“We did what we had to do.”
The Spanish Prime Minister said that in the wake of the day of violence that has left, as of this writing, almost 900 people injured as they attempted the simple act of casting a vote. As the Clash sang in “London Calling,” “except for the ring / Of that truncheon thing.”
The club said that it did what it had to do, in going ahead with a match that I didn’t watch, and probably won’t watch. What’s the point?
“We couldn’t find a way to postpone the game with LFP,” club president Josep Bartomeu said. “They told us we’d lose six points. (So) we protest by playing behind closed doors.” He added later that the club wanted to spotlight the situation that the people of Catalunya were in, as if the scores and scores of videos of everyone from senior citizens to Catalan firemen feeling the sting of the bat didn’t accomplish that task.
You do what you have to do, as a multinational based in Catalunya, rather than a Catalan institution. Jimmy Burns described FC Barcelona as the people’s army. The slogan “mes que un club” represents the outsized place of the football club in the eyes of Catalans. It isn’t just sport. It is political, and inextricably so, from a club official who was executed during the Spanish Civil War, to the Camp Nou for too long being the only place where Catalan, an outlawed language, could be spoken.
After the match, Busquets said, “It cost us a lot from every point of view,” mastering understatement as flawlessly as he controls his area of the pitch.
It is a match that should not have been played. The club should have said, “Do what you will, but we, as a representative of Catalunya and the Catalan people, we cannot countenance what is happening outside the walls of our Catalan home. We cannot dash about on a pitch, performing business as usual when outside, people are risking everything for what should be a simple democratic principle.”
Pep Guardiola, a man who does nothing in half measures, who is Catalan to his core, said simply enough, “I would not have played the match today.”
Yes. It’s theoretical as he wasn’t the one who would have had to explain to his players the decision. But theory is all that we have until reality happens. Millions of Catalans weren’t sure what they were going to do in the face of the imported suppression. “We will vote,” they said, but it was theoretical. When it came time to put theory into action, they were brave and noble.
Before the match, there was chaos. It was on. It was off. Nobody knew what was happening, even as soon as a half-hour before the match. Then, finally, Las Palmas players took to the pitch, in shirts bearing a Spanish flag to show their belief in a unified nation. They were followed shortly thereafter by the Barça keepers and then the players, wearing the Senyera warmup shirts in a bit of savage irony or solidarity, dependent upon your worldview.
The Senyera warmup shirts aren’t just based on the four bars of the Senyera. The blue trim echoes the Estelada, the flag of the independence movement, a movement that from this chair, the club betrayed by going on with the match. At some point, the standings don’t matter. At issue here is what is Barça in the here and now, a question that has been posed before in this space. Today, the answer is as clear as it has ever been: it’s a multinational company based in Barcelona.
Three board members have resigned because of today’s decision to play the match. Was it a decision taken lightly? Not in any way, shape or form, even as it doesn’t make up for the fact that it was the wrong decision. This match should never have been played for many reasons, all of them political. A club can’t wrap itself in the Senyera, then say, “Well, we were going to get in trouble if we didn’t play.”
In 1984, the United States, in protest of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, decided to boycott the Moscow Winter Olympics. There were athletes who had trained their whole lives, put everything on the line and sacrificed so much. They were told, because of a decision by their governing body, that their hard work didn’t matter.
Back then, there were those who said, just as they do now when American athletes kneel instead of standing to salute the national anthem, that politics doesn’t belong in sport. But man is a political animal. Politics is a part of life, just as sport is a part of life. It is only inevitable that the two intersect, from raised fists in a Black Power salute on a victory podium to a country deciding to keep its athletes home.
Those decisions are hard, as the consequences are potentially severe. When the club decided to play the match behind closed doors as a sign of protest, what was the message? Is it going to refund ticketholders, many of whom no doubt planned vacations around being able to see the team play? What of the trust it lost, as people who looked to the club as a shining symbol of Catalanisme have had their foundations rocked, too many feeling the lacerating sting of the baton, and heard the crack of rubber bullets being fired into crowds who wanted to do nothing more than have a say in determining their future.
And the team played football. And it won, even as it lost so much. There are videos of people being beaten and stomped, of old ladies and children with blood streaming from injuries on a day when everyone did what they had to do, including the people who went into harm’s way to cast their vote.
“It was an illegal action,” people will snarl. It was a protest, what should have been a non-violent one. Instead, masked police stormed into polling places and ripped away ballot boxes. Much of the world cried out in protest. Meanwhile, millionaires had a game of kickabout on a perfectly manicured lawn.
It was hard for the players. We can’t imagine how hard. Pique wept in the post-match press availability, but stood there and dealt with the questions like a future club president and a certain team captain. Busquets talked about how hard it was. Sergi Roberto Tweeted about voting, and democracy. The players understand. What kind of debate was had, who was consulted and what happened is something we might never know. But three board members resigning certainly makes a statement, and one that a great many people don’t want to hear.
FC Barcelona, “the people’s army,” let the side down today by capitulating to material demands. Lost points shouldn’t have been the issue. Yes. It’s easy for romantics, for people with no skin in the game to talk crap about a situation that doesn’t affect them in the least. The club will face no sactions for its closed-door decision, because it caved. The LFP is happy. The match went off. No rearranging TV schedules, no inconvenience.
Ask the woman who was thrown down the stairs after having her fingers broken one by one, if she cares about a football match. She waited to vote. Ask the battered, bloodied people who still stood, waiting to vote. At some point, politics transcends that status, and becomes basic human rights. And a club that took a stand, that supported the right of the Catalan people to decide, that figuratively and actually wraps itself in the Senyera, had a hard decision to make today. It made the wrong one.
Barça won, but lost. Catalunya lost, but won as its citizens showed incredible bravery and resolve. LFP lost in revealing itself to be a craven organization with no regard for anything except the bottom line. It was warned more than a week ago that this might be a possibility. It could have moved the match, and chose not to. It chose to make FC Barcelona make a hard, damaging decision.
“FC Barcelona condemns the events that have taken place in many parts of Catalonia today in order to prevent its citizens exercising their democratic right to free expression,” the club said in a statement. And that’s all it was. When it came time for action, the decision was clear. During the match, the Camp Nou scoreboard flashed a simple message: “Democracy,” one quite appropriately flanked by the four title sponsors, Audi, Rakuten, Nike, Estrella Damm.
The club will say that it didn’t have a choice. But it did. And it made that choice.
Former president Joan Laporta surprised no one in coming out with a statement condemning the decision to play, saying that the club, in effect, chose to aid the forces of repression. It’s exaggerated. But for all of the stuff that people claim damages “mes que un club,” it is today’s match that did the most harm.
FC Barcelona is a democracy, from the board that makes decisions to the socis who get to vote for the president. But sometimes, someone has to make a decision, an incredibly hard decision that is made a lot less so by the resolve that said action is the right thing to do.
Everyone did what they had to do, from the folks wielding the batons to the board who decided to go on to the players who then had to strap on the boots. And almost everybody lost. Players, supporters, board members, ticketholders. And in the wake of a lot of folks doing what they had to do, there isn’t much left except sadness and shame, except for the ones who most needed love and support from their institutions. The Catalan people. They won. Huge.