After 17 minutes and 14 seconds of football were played between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid on October 6, 2012, the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona exploded with chants of Independencia! Independencia! The significance of the above mentioned number lies embedded in history. In 1714, Catalonia fought its “Last War of Independence” as its army was defeated by the Kingdom of Castille and a harsh common central law was imposed upon its people. The players on the pitch were visibly distracted by this massive uproar in the stadium involving more than 95,000 Barcelona supporters. For those 53 seconds the entire stadium came to a standstill as the rest of the world watched this unique method of protest with unmatched intrigue.
Football Club Barcelona or FC Barcelona, based in the central Catalonia, is one of the greatest clubs ever to grace the football field. It is adored the world over for its rich history and its unique attractive brand of attacking football. But for the average Catalan, FC Barcelona is more than just a club. It is a way of life. FC Barcelona adopted “Mes Que un Club” (More than a club) as their official club motto which epitomizes sentiments of Catalan nationalism. Football plays a pivotal role in the life of the Catalonians and FC Barcelona is central to it. For the people of Catalonia, regionalist fervor trumps nationalist sentiment and their unequivocal support of FC Barcelona acts as the quintessential tool for political expression of their Catalan identity.
Catalan Nationalism and the role of FC Barcelona
Twentieth century Spain was characterized by the violent dictatorship of Francisco Franco who brutally suppressed peripheral regional cultures and languages in favour of the “Castile”, which represented the interests of the elites based in and around the capital Madrid. They promoted Castilian Spanish and tried to impose their own cultures upon the other entire region. This gave birth to several secessionist movements all over Spain, many of them present today as well.
The people of Catalonia were brutally subjugated during the regime of Franco, who ruled over Spain from 1939-1976. They were prohibited from speaking their mother tongue (the Catalan language), banned from celebrating their local Catalan festivals and were not allowed to exercise any right to practice their own culture. They weren’t even allowed to study Catalan history in their schools and colleges as a biased Castilian version of history was imposed upon them. Basically, every facet of their Catalan identity was suppressed and every aspect of their cultural space was encroached upon by General Franco’s policies. Keeping all this in mind, the region of what constitutes modern day Catalonia was constructed and shaped in response to a change in its internal and external environmental brought about by General Franco and his repressive policies. The Catalan identity associated with this constructed region was shaped and even strengthened as a systematic suppression of the Catalans took place during the course of history. The Catalans, cutting across political, economic and social lines, united against the external stimulus and forged strong bonds amongst themselves, ultimately giving birth to a common identity.
The Catalan people identify themselves with several aspects of their region of Catalonia such as its cultural traditions, practices, language, food, music, etc. Football and FC Barcelona is one such major linkage between the people of Catalonia and its geographical territory. The modern day manifestation of the Catalan identity has its roots in history. When all other aspects of their Catalan culture were suppressed by Franco, the Catalan people embraced FC Barcelona as the sole carrier of their Catalan identity. Since then, FC Barcelona has continued to act as a quintessential component of the Catalan identity. For many in Catalonia, supporting FC Barcelona is a matter of immense pride and prestige as they locate their identity inside it.
The historical rivalry between the “Castile” and the other breakaway regions such as Catalonia, Andalucia, Galicia and the Basque has, in the present day scenario, manifested itself on the football field in the form of an incessant pursuit of success and a desire for domination in the Spanish La Liga. According to Fitzpatrick, “FC Barcelona derives much of its identity from antimadridista (Anti Madrid) sentiment” because Madrid for the Catalonians “is the symbol of centrality” of Spain. British journalist Tim Hanlon, in his recently released book A Catalan Dream, puts it appropriately when he asserts that, for the Catalans, FC Barcelona acts as the “best outlet to champion their identity and culture”. He argues that, for all the Catalans, coming from different financial backgrounds and varying age groups, watching FC Barcelona play gives them an overwhelming sense of “national pride”. This is in stark contrast to other separatist movements in Spain, such as the Basque movement led by the ultra right wing terror outfit, the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) which has traditionally employed violent means in order to express their dissidence and therefore has not been as successful.
