Even in the ordinary course of events, Spain’s El Clasico – the meeting between bitter rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona – is a match that makes fans across the world stop what they are doing and pay attention.
It is not just seeing the likes of Ronaldo and Messi, Bale and Suarez going up against one another – it is about years of complex rivalry and history on and off the pitch being fought out again and again.
And recent political events in Catalonia have ensured that their next meeting – in Madrid on December 12th – has a whole new level of significance and drama.
Whilst the football itself will hopefully take the headlines on the back pages, rather than it being a game littered with petulant fouling and diving, the incredible political connotations that this game will carry when it takes place will arc back to the famed Orwellian quote that football, “is war minus the shooting”.
Barcelona’s motto ‘Mes que un club’ (more than a club) has always encapsulated their position in both Spanish and Catalan society, starting in the early 20th century when the club declared Catalan as their official language rather than the more widely spoken Castillian Spanish.
The team’s association to the politics between Catalonia and Spain only grew from there, as in 1925, the crowd inside Barcelona’s stadium at the time, Les Cortes, booed the Royal March in protest against the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera.
As a result, the ground was closed for six months and club president Hans ‘Joan’ Gamper was forced by the government to relinquish his position at the helm.
In the following decade, some of the club’s players, along with players of Athletic Bilbao from the Basque region, fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Francisco Franco, in what was a fight between Republicans and Nationalists, the latter of which was supported by Nazi Germany at the time, and also was the the eventual victor of the conflict, leading Franco into 36 years of rule over Spain and its regional ‘nationalities’.
On the football pitch, Barcelona’s defining moment, confirming them as, what author Manuel Vasquez Montalban called “the unarmed army of Catalonia”, was in 1943 when they were beaten 11-1 in the semi-final second leg of the Copa del Generalisimo (now known as the Copa del Rey) by Madrid.
According to journalist and author Sid Lowe, it was the first time Real Madrid were seen as, “the team of the dictatorship and Barcelona as its victims.”
The image of Real Madrid being Franco’s team again reinforces the rivalry between the two sides. The general’s decision to back the team from the capital represented the power of a centralised Spain, one that spoke the same language and one that was far more powerful than any team that could come from the likes of Catalonia.
Alfredo Di Stefano’s joining of Real Madrid, despite Barcelona actually having ‘signed’ the Argentinian only for the Spanish Football Federation to block the move due to illicit actions surrounding his transfer, despite FIFA allowing the transfer to go ahead.
After the move was blocked, Real Madrid came in and attempted to sign the player, and a decision was made for both clubs to use the player in alternating seasons.
The humiliated Barca president Marti Caretto resigned, the interim presidential board ripped up the deal and as a result Di Stefano was free to sign for Madrid, going on to win five European Cups, giving Franco an international PR machine which could reflect Spain’s success under his leadership.
Over the years, Barcelona has become a cultural and political representation of the Catalan people. This is even reflected in Barcelona’s local rivalry with Espanyol, the second biggest team in Catalonia. The name Espanyol which has clear similarities to Espana, suggests that, in Catalonia, you’re either Barcelona, or your Spanish.
Due to pledges made in the 2015 Catalan elections, Catalonia’s independence referendum, on 1st October, saw over two million people vote for independence from Spain.
The two million votes for independence came from an electoral turnout of 43%, however the Catalan government said that over 770,000 votes couldn’t be cast due to the Guardia Civil (Spanish police) blocking off polling stations all over Catalonia.
Another reason for the low turnout was due to pro-Spanish parties in Catalonia calling for people to not vote due to the illegitimacy of the referendum.
Even so, if those 770,000 votes followed the pattern of the those who voted, where 97% voted to become independent, and were added to the the final tally, the turnout would have been at 57% with 55% voting to leave.
Brexit was a closer-run affair and it seems as though the pro-independence Catalans would have stormed to victory. However, the referendum was considered illegal and against the Spanish Constitution of 1978, and therefore will not stand as legitimate.
The president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, has since lost his job after he signed the independence declaration on October 10th, and on the 27th, Spain issued Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which has been described by multiple media outlets as the ‘nuclear option’, which gives Spain direct control over the region.
Barcelona’s statement on the issue, which states that they want to defend, ”democracy, freedom of speech, and self-determination”, has led to hostile reactions from Spaniards towards Catalans representing their national team.
Gerard Pique, who has supported the referendum publicly and is a figurehead for Catalan nationalism, was booed by Spain supporters at an open training session just days after the statement was released.
The current strained relationship between Spain and Catalonia are sure to be put under the microscope on December 12th, both before, during and after El Clasico.
It will feel as though Iniesta, Pique and co. will be walking out into a proxy war between Spain and Catalonia, armed with the same causes as those who fought against the Falangists in 1936.
On top of the huge significance of the game, recent form between the two sides suggests that, unless Real Madrid have a huge change in fortunes, Barcelona, who are currently unbeaten this season, should have no issue brushing aside a stuttering Madrid.
This means that if the ‘unarmed army’ were to defeat ‘Franco’s team’, the blood and gold of the Catalan flag will drape across Spain’s capital, once again figuratively demonstrating Catalonia’s potential as an independent nation.
Of course, the might of a football team cannot accurately determine the success of a country. How would the Catalans manage financially? Do they have the growth they need to uphold a strong economy?
Whilst these questions are important, and even if Catalonia were to struggle if it stood on its own, it is surely better for Catalans to decide whether they want to be independent, and not for those who live outside of what is already a self-governed ‘nationality’ to decide for them.
To deny Catalonia the chance of independence is Spain simply harking back to their days as a dictatorship under General Franco.
However, Real Madrid flickering performances of late do not have the same PR might as that of the team starring Di Stefano in the 1950s, meaning that Barcelona are in the perfect position to sweep their rivals aside, once again reaffirming the motto ‘Mes Que Un Club.’
Photo Courtesy of Rob Shenk via Flickr Creative Commons.