Saturday, 28 October 2017

Barcelona & Catalonia: Their Football Relationship With Spain

Let me start with a football trivia question, just for fun:

Since 1934, the Spanish national team have played 17 out of their 62 home World Cup matches in Madrid. so how many World Cup matches have Spain played in Barcelona?

Maybe you're thinking that's a tough question? Almost impossible to get correct without a margin of error, say to the nearest 5?

OK. Well, how about this one?

Regarding Barcelona, what have Argentina, Andorra, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the Soviet Union all got in common?

The answer to that one is that their national teams have all played more World Cup matches in the city of Barcelona than the Spanish national team.  In fact, England, Ireland, Portugal and Yugoslavia have all played as many World Cup matches in Barcelona as Spain have.

Which leads to the answer to the first question: Spain have played just 1 World Cup match in Barcelona - against Yugoslavia in a 1969 qualifier for the following year's World Cup in Mexico. This match was played in the Camp Nou and attended by less than 10,000 fans in a stadium which holds ten times as many.

Spain also played a European Championships qualifier against Denmark in 1975, also in the Camp Nou and which was attended by less than 7,000.

That's it - two competitive international matches have been held in Spain's 2nd-largest city, ever.  And this in a country which likes to move the national team from city to city.

In fact, Spain have played more World Cup matches in Madrid, Seville, Valencia, Gijón, Alicante and Albacete than they have in Barcelona.


Now everyone is aware of the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid, but an awful lot of people who understand that rivalry are clearly bewildered by the declaration of Catalan independence earlier today.

Perhaps the above illustrates somewhat the incredibly fractious and difficult relationship between Spain "proper" and Catalonia. This feeling - approaching enmity in some cases - has been simmering for decades and the strength of feeling, on the Catalan side, should not be underestimated.


Having spent a fair amount of time in my late teens in small-town Catalunya (Catalonia) a couple of decades ago, whilst working temporarily as a language teacher, I was given a comprehensive education in Catalan nationalism.

My education first started from being told that Catalonia was not Spain. It became clear that many Catalans I spoke to had raw family tales of the repression of the Catalans by the Franco regime and the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, as well as opinions, rightly or wrongly, on the cultural and economic subjugation of Catalonia by the Madrid government.

I was able to speak a little Spanish, and no Catalan, so all my Catalan colleagues would break from their conversation in Catalan and were happy to speak to me in Spanish (and, in one case, German!) to allow me to understand a little better what was being discussed.

But, having arrived thinking Spain was Spain was Spain, it quickly became apparent I knew next to nothing about Spanish internal politics and especially its regions.

It's this same kind of ignorance which still seems to permeate non-Spanish journalism in the present day.

FC Barcelona was firmly described to me as "representing the Catalan nation". I was once in a bar in the tiny Catalan village of Camp-Redó and made the mistake of cheering a goal against Barcelona in a pre-season friendly match against Feyenoord. A grandmother who wasn't even watching the game gave me the most dagger-like look I've ever been on the end of.

It was the first Feyenoord goal (scored by Gaston Taument - anyone remember him?) which was the one I cheered. Naturally, I changed my approach for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th ones, which I think was appreciated!  Watch out for Ronald Koeman somehow converting a penalty for FCB:



During the Franco period, which lasted around 35 years, the Catalan culture and language were effectively banned. School lessons were in Spanish only. The Camp Nou on match day was the only place where Catalan could be heard in public.

The 1978 Spanish constitution was supposed to correct these perceived injustices, giving regions such as Catalonia significant autonomy and, amongst many other things, restoring the Catalan language in the classroom and the civil service. The huge rivalry with, and enormous desire to beat, Real Madrid still existed, but that kind of relationship exists for various adversaries in most mature footballing countries.

However, using football as a proxy for understanding nationhood, let me take you back to 1987, when Gary Lineker was a Barça player.  In February that year, he scored 4 goals for England in a 4-2 win over Spain in Madrid: 



Afterwards, he was asked by a journalist how he felt about scoring 4 goals against the country where he played football. Lineker is rumoured to have said "I don't play for a Spanish club, I play for a Catalan one". One newspaper in Barcelona the following day had a headline: "Catalan player scores 4 against Spain".

Cult status followed., assisted greatly by also scored a hat-trick for Barça against Real: 



Now, I make no judgement or comment on the legality of today's declaration of Catalan independence, but there can be great symbolism in the beautiful game. And as far as football is an indicator of anything societal, with the above scenarios and the fact that Spain have not played a competitive match in Barcelona since Franco's death in the mid-1970s, can anyone really be surprised when Catalans say that Catalonia is not part of Spain?

Whether the Catalan nationalists will realise their dream of de facto statehood is very difficult to say at this time, but the strong desire of a great many Catalans to create their own nation certainly shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Football has been an indicator of Catalonia going down this path for decades now.

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