No other sporting institution in the world has been more emotionally affected by the political crisis unleashed in Spain over the Catalan question than FC Barcelona.
Barca, as it is popularly known, has for much of its modern history been more than just one of the world’s leading football clubs. It is a social, cultural and political phenomenon — mes que un club, as its motto goes — and its sense of identity is framed by Catalan nationalism. Now the polarization in Catalan society and Spain as a whole over the issue of independence is threatening to throw the club into disarray.
The club has come a long way since its foundation in 1899 by a group of foreign expatriates living in Barcelona. Anti-Madrid sentiment flared in the year of the club’s foundation when the Spanish empire lost the last of its colonies in the Caribbean. And its early years coincided with the first great surge of political Catalan nationalism as the region began to agitate for greater autonomy.
In later years, FC Barcelona became known as a Catalan team — and suffered the consequences whenever the Spanish state moved to suppress the rights of the Catalan people.
During the Spanish Civil War, the pro-independence deputy of the Catalan regional parliament, Josep Sunyol — then Barca’s president — was executed by General Francisco Franco’s forces near Madrid, and many of the club’s members were politically persecuted by the Francoist regime that ruled between 1939-1975.
Many Barca fans are overwhelmingly pro-independence — as is evident by the Catalan flags they wave and their chants during home matches at Camp Nou stadium.
The transition to democratic rule recharged Catalan nationalist aspirations and, for the club, an era of football excellence associated with the Dutch-born player (and later coach) Johan Cruyff. His arrival in Barcelona in 1974 was a defining moment that cemented the club’s political and cultural trajectory. In those years, Barca became a universally respected sporting institution at a hugely significant moment in Spanish history.
During Cruyff’s first season, Barca played football not only with an enormous self-confidence but also with particular vengeance against the one opponent that had always mattered, beating Real Madrid in its own Bernabeu stadium 5-0 in 1974.
Cruyff’s contribution to Real Madrid’s defeat, as the New York Times’ correspondent wrote in its aftermath, did more for the spirit of the Catalan nation in 90 minutes than many politicians had achieved in years of stifled nationalist struggle. Indeed, Cruyff — nicknamed El Salvador — was never just a footballer.
At a time when Spain was still ruled by a repressive dictatorship, Cruyff brought much needed social and cultural fresh air from his native Netherlands. His defiance of the Franco regime’s prohibitive laws on the use of the Catalan language — he registered his son with the Catalan name Jordi — came to symbolize the sense of imminent liberation that democratic Spaniards were feelings in the dying days of the old dictator.
The late Johan Cruyff both played for and managed FC Barcelona | Shaun Botterill/Allsport via Getty Images
As a player, Cruyff went on to give fans like myself many more hours of sheer delight, as a new, post-Franco Spain took its place among the democratic nations of Europe. But it was his second coming to FC Barcelona as coach that would prove more successful and far-reaching in sporting terms.
If Cruyff had done nothing else, Barca’s victory in the European Cup final at Wembley in the summer of 1992 would have earned him a significant place in the club’s official history. Thanks to the “dream team” that Cruyff coached and Dutch footballer Roland Koeman’s winning goal, Barca became European champions for the first time — and the first Spanish champions since Real Madrid won the title more than a quarter of a century before.
It would take several more years for Barca to catch up with Real Madrid in terms of national and international achievement, but it entered a new golden period under Pep Guardiola, a Catalan player-turned-coach who took his inspiration from Cruyff. Guardiola — who, after his successful time at Barca, moved to Bayern Munich and is now at Manchester City — is one of several celebrated Catalan nationalists associated with Barca that supported the October 1 referendum on independence outlawed by Madrid.
Barca player and Spanish national Gerard Piqué — also known as the husband of pop star Shakira — is also among the most well-known supporters of the Catalan cause, and is booed and whistled at by Spanish unionists whenever he plays for Spain.
Many Barca fans, too, are overwhelmingly pro-independence — as is evident by the Catalan flags they wave and their chants during home matches at Camp Nou stadium. They call for independence on the 17-minute mark of each half of a match to symbolically mark the year 1714, a key year in Catalan nationalist mythology in which Catalonia lost its autonomy to Spain in the War of the Succession.
The club as an institution has a fan base that extends across borders, but its location in Barcelona makes its susceptible to local politics. Last month it was among at least 4,000 signatories of the National Agreement for the Referendum, a group comprising political parties and civil society organizations in favor of the Catalan independence vote.
Like Pique, Pep Guardiola — the former Barcelona captain and manager — supported the Catalan referendum | Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images
It has never shied away from flying its nationalist colors, but speculation that Barca might quit or be forced out of the hugely popular Spanish Football League is unlikely — at least not immediately.
For all its Catalan identity, FC Barcelona has become a major global business venture, its sponsorship and marketing revenue boosted by its rivalry with Real Madrid, both within the Spanish League and the Champions League. The popularity of star players like Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta — who are non-political but who command high salaries and fuel huge broadcast fees thanks to this kind of exposure — also make it unlikely the club could lose its position.
Neither would it leave of its own volition. Playing in a minor Catalan league means players of Messi’s caliber would flee the big club, and those losses would have a severe knock-on effect, diminishing the club’s interest and value.
About 70 percent of Spanish club football’s commercial value is tied up in the enduring rivalry between these two super clubs and their non-Catalan superstars
Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu told the club’s recent annual general meeting that he wants to stay in La Liga: “We will never put the club nor its presence in any competition at risk. That’s why, to all the socios [members], I say that we want to continue playing in La Liga and, as of today, our participation is guaranteed,” he said, adding it was “mutually beneficial” for both the league and Barca to continue to maintain their link.
For now, with the outcome of the Catalan crisis likely to remain uncertain until at least after the regional election called for December 21, there is no strong pressure for FC Barcelona to leave the Spanish League.
Most football analysts note that neither Real Madrid nor FC Barcelona want the Catalan club expelled from La Liga, as about 70 percent of Spanish club football’s commercial value is tied up in the enduring rivalry between these two super clubs and their non-Catalan superstars. No matter what happens politically, it’s likely Madrid and Barcelona won’t score an own-goal by severing their ties.
Jimmy Burns is a journalist and author of three best-selling football books, “Hand of God;” “Barca: A People’s Passion;” and “La Roja.” His dual biography of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be published next year.