Spain's heart not winning over minds of Catalans


Despite Barcelona players backboning the World Cup finalists, the city is not overly jubilant

IF VICENTE del Bosque, the Spanish gaffer, picks the same team to start the World Cup final as he did for the semi-final, he’ll make a bit of history. It will mean La Rojo will include seven players from Barcelona, a record for the most players to be provided by a club side for a team in a World Cup final.

Previously, West Germany started the 1974 final against the Netherlands with six players who were on the books at Bayern Munich, including Franz Beckenbauer. When Italy played the 1982 final, their winning captain Dino Zoff was one of half a dozen Juventus players on the team.

Now Barcelona are set to go one better. The club’s magnificent seven are Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, David Villa, and Pedro, who, of course, took Liverpool’s out-of-sorts Fernando Torres’s place in the line-up for the win against Germany on Wednesday.

You’d think they’d be going barmy in Barcelona about it all, but they’re not. Certainly, the celebrations after the semi-final win were a lot more subdued than, say, if Barcelona had just won another Champions League title.

Sure, there was a fiesta atmosphere in the Catalan capital. In the narrow side streets off La Rambla, the city’s main thoroughfare, you had to watch out for people tossing pails of water out of apartment windows onto the street revellers below.

The city was sprinkled with people wearing Spanish jerseys and draped with Spanish flags over their shoulders. A lot of them seemed to be guiris, though, the derogative Spanish word for Northern European tourists.

The old part of Barcelona, the downtown, is very multicultural these days, full of either ex-pats living in the city or their tourist brethren visiting for a few days. Most Catalan natives live on the outskirts or along the northern part of the city.

At the famous Canaletes Fountain, where Barça fans cavort to celebrate their club victories, fans assembled in Barcelona and Spanish team jerseys and bantered good-naturedly, chanting “Barcelona is Spanish”. But there was no animosity.

A good thing, obviously, but if you want a barometer of the Catalans’ emotion about the Spanish team’s progression to the final maybe the best place to look is at police records. On Wednesday night, there were five arrests. In comparison, when Barcelona captured their La Liga title last May, there were 105 arrests.

Riot police flocked the city, leading to bloody clashes in which 120 people were injured. It was like the Indians were coming – the place was alive with the sound of drums. Blazing firecrackers littered the streets. Cars were tipped over. A giant poster of some of the Barcelona players which draped one shopping block was pulled down.

For the real Spanish celebrations, you had to be in Madrid, where 20,000 alone gathered in the city’s main square to watch the match on a big screen. There was no big screen to watch the game in Barcelona, the city’s council having decided against installing one when it was mooted, although it has acquiesced and will erect one for the final on Sunday night.

Catalans just don’t fully dig the Spanish team. One of La Vanguardia’s columnists, writing for the Catalan newspaper before the clash with Germany, said the Barcelona fan had been watching the Spanish matches to date in the World Cup “out of the corner of his eye”.

Elsewhere in the country, there have been concessions to Catalan nationalism. AS, a Madrid-based newspaper, ran a cover-page headline Visca España, the Catalan way to write Viva España.

The diehard Catalan, though, the guy who supports the FC Barcelona team – which is funded and managed by a 170,000-strong network of socios, or club members, including Zapatero, the prime minister of Spain – is slightly conflicted about rowing in behind the national team.

Indeed, Catalans, who have a long history of separatism, which became most acute during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, have had their own football team since 1904. They’ve played nearly 200 fixtures, having stepped up the number of international matches over the last decade.

Interestingly, Johann Cryuff, a member of the first Netherlands team to get to a World Cup final in 1974 and an FC Barcelona demigod, took over management of the Catalan team last November. They beat Argentina 4-2 in his first game at the helm.

The team would not have included Villa, who joined Barcelona before the World Cup, but who is from Asturias, a region in the north-west of Spain, or Iniesta, who, although he joined Barcelona’s youth school La Masia, as a 12-year-old, is not Catalan; neither is Pedro, who also joined Barcelona’s youth academy, but is from the Canary Islands.

It would, however, have included Capdevila, the Villarreal left full who started his career with Espanyol, Barcelona’s other football team, and Barça’s other four prominent players, including the central defender Piqué, who was born in Barcelona; Busquets, from Sabadell, a Catalan city; and Xavi, the sublime midfield talent, who was born in Terressa, one of Barcelona’s other satellite cities.

And, of course, the team’s beating heart is Puyol, twice Champions League-winning captain of Barcelona in 2006 and 2009, who comes from a Catalan town of 3,000 people not far from the French border, the guy who ghosted into the box the other night, with a luxurious mullet more befitting an 1980s rock star, to head home Spain’s winning goal. You couldn’t have scripted it, certainly a Catalan couldn’t.