal ball.” He adds that self-interest will dictate the club’s actions: “The most logical thing would be for them to remain in La Liga despite the threats by La Liga and many other people who say it wouldn’t be possible.
“It’s basic business sense. About 70 per cent of the value of La Liga is Barça-Real Madrid. You take out one of the two, you take out El Clásico from the championship and you’re reducing a lot of La Liga’s value. The first entity interested in Barça playing in La Liga is La Liga itself. That’s why they threaten [to expel Barça], making FC Barcelona or Catalans think Barça would be made to play in a regional league without any major teams, [hoping] it would increase the fear of such a scenario and thus prevent it.”
Tebas, La Liga’s president, would be a pivotal figure in negotiations. His political allegiances must be taken into account. He was a youth member of Fuerza Nueva, Spain’s fascista version of the British National Party. He has an entrenched position, maintaining Barça would not be allowed to play in La Liga if Catalonia secedes, for example, and refusing to allow Barça to postpone the contentious league tie against Las Palmas unless Barça forfeited the game (and incurred an additional three-point penalty). His stance reflects the hardline position of Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, who refuses to negotiate with Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s pro-independence leader.
Font believes, however, that if it came to it, a realpolitik approach would kick in. “Nobody knows what will happen, but once a new reality was accepted – which would take some time – Tebas would have to be pragmatic. He would have to adjust. It’s like a divorce. The person who doesn’t want to break up the marriage maybe threatens, ‘Oh, you’ll be alone. It’s going to be very difficult. You won’t have enough income to reach the end of the month.’ But once there is a point of no return, people negotiate.”
If Catalan independence came to pass, Barça would act according to the interests of its members, which numbered more than 143,000 in 2016, according to Diario Sport. A president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, and his board represent them. Officially, the club has adopted a neutral stance on independence, but Bartomeu admitted last week that the club’s board has to consider where Barcelona would play if it was obliged to leave La Liga.
His reign has been pockmarked by indecisiveness – over summer transfers, over Messi’s contract renewal saga and last Sunday week over whether to forfeit the match against Las Palmas. Two of his directors, Carles Vilarrubi and Jordi Monés, resigned because of his decision to proceed with the match behind closed doors.
“What you’ve seen during this complex political process during the last few years is that the current board has been dubious and has not reacted so firmly and so quickly in some cases because of pressure, in some cases because of internal debates. There is an overdose of conservatism, of being extremely cautious,” says Font.
“On the day of the referendum, for example, when thousands of people were being beaten on the streets – and in my opinion it was clear that the game should not have been played – the end result was a typical Bartomeu board decision, which was neither one thing or the other. It was somewhere in the middle.”
If Barcelona did leave La Liga, there are several possible destinations. It could play in a regional Catalan league, along with the likes of Espanyol and Girona, in the same way that, say, Bosnia established its own domestic league after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This would cripple the club’s finances. Who would pay to see Barcelona play at the Camp Nou against Badalona and Lleida every other weekend instead of clashing with the likes of Atlético Madrid and Valencia?
It wouldn’t be in Uefa’s interests either for the Barça brand to wither. “Uefa will also be interested to find a solution,” says Minguella. “It wouldn’t want Barça to lose its power and earning potential. It would want it to continue being one of the grand clubs.”
There are precedents where Barça could play in other national leagues. This has happened, say, in basketball when the NBA absorbed Canadian basketball teams, the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors, in 1995. And, of course, it occurs in football where Swansea City, a Welsh club, plays in the English Premier League, and Monaco, a principality, plays in the French league.
Catalonia’s tentacles spread into southern France. The dominant rugby league team in the city of Perpignan, for example, is the Catalan Dragons, whose fans sing Els Segadors, the Catalan national anthem before games. Wouldn’t it make sense for Barça to play in the nearby French Ligue 1?
Raymond Domenech – who led France to the World Cup final in 2006, and has interesting family ties to Catalonia – dismisses the notion. “It would be totally crazy,” he says. “It would be impossible. They couldn’t enter Ligue 1. They are a completely Spanish club.”
Domenech’s father was 19 years old when he fled his hometown, Rubí – which is 15km from Barcelona – in 1936, just as Spain became engulfed in civil war; he came from a republican family, which fought on the opposite side to Franco’s nationalist army. He left on foot, bound for France where he settled and raised his family in Lyons.
Despite Domenech’s father’s past and his connections to Catalonia – he still has family in the region – he is reluctant like other French nationals and the country’s football authorities to get embroiled in the Catalan question even though it is a neighbour. It is a feeling of not wanting to intervene in a country’s internal affairs that is reflected across Europe.
“The French Football Federation doesn’t think about it,” he says. “It’s not a problem for us in France. Catalonia has to find a solution with Spain. And afterwards Barça can make a decision about its future.”
Where that future lies is uncertain. The chess game between Catalonia and Madrid’s politicians continues apace. Puigdemont pulled back from the brink on Tuesday evening, suspending a threatened unilateral declaration of independence and calling for negotiation. Rajoy continues to stonewall, which has created an impasse.
If an official referendum is called, which Font believes is inevitable even though it seems unlikely given the mood in Madrid, that is when Barça’s future would come into clearer focus – whether, as it has countenanced, it would have to play out this season in La Liga, and decide next summer where it takes its circus for the following season. Time will tell.
When politics and football collided at Barça
1925: Miguel Primo de Rivera assumed power in Spain following a military coup in 1923. He had a visceral hatred of Catalan separatism and the Catalan language so it was no surprise when he came down hard on insubordination at Barça a couple of years into his reign. During a benefit game for a Catalan choral society on June 14th, 1925, at Barça’s old stadium, Les Corts, fans whistled the playing of the Spanish national anthem at half-time so loudly that the band ceased performing. Primo de Rivera was incensed and ordered that the stadium shut its gates for six months.
1936: Despite the myth-making, a lot of it attributable to George Orwell’s atmospheric wartime memoir Homage to Catalonia, Barcelona was not the centre of republican resistance and fighting during the Spanish Civil War. Its famous football club Barça did, however, suffer a notable casualty when General Franco’s forces murdered its president, Josep Sunyol, in August 1936, only a few weeks into the war. Sunyol moonlighted as Barça club president. His day job was as a firebrand Catalan separatist politician. His political party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya is one of the three parties that make up the current Catalan administration that is pushing for secession.
1977: In October 1977, Josep Tarradellas returned as president of Catalonia’s reinstated parliament, some four decades after fleeing into exile in France. To mark his return, the old man was fêted at a league game against Las Palmas at the Camp Nou. A giant flag, which covered the full width of the pitch, was dragged out before kick-off with the words “Welcome home, President!” emblazoned on it. Called on to speak, Tarradellas reminisced about his time as a young Barça supporter around the time of the first World War: “In those days, we were few in number, but we had the same faith as you have today. That was the Barça you have inherited – the Barça rooted in its Catalanism.”
Richard Fitzpatrick is the author of ‘El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry’. It is published by Bloomsbury.