An Independent Catalonia Could Rob Barça of its Halo

Last month people in Barcelona rallied in a bid for Catalan independence. Lluis Gene / AFP-Getty Images

Spain’s constitutional crisis detonated by Catalan moves toward independence has fueled an interesting debate over the future of one of the world’s most successful and best loved soccer clubs, FC Barcelona—or Barça, as it is affectionately called by its global fan base.

Last month, Barça’s president, Sandro Rosell, was among the 1.5 million protestors who took to the streets of Barcelona, marking Catalonia’s national day, La Diada, to press for greater political and financial autonomy from Madrid. Many of those in the demonstration that day, including the regional party leaders organizing it, called for full-scale separation—yes, secession—from the rest of Spain. Rosell has been trying to resist the temptation to throw the club onto the independence bandwagon—a cause that opinion polls show just under 50 percent of voters in Catalonia, including several leading local businesses, do not support. But while attending the protest in a personal, not institutional, capacity, Barça’s president has been forced to recognize that it will be impossible to keep his club immune from political developments for very much longer. “Barça will abide by what a majority in Catalonia decides,” he told an assembly of fans, following La Diada, after some of them had openly called for independence during a soccer match.

Such an immersion in local politics is second nature to a soccer club that for much of its history has projected itself as a potent symbol of political and cultural identity. The club’s founding at the start of the 20th century coincided with Spain’s imperial collapse and, by contrast, Barcelona’s regeneration as one of Europe’s most enterprising cities. The growth of Barça as a major sporting club became a source of Catalan pride as well as an expression of human rights.

Repressed during the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera in the 1920s and during the Franco years, the club became a vehicle for a powerful collective ethos. Flagrant persecution, exemplified by the execution by Franco’s forces of Barça president Josep Sunyol during the Spanish Civil War, is written into the mythology of Barça’s history, as is its association with democracy and the common good. Barça fans love the story of the legendary Dutchman Johan Cruyff, star player and manager, insisting—in defiance of Franco—that his first-born son carry the name Jordi, Catalonia’s patron saint.

The punchy and highly marketable slogan “Més que un club” (“More than just a club”) alludes not just to Barça’s place in a Catalan society that is combatively proud of its own culture, but its ability to represent values that go beyond narrow partisan or nationalist interests.

But it is nationalist politics that have given FC Barcelona its edge and arguably its passion at key moments in Spain’s development as a modern democratic state. Following Franco’s death in 1975, Barça executives visited the exiled Catalan nationalist leader Josep Tarradellas, and persuaded him to return and form part of a new regional government under the rule of a constitutional Spanish monarchy.

Within days of his arrival in Catalonia in 1977, Tarradellas was given a mass welcome at Barça’s stadium, Camp Nou. “The whole of Catalonia has fought for the freedom we have now finally achieved. I am sure you will maintain yourselves loyal to this Catalanism, making this Catalonia ever rich, ever strong, ever free ... Long live Barça! Long live Catalonia!” Tarradellas declared in a speech that would be memorized by subsequent generations of fans.

Thirty-five years later, the politics of Barça seemed inevitably bound to be sharpened by the current controversy surrounding Catalonia’s constitutional status. However, Barça today is a global brand that also cuts across narrow political, cultural, social, and provincial interests in its organization not just in terms of its fan base, but of its players and sponsors. Its main financial lifelines are non-Catalan: the Qatar Foundation, Nike, and the TV rights it shares with Real Madrid. La Masia, the talent “farm” where its most promising players are formed in their youth, is not a nationalist institution; it is a training school for scouted talent from around the world, where good conduct, tolerance, and teamwork—not political or separatist dogma—are an indispensable part of the curriculum. Some of Barça’s most active fan clubs are in Madrid and Andalusia, where members have no wish to see Catalonia split from the rest of Spain.

If Barça has secured an unprecedented mass following worldwide, it is not so much down to its politics as to its style and success as a team. Some of its best Catalan-born players—Pique, Xavi, and Puyol—may wave the Catalan flag, but they also enjoy being part of Vicente Del Bosque’s highly successful Spanish national squad, La Roja. Some of Barça’s best non-Catalan players—Messi, Iniesta, Pedro, and Villa—also seem happy enough with their current national status. Messi is Argentine, the other are all non-Catalan Spaniards.

One possible outcome of Catalan independence is that FC Barcelona would find itself playing, as it did for a brief period leading up to and during the Spanish Civil War, in a Catalan (as opposed to a Spanish) league; and, inevitably, its Catalan-born players would cease to play for La Roja and form a Catalan squad instead. Whether this would benefit either Barça or its players, let alone its fans, is an open question.

catalonia-OV03-secondary Would Barça take a tumble following Catalan independence? David Ramos / Getty images

As things stand, the ambitions of Barça’s current senior management point in a different direction. At a soccer conference in Doha last November, Rosell suggested a breakaway European league might start by 2014—unless UEFA, the European soccer association, gives in to demands from the major clubs for a smaller domestic league and an expanded, if more exclusive, champions league capable of boosting its worldwide TV audience.

However, Del Bosque, coach of Spain’s national team, believes it would be a mistake to scrap the Spanish league from which he picks his players, and thinks English fans in particular—given their tribal loyalties to club teams—would lead a popular rebellion against a super league. Del Bosque argues instead for a Spanish league where TV revenue is more equitably distributed, although he suggests that Barça along with Real Madrid are quite happy with the status quo. He told me: “It’s not good for the future of the game to have just two clubs dominating everything, though it’s going to be difficult to change things. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are very powerful.”

Meanwhile, anyone expecting Pep Guardiola—the man identified with turning Barça into the best club in the world—to make a bid for the presidency of Catalonia may have been disappointed by his decision not to throw himself into the current political melting pot. Guardiola, the club’s legendary former coach, has chosen to continue taking a sabbatical in New York, where his children now go to school and he is able to walk the streets without being mobbed.

Last year, Guardiola, still coach at Barça, became the first sportsman to be invited to address the Catalan Parliament—where he received the region’s highest medal, honoring him for his professional work and citizenship. His speech was short, articulate, and widely praised in Catalonia and beyond, even by rival fans. He told the politicians that he was there to make clear the importance of being passionate about what you do in life—however unimportant you think what you do is. He left no doubt that the one overriding passion in his life was not politics but soccer—playing it, managing it, watching it, breathing it, dreaming it, sharing it.

Of course, the fact that Guardiola said all this in the context of his experience as a Barça player (formed in La Masia) and as Barça’s coach, that he spoke in Catalan, and that he ended declaring his faith in the future of Catalonia as a country in its own right, put what he had to say on a different level to the usual bland commentaries we invariably hear from soccer celebrities around the world.

FC Barcelona has political, cultural, and social identity written into its DNA. Guardiola, like Rosell, appears to recognize that soccer is probably best left untouched by personal political ambition. But one year on, Barça is facing greater pressure from a higher-octane Catalan nationalism that risks undermining the club’s claim to universality and global popularity. Will it, dare one ask, go from being more than just a club—més que un club—to being just a club like any other?

Jimmy Burns is the author of Barça: A People’s Passion and, most recently, La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World, which was excerpted in Newsweek International in its issue of July 9, 2012.