Barça and the Estelada, symbol, empty gesture or marketing ploy?

Difficulties.

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?

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

13 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    October 30, 2015

    I m sorru Kxevin for the off topic comment but i am watching Bayern now and there are 5 players from Bayern B in the starting line up.Amazing.Lucho it s obvious that he hates our young players.

  2. Jim
    October 30, 2015

    Spot on, Kxevin. The board can , as you said, hint at its feelings about self determination but should never become involved in an independence movement, for the good of the club. We have recent experience over here of how ugly things can get. Our only saving grace is that our two top teams ( I’m including Rangers over the longer term) hate each other so much they’ve no time to hate anyone else.

    We gain nothing from allowing this gesture and stand to lose a lot from where I stand. Don’t even know, again as you rightly said who believes what about independence so it’s not right for the club to dive in on one side. No real need. They can wave their flags outside if they like but they shouldn’t be allowed to take them in. Come to think of it, the Scottish police could volunteer their services. They are great at removing flags ( from all bar the top two ! )

    Takes me back to last year. A few people over here got a real shock that night.

  3. luisthebeast
    October 30, 2015

    Jim i disagree.People say that Sport and Politics are two different things.But the people who go to Camp Nou and pay to watch the team are citizens of Catalonia and they have every right to express their voice.The Club must let the people free to have flags and do what they want to saw their message.Democracy is a system that people won after million deaths in wars and the streets.UEFA,FIFA are companies who see football only money.But football is a lot more than that.

  4. Jim
    October 31, 2015

    Not for me on two counts, Luis, although I’m well aware I’m an outsider in this issue and have no right to intervene. It’ll also be my last thoughts on the issue because this place isn’t really meant to be about politics ( and rightly so iimo). It’s unavoidable on this issue because of the ramifications but we don’t want ourselves falling out about it.

    First of all, on a practical level we have been warned about allowing nationalist flags into the stadium. That means if we do it again we can expect the book thrown at us, both financially and penalty wise from UEFA. Do we really need that ? If the board allows it then imo they are culpable and I’ve been kinda supporting them since Barto took over. How would our sponsors react if we aligned ourselves with independence ? What about those fans who don’t want their team taken over by separatist influences because they don’t support it ?

    Secondly, we’ve got quite a record over here in Scotland of football and politics intertwining and I’ve got to say it’s led to nothing good. The arguments of Rangers and Celtic are that the supporters are just proud of their history but in reality it led to sectarianism, violence and division. We’re only now at the stage of dealing with the chants, flags etc and even then it’s difficult. Both our clubs have already been dealt with by UEFA over this issue.

    It’s not hard for the board to say they support self determination but would ask that when they come to the stadium all they think about is supporting the team . Do I think that would work ? Probably not. Nationalism is a strong and sometimes dangerous emotion. But at least the club would have a better chance of arguing that there was nothing else they could do to stop it. ( wouldn’t save us.). This has the potential to end badly for us and again I say all this with a ( slight) knowledge of the club’s history and its treatment at the hands of the state and also the knowledge that it’s nothing to do with me.

  5. georgjorge
    October 31, 2015

    Thank you for the very informative article, Kxevin.

    I don’t agree with Jim that politics should be kept outside the stadium as much as possible. I don’t see an inherent wrong with clubs like, say, St. Pauli (second German league, openly left-wing) who stand for certain ideologies. However, with a club as big as Barca, it would be very improbable that all of its supporters (or even the huge majority of them) are taking the same stance on the freedom to vote, so for the club to take up a strong position here could alienate a part of its supporters. It’s a trade-off – bigger fanbase and middle-of-the-road positions or smaller fanbase and stronger ideological positions. Barca is very much a business now, so I think I know what will be chosen. Or just cater to people like me – supporters from abroad who are not all that into Catalan politics and just like the football – and do whatever they like with regard to local politics.

  6. horlahlehk
    October 31, 2015

    Is Villareal right-back – “Mario” always dz gud or hez steppin up his game 4 2days opponent – “Sevilla”

  7. georgjorge
    October 31, 2015

    I like today’s line-up a lot. Sergi Roberto in midfield, our best CB pairing (according to Jim), and I also have a feeling that Munir will eventually come into his own (more than I have for Sandro). Even Iniesta back on the bench cheers me up!

  8. horlahlehk
    October 31, 2015

    Aww!….Vitolo leaves him 4 dead afta a nutmeg nd goes past him tu put in a cross 4 Sevilla’s goal

  9. horlahlehk
    October 31, 2015

    Nw tz Konoplayanka vs Mario
    Wah a battle…..#Mario

  10. horlahlehk
    October 31, 2015

    Shld Sergi Roberto start de el-classico

  11. horlahlehk
    October 31, 2015

    Getafe by-passin de press superbly

  12. georgjorge
    October 31, 2015

    I really don’t mean to diminish what the team did today – I thought it was a very composed performance all over – but I would be pretty pissed if I was a Getafe fan at the match. It’s understandale to remember the 0-7 from last season and put everything at the back but there was very little intensity and will to score at least once from them. The first foul of the match was in the 22nd minute, which already points at that, and after the second goal they let our team pass around the ball without making any real effort to get it and score.

    Having said that, I continue being delighted at Sergi Roberto (Ray Hudson described his assist as a combination of Xavi, Messi and Iniesta I think), and Neymar’s efforts to run the show in the absence of Messi. Also hat off to Bravo for playing the sweeper-keeper well on some occasions (though it has to be noted it’s better not to do it when there’s three defenders still in reach of the ball).

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    March 4, 2016

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