Should FC Barcelona withdraw from the Copa del Rey final on Sunday or, in the future, consider boycotting the tournament next season.
These are pertinent questions in light of the announced ban on the Estelada at Sunday’s final.
The club issued a strongly-worded statement:
“Barcelona expresses, in the most absolute terms, its total and complete disagreement with the announcement prohibiting the display of Estelada flags at the final of the Copa del Rey.”
“Barcelona considers the decision to be an attack on the freedom of expression, the fundamental right of each and every individual to express their ideas and opinions freely and without censorship, a right which is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Barcelona has always defended, and will continue to defend, the freedom of expression of all its members and fans, who have always displayed a high level of civility and respect. [Barcelona] calls for the use of common sense and responsibility and demands the government representative’s cooperation in creating the good atmosphere a match such as the Copa del Rey final deserves.
“Barcelona also implores the representative to respect the honour of the institutions involved in this final and to avoid causing any uncomfortable situations.”
And yet, this whole thing is an “uncomfortable situation.”
As we all know, the club has signed the Right to Decide document, even if it hasn’t come out in full support of Catalan independence — and frankly, never can. We covered the fence-straddling aspects of the club’s view on the flags and independence here. But this situation is significantly more complex. UEFA fined the club, and the club appealed. This pre-emptive ban is, as the club notes, a very clear and significant abrogation of free speech. The club has a very strong view on such a matter, but how strong is it? Strong enough to pull out of the competition? Is this even something worth considering.
The cost of pulling out would be immense. A loss of a potential trophy, loss of the funds from winning the competition, loss of bonuses related to performance clauses in player contracts. But it would also politicize the club in a way not in keeping with the task of building a global brand, nor would it sit well with Barça’s Catalan supporters who are not in favor of independence.
From this chair, the larger point is that this isn’t about independence. This is about free speech, and every club in La Liga should be supporting Barça. Where does the line stop? Let’s say there is a situation where a player dies on the pitch and there was insufficient medical assistance provided, and questions are asked of La Liga. So players decide to wear t-shirts pre-match, in support of the late player, but those shirts are banned. There are a great many potential situations that could happen to any club, not just one linked, however tangentially, to a struggle for independence.
Valencia’s Senyera shirts are brilliant. They’re also dangerously close to the Estelada. What if the government representative decides that those are too close to being a symbol. There are Barcelona-based culers old enough to remember when the only place you could speak Catalan was the Camp Nou, forget about Esteladas and independence. At 17:14 of every home match, the independence chant starts. What if the Liga decides that is unacceptable, and sanctions the club every time it happens. The club would be powerless to control its fans, but would have to participate in government-sponsored suppression of free speech.
This flag ban is a minefield.
There is, of course, no way the club would ever consider pulling out of the competition. It would make the club/team a political tool (even as it was already made one by the dimwitted decision to ban the Estelada), which would almost certainly have a knock-on effect on things such as sponsorship deals and player transfers. What player would decide to sign for a team that might, at some point, decide to eschew a trophy challenge because of a political stance, even if free speech is more, so much more, than politics.
Vendors are selling scarves which, when tied around the neck and draped just so, converts the away Senyera shirt into an Estelada. Will those be confiscated? Will anyone wearing a Senyera shirt be searched for an offending scarf? Will bags be searched for Esteladas, and who does the searching? How will the ban be enforced, and what are the penalties for violation? What if the club decides to play the match, supporters wave Esteladas and the decision is taken to penalize Barça by forfeiting the match? Quite clearly, the person who issued the ban is misguided by having not considered, in full, the ripple effects of such a determination. The Liga’s most successful club over the last decade is now a target, an unruly child that must be taken to the woodshed by its parents. “Autonomous region?” Certainly not.
Prominent Catalan politicians who support independence and the right to decide have decided to boycott the match. We have no idea what Catalan players such a Pique think. No statements of any kind have been made, even if they should be, and by everyone, not just those with a horse in the independence race. Free speech affects everyone.
The club has appealed the decision to ban the flag, because it has to, philosophically as well as symbolically. It also has to from a moral view. Back when the U.S. decided to boycott the Olympic Games in protest of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, its president, Jimmy Carter, portrayed it as a simple question of human rights. The athletes caught up in that situation didn’t have a choice in the matter, and four years of training went to waste, for what? “For what” is always the question when an entity takes a stand, and not just by the people who are affected. Every gesture has the potential to be empty, which should in no way affect the decision to make it.
A statement has been issued, an appeal has been lodged against the decision. What’s next? Probably nothing. Nothing at all. What should be next is a much more complex situation.