FC Barcelona is living up to their motto of being “more than just a club.”
A long time proxy for the hope for the Catalonian region of Spain to gain independence from the Crown, the team has once again been thrust into the center of the turmoil between the region and Madrid. After taking a strong stance on the subject, specifically calling for “a process of dialogue and negotiations” with “the utmost respect” as Catalonians voted in a referendum, the club has seen some serious repercussions.
On the day of a vote that saw 90 percent of those who went to the polls* cast a vote in favor of secession from the Spanish state (a vote deemed “unconstitutional” by Madrid), the powerhouse club played its La Liga match in front of an empty stadium. An upcoming game on the road against Atletico Madrid saw the unusual step of passes issued to visiting fans being stopped.
How much will this affect the business and on-field action for one of the world’s most popular sports franchises? We’ll have to see.
*It should be noted that turnout was around 40% of the region’s residents – given that the Crown had already deemed the upcoming vote unconstitutional, the results are undoubtedly skewed in favor of those who wished to make their statement anyways.
How it began
Historically, the status of FC Barcelona as a stand-in for the Catalonia region goes back over 100 years. During the Spanish Civil War, for example, the El Classico rivalry was intensified by the use of Real Madrid as a representative of Frederico Franco’s power at the head of Spain’s national organization. Barcelona, the ostensible capital of Catalonia, which flies its own flag and speaks its own language, was representative of the disparate regional alliances that weren’t so keen on the central power.
In more recent times, Barcelona’s involvement the political sphere picked up in 2014 when the club joined the National Agreement on the Right to Decide and the Referendum Agreement, a platform comprising political parties and civil society organizations in favor of a referendum on independence for Catalonia.
Hometown crowds at Camp Nou often break into cries of “Independencia!” at the 17 minute 14 second mark. 1714 marks the year that Catalonia lost its last great war of independence against the Kingdom of Castille – i.e., European politics have intertwined with sports long before the States did.
What’s going on
The region’s long-sought battle for secession came to a head this past Sunday when nearly 900 civilians were injured attempting to cast their vote on said referendum, which the government deemed illegal. Despite violent force from riot police, including the use of rubber bullets and batons, nearly 2 million people turned out to cast their vote; 90 percent voted “yes” for Catalonian independence. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to recognize the “unconstitutional” vote.
On that same day, FC Barcelona was scheduled to play a La Liga match against Las Palmas at their home stadium Camp Nou. Club officials requested a postponement, but the league denied. Instead, the team made a glaringly strong statement by closing Camp Nou doors and playing for the 99,000 seats in the largest stadium in Europe- totally empty.
⚽️ The Camp Nou as you have never seen it before during a Barça match pic.twitter.com/OJ3j5QzsTQ
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 2, 2017
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 1, 2017
In a statement about the decision released on Monday, FC Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said: “I decided to play behind closed doors because we believed that the image of a football match being played in a completely empty Camp Nou would have been an act of responsibility and would have been a way of showing how we utterly reject the exceptional and inadmissible situation going on around Catalonia”.
He added that in lieu of a decision to cancel the game altogether, he believed that this alternative would better raise awareness to Catalonia’s call for independence. “We knew that an empty Camp Nou would send a powerful message,” Bartomeu said in a news conference. “Everybody would be asking about what was happening in Catalonia. The game was broadcast around the world. It was an extraordinary measure for an extraordinary moment.”
On Tuesday, the club took part in a country-wide strike condemning what they believed was excessive use of force by Spanish police at the voting polls on Sunday. A statement on their website read:
FC Barcelona has decided to join the country wide strike called by ‘Taula per la Democràcia’ (Table for Democracy), a group comprising of various trade unions and other entities from Catalonia brought together to protect Catalan institutions, and therefore the Club will remain closed on 3 October. The day of action seeks to bring together all those people who on 1 October, whether they voted or not, were left indignant by the serious events which took place during the day of the Catalan referendum on independence.
As such, on 3 October the Club will remain closed during the entire day and as such none of the professional teams nor the youth teams at FC Barcelona will train on the day. The Tour Camp Nou Experience and the Museum as well as the OAB will be closed.
Yesterday, FC Barcelona announced that as “one of the leading institutions in the country”, they are “officially supporting the Comissió Independent per a la Mediació, el Diàleg i la Conciliació (Independent Commission for Mediation, Dialogue and Conciliation)”.
FC Barcelona demands respect. As an institution that is so committed to the values of dialogue and peaceful coexistence, the Club feels that all public manifestations need to contribute to building the bridges for dialogue that are necessary in this context while respecting the freedom of expression of the Catalan people.
In order to overcome this crisis, it is indispensable for all of us to come together and to use our social functions to act responsibly. In our case, we shall defend the demand for such institutional dialogue wherever it might be needed, while in a sporting sense, we shall continue to compete in our different disciplines.
Also yesterday, the club announced that it would cancel all FC Barcelona supporters clubs ticket applications, as Atletico de Madrid could no longer supply the tickets previously offered to them for the La Liga match on October 14. They cite “logistical problems in the new Wanda Metropolitano stadium” as the reason for cancelling away ticket allocation, claiming no link to the potential tension caused by ongoing political turmoil, but an Atletico source told ESPN FC that “the club have made no special moves to stop travelling fans attending the match”.
What’s in store
As of right now, FC Barcelona is one of the 11 “non-political organizations” that will be part of a commission to resolve the issues between Catalan leaders and the Spanish government. Given the nature of the backlash to the attempted vote on Sunday and the government’s refusal to recognize its outcome, it’s unclear how this battle will play out. However, if a secession is successful, the only way FC Barcelona could stay in the Spanish league is if amendments were made to the current laws.
Keeping the four-time European champions in the highly competitive and lucrative La Liga is in the best interest of both the club and the league, but president Bartomeu has admitted that they would discuss the possibility of leaving if Catalonia gained independence from Spain. There has been speculation that the move may be to the English Premier League, if needed.
“This situation does not exist so far,” Bartomeu said on Monday. “But with regards to things that can happen in the future, it is something that the board of directors would discuss. It would be something to analyse calmly.”