In his official presentation earlier this week, Xavi Hernandez, the new coach of the superpower club F.C. Barcelona, stated: “Visca Barca y Visca Catalunya!” (Long live Barcelona and long live Catalonia).
While Barcelona is the capital of the autonomous community of Spain, why exactly did Xavi associate the well-being of F.C. Barcelona with Catalonia’s? What is the reason behind this seemingly overt political declaration? The answer lies in the club’s complicated history with its struggle for independence against a dictatorial regime. As a result of that history, “Barca” became a source of Catalan pride and a true symbol of resistance.
The club was founded in 1899 by Hans Gamper, who changed his first name to Juan after being seduced by the city of Barcelona. Barca quickly became successful in the following years, but politics soon got involved.
In the 1920s, the dictator Primo de Rivera was ruling over Spain, and the Catalans were never big fans of the central government. Noticing the sense of identity people took from supporting Barca, Gamper changed the official language of the club from the royal Castilian Spanish to the Catalan language. In 1925, when the crowd booed the Spanish national anthem before a game, de Rivera made his move and forcibly removed Gamper from office, who fell into depression and killed himself in 1930.
The years of the Spanish civil war were particularly painful for Barca as well. In 1936, the president of the club Josep Sunyol was murdered by pro-fascist because he supported Catalan independence. This episode is central to the memories of Catalans and Barca supporters. Today, with “Spain suffering economically and calls for independence on the rise, the club’s position as a nationalist symbol could grow ever more important alongside its triumphs on the pitch”.
Even today, it is not unusual to hear political chants in Camp Nou, Barca’s home stadium. Indeed, at precisely 17:14 of a game, you might hear the crowd shout “Independencia! Independencia!”. The timing here is very significant, for it was in 1714 that the Catalans lost a crucial war against the kingdom of Castille and signaled the beginning of their definite subordination to the central government.
F.C. Barcelona is thus a symbol of anti-fascism and democracy. Its tumultuous relationship with the central government in Madrid resulted in the club’s political significance. Its motto “Més que un club” (more than a club), has a heavy meaning and represents well Barca’s bond with the Catalan quest for independence.
F.C Barcelona’s business structure itself is a glimpse into the Catalan view of government. Unlike other big European clubs like Paris, Manchester, or Chelsea, which are either owned by rich Qatari statesmen, Saudi statesmen, or wealthy businessmen who call all the shots, Barcelona is owned by 143,000 members, who make decisions about the club through a democratic process:
“The club is an example to be followed,” Barcelona member Marta Ferre said. “We, as members, have the right to decide about our future, and the residents here in Catalonia want the same thing.”
Even players like Gerard Piqué publicly voiced their support for Catalonia’s independence, which caused him to get booed by fans of the Spanish national team. All of this points to the political role that F.C Barcelona plays in Spain. As the club reached unprecedented success in the last two decades, its vitrine of the Catalan struggle attracted even more supporters. Fans of Barcelona all around the world feel a connection with the club’s history. As I fan of this club myself, I know what I am talking about. At a young age, I got caught up in the rivalry with Madrid, the “King’s club”. This is the sort of thing you cannot escape if you decide to embark on this journey. Barcelona is Catalonia, and even you are only attracted to Barcelona’s sports results, you will inevitably get to see the politics involved.
Today, F.C. Barcelona is in the middle of a huge sporting and financial crisis. The appointment of Xavi as head coach is seen as the dawn of new age. The expectations are extremely high for this former player, who reached legendary status as he lifted virtually every trophy he possibly could. Xavi is considered to be the one who will re-establish the famous Barcelona way of playing, which used terrorized the biggest teams in Europe. The desperate quest for a strong identity on the pitch reflects this need for a “Barcelona exceptionalism”. In other words, the strong sense of distancing themselves from the mainstream and uniquely asserting themselves. This is what the Catalan struggle has been about: a fight against the establishment in hope of realizing a dream that would echo in the four corners of the world for generations to come.