The media has played a very important role in this regard. So much so that the local Catalan press attributed Spain’s World Cup triumph in 2010 to the presence of FC Barcelona players in the Spanish team. The Catalan media labelled the cup success as a victory for Catalonia as opposed to a victory for Spain and attempted to use this opportunity to keep the Catalan movement alive. It has been easier to do so keeping in mind the unprecedented success of FC Barcelona and the major role played by FC Barcelona players in Spain’s treble success. This movement caught the world’s attention as 7 of the 11 players who started Spain’s World Cup final match against the Netherlands in 2010 were FC Barcelona players and had a major contribution to Spain’s eventual triumph. This incessant media coverage of FC Barcelona resulted in the story of Catalonia being read out in front of millions of people all over the world which gave the movement a much needed thrust.
Political obstacles and Legal hindrances
There are some major obstacles which need to be trespassed if the dream of an independent Catalonia needs to be realized. If a political understanding is not reached between the two parties, the Spanish government and the self governing community of Catalonia, then it would be illegal under the Section 155 (1), Chapter 3, Part VIII of the Spanish Constitutional Law, for Catalonia to exercise the right of external self determination and the State shall “take all measures necessary to compel the Community to meet said obligations”.
The legal status of Catalonia is defined in the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia (2006). According to the Article 1 of the Statute, “Catalonia, as a nationality, exercises its self-government constituted as an autonomous community in accordance with the Constitution and with this Estatut, which is its basic institutional law”. There as several rights which are enjoyed by the people of Catalonia under this Statute, such as the Right to freely speak the Catalan language (Article 6(1)), Right to preserve and develop their identity (Article 4(2)) and the Right to elect the autonomous government (Article 7).
But that isn’t enough. There are several areas of public administration wherein the Spanish State holds precedence over its Regional Communities. According to Section 149 of the Spanish constitution, the State shall have complete jurisdiction in matters of Immigration, International Relations, Defense and Armed Forces, National Security, Administration of Justice and Financial Affairs and State Debt.
On the political front, Spain would try its level best to keep the autonomous region of Catalonia under its control as it is Spain’s richest region and the main contributor to the Spanish economy, roughly accounting for 19% of Spain’s GDP (OECD 2011). Talks with Spanish have not been going according to plan as far as the demands for an autonomous Catalonia are concerned. Recently, the Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo quashed Catalonia’s demand for statehood, instead labelling it as “illegal”.
Furthermore, under the laws (Article 99 titled as Integration and membership in the Federation of the Autonomous) of the Spanish Football Association or the RFEF (Real Federación Española de Fútbol), a registered football club has to be geographically located within the boundaries of the country if it is to continue to play in its league. In that case, they would lose a bulk of their revenue generated on account of their participation in the league. According to the official website of FC Barcelona, during the 2011/12 season the Club made a whopping 494.9 million Euros.
Though there are historically rooted breakaway secessionist movements across the World and fierce football rivalries that exist across Europe, in Spain there is a distinct merger of the two aspects. Apart from Catalonia, nowhere in the world will one find people peacefully expressing their desire for more freedom, more rights and more autonomy by supporting football entities such as FC Barcelona. The demonstration of long suppressed identities in demanding a fully autonomous state through a medium of popular culture is what makes these protests unique.
FC Barcelona’s enviable success on the football pitch has been translated into the regional movement and has given it more strength and renewed vigor. Due to the recent success of FC Barcelona on the football pitch, the Catalans have reached out to the World. The fact that FC Barcelona has been so successful is precisely the reason why the regional movement is so strong. Their theaters of protest are not roads and their methods of demonstrations are not violent angry protests. Instead, their theater of protest is FC Barcelona’s stadium, the Camp Nou, and their methodology entails a passionate lifelong support of their football club. But all this leaves us with perhaps the most important question which has been left unanswered. Has the passionate support of FC Barcelona by thousands of people in Catalonia, who create a riveting atmosphere in the cauldron of the Camp Nou week in and week out, had any real impact on the Catalan Independence movement? Only time will tell.