Any primer on the place of FC Barcelona in Catalan history and politics would, for even the most lightly informed culer, be pretty much a “Duh!” process. But in light of current developments, it’s worth asking a number of rather pertinent questions about the board, the club and its relationship with UEFA, as well as its seemingly new stance on the politicization of the club. Or is it a stance at all?
UEFA fined FC Barcelona for Esteladas (Catalan independence flags) in the stands during a Champions League match. An unaffiliated group will hand out 20,000 Esteladas before the next Champions League match (home vs BATE), with the instructions that supporters wave until their arms fall off. This is a protest against the perceived abrogation of free speech as well as the alleged clamping down on Barça, as we have seen all sorts of politically motivated flags at many Champions League matches of other teams, most notably Barça’s eternal rivals. But make no mistake: by putting 20k flags in the stands, waving away, it will for many remove doubt about the club’s stance on independence, as inaccurate as such a view might be.
More interesting is how the board will react to a new entrant into the flag fray, Blaugrana Al Vent, a group that doesn’t want the club to be used as a tool in the Catalan independence movement, laid out in an ESPN piece by Dermot Corrigan.
Of late the board has been, while not embracing full support of independence, beginning to wrap itself in the flag. There have been statements about the unfairness of it, including a club-sponsored free speech banner that Mascherano, unfortunately, took a bit too closely to heart. And while the club isn’t officially behind the move to hand out flags, it isn’t exactly discouraging it, either. So what’s up? This is, of course, in the wake of last season’s away shirt, which was essentially the Catalan flag – NOT an Estelada – that the players wore, leaving no doubt as to the club’s Catalan pride.
Maybe. Or it just might have been a marketing ploy that played both ends against the middle, using the club shirt to take advantage of a surge of interest in the independence movement and the team, as perceived by some, a travelling symbol of that freedom struggle. But the board’s flirtation with nibbling at politics goes even farther back.
Recall that when Sandro Rosell won the election, it was in part based on a “more Catalan than thou” notion as he and Joan Laporta tried to out-Catalan each other. But the club also determined, as it sought to maximize the club’s sponsorship possibilities, that being a political symbol wasn’t really good business. So all of that Catalan symbol stuff was toned down, even as the club did sign the pact for self-determination. But did politics even play a role in this, as the acknowledgement of the club’s role as a regional symbol certainly demanded that it affix its mark to that important document.
But what’s going on now? Is it as simple as the club’s “Oh, everyone is against us” campaign spreading? FIFA, UEFA, a miscellaneous “black hand,” the officials, the Spanish government and yet, the club stands proud?
My views on this board are well known: I don’t trust them as far as I could throw them. And I believe that you can support a region’s right to decide, without being pro-independence. And of course, being pro-independence is potentially bad for business. The club is in a delicate situation right now as the independence movement picks up steam. It must balance being a global entity with being a regional symbol of Catalan pride and identity.
Seeming to support the Esteladas initiative at the upcoming BATE match puts the club, for many, on the wrong side of that balance point. To others, that unspoken stance is a wonderful thing, and therein lies the quandary. This also raises the motivation question. Businessmen rarely do things for reasons of pure altruism. So the “woe” platform includes the Masia kids, the transfer ban, the abrogation of free speech and the UEFA fine. It’s all part of the persecution complex that the cynical would suggest the club is milking for all that it’s worth, reaping the benefits of whining about it without really doing anything at all to resolve it.
Here is an interesting, and carefully worded statement from Bartomeu in an article about the UEFA fine:
“Barcelona has always defended and will defend the right to freedom of expression,” the Catalan told The Washington Post.
“Barcelona has never prohibited its members and fans from expressing their ideas and feelings in a peaceful manner, either in our stadium or any other football field where they travel to support our players.
“Barcelona disagrees with the UEFA sanction and has asked that the case be reviewed.
“As expressed in the previous statement, we are fully convinced that the rights of our partners are untouchable.
“We support our partners and fans and are faithful to the spirit of freedom with which has characterised this club since its foundation 115 years ago.”
“Spirit of freedom.” It’s a lovely phrase that is subject to interpretation however anyone wishes, from “The club supports independence,” to “The club wants the fine reversed and feels its members should be able to speak out at matches.”
This matter has been artfully played by a board that so many assume isn’t all that bright, via statements that seem to do everything at once in supporting the team, members, free speech, appealing to UEFA to undo an unjust fine and supporting independence. It’s a pretty neat trick that is nonetheless generating significant sideeye in many a skeptical culer.
But it should also be noted that suspicions aside, this board is making the right moves in doing exactly what it is doing. The club has socis who are both for and against independence. And just as being for the right to decide means not being automatically pro-independence, being pro-indy is a slippery slope that a juggernaut who wants to raise its revenue even beyond the 600m mark should avoid. But can it?