Of Sport and Politics

On October 1, 2017, the Spanish state sent what amounted to shock troops into Barcelona. They were there to break the back of the Catalan separatist movement during what had been deemed by the central government to be an illegal vote. The individual police officers tasked with revoking ballot boxes took back breaking pretty much literally, smashing people with batons, tossing them down stairs, and generally running completely amok. One indiscriminately fired a rifle out of a moving van window for no discernible reason. Whatever the outcome of the election, rigged or not (90% of the votes were for independence, a number that makes my brow furrow), it was the Spanish state that lost. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, made himself no friends the next day by demanding Catalans get back to normality, having gotten this whole independence vote out of their system. There were calls for general strikes in Catalunya and at least some people participated on Monday and Tuesday.

And into this civic uncertainty stepped Josep Bartomeu with what appears to be his super power: making every mucky situation that much muckier. Whatever it was that Bartomeu thought he was doing, though, the moves were not made in a vacuum. It can sometimes appear that fans want to lose themselves in the sport, but do not want to face the reality of institutional power, community participation, and the intricate fabric of our world.

Whatever your thoughts on Catalan independence—and there are certainly lots of thoughts to have—the institution that is FC Barcelona, which has stood at the forefront of Catalan identity politics for generations, cannot avoid entering the political arena on a day like October 1. Outside the stadium grounds there was mayhem. The community that supports Barça was experiencing an event that went beyond electoral victories or defeats, was bigger than the fall of a regional government, and was clearly going to influence the foreseeable future. The club is run by presidents, who are elected by members, who come from a city and a time that can never be independent of where it sits and who it contains. It is also true that Barcelona offers a venue for expression that can otherwise be blocked off by those whose voices are often suppressed.

The stadium—the venerable Camp Nou, inaugurated almost exactly 60 years ago in September 1957—was once the site of low-grade anti-dictatorship activity. The Catalan language was banned under Franco, but you could speak it in the stands of the Camp Nou, watching the blaugrana players below. When the dictator died in 1975, FC Barcelona latched onto its Catalan identity as part of the country’s newfound freedom of self-expression. If you’ve ever sat in the stands and heard the raucous chants at 17:14 of each half – IN-INDE-INDEPENDENCIA they shout while waiving esteladas–you’ll know that there is a strong independence streak within the soci ranks.

When Bartomeu refused entry to the fans and the team played a match in front of 98,000 empty seats, but with the cameras rolling, it was surreal sight. What had been rumored to be a match called off in solidarity with the people being beaten in the streets morphed into a virtual shrug emoji when news of stiff Spanish Federation penalties came over the wire. The team simply had to relent and play the match. But, this being a high tension moment with major local and international consequences, sections of the fanbase threatened to rush the field to prevent a match and show the world what was going on, so the fans were kept out and the game went ahead. There were immediate calls for Bartomeu’s head, some on a platter, some on a spike. There were calls for everyone’s head, really, but by not proclaiming the Camp Nou the seat of the new Parliament of the Independent Nation of Catalunya, Bartomeu made himself the main target.

It is easy to get lost in the byzantine local political theater, to feel confused about the leftist independence groups aligning with Carles Puigdemont and his conservative Catalan nationalists to form an unholy alliance pushing to extricate Catalunya from the Spanish state without regard for the step beyond that where an actual governing state must be put together. It is easy to lose sight of the us vs. them categories that have been created between “separatists” and “loyalists.” Nomenclature matters and this case is no different.

Synonyms to patriot are nationalist and loyalist.

I went to a baseball game a few weeks ago in celebration of my friend’s birthday. Her English boyfriend went along too for his first ever True Blue American sporting event—and he was shocked when, between innings, the stadium announcer walked us through an all too familiar description of someone’s military service and then everyone clapped. “Does this sort of thing happen all the time?” the boyfriend asked. We all nodded. I think they gave the veteran a flag, but I honestly don’t pay attention to these sorts of things anymore. They’re constant. And no wonder: the NFL, for one, gets paid for it by the military.

When I first began to follow football in earnest, I was mesmerized by the idea of clubs. Professional sports, for me, had been about franchises. American sports are often referred to in corporate terms, with many team owners and presidents becoming celebrities—think Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban, or James Dolan—and having their opinions voiced. The New England Patriots have this thing about red, white, and blue Americana—a brand—announced on the Super Bowl stage in 2001, a game played under the only Super Bowl logo that contains either a depiction of the continental United States or the stripes of the American flag. Soccer—the other football—it seemed, was different. It was about communities building identities and trust within the confines of neighborhood specific arenas. Only it wasn’t. Sure, Real Betis and Sevilla split a city in two and there were great narratives drawn up by the likes of Phil Ball as he rode around Andalucia in taxis, but Barcelona and Real Madrid split a country in two not because they were full of homegrown players, but because of centralized politics.

Sports, I’ve been told, is not about politics. It rises above, it transcends, it subsumes. Or so they say, but that is laughable. Sport has always been about politics. From Jesse Owens showing the Nazis in Munich that all their race science couldn’t beat a poor black kid from Cleveland, Ohio to the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid, New York during the 1980 Winter Olympics. We beat the Nazis and the Soviets via sports, we tell ourselves. We put to rest Aryan superiority and Soviet juggernaut mythologies through determination and the brilliance of capitalism. Strong moral values beat out inhuman sport machines.

Yet, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black power fists at the 1968 Olympics to draw attention to the Civil Rights problems in the United States, creating one of the most iconic pictures in American sports, they were also immediately stripped of their medals, kicked out of the Olympics, and lambasted by the American Olympic head. They were called a million vile names, including “black-skinned storm troopers” by a certain Brent Musburger, who continues to talk about black athletes for a living as the voice of college football on ABC/ESPN.

To disentangle oneself from the political realities of sports is to miss most of what sports means. This is not to say that there can’t be joyous, wide-eyed viewings of games or matches. In truly great instances, it is easy to forget everything else, even if you are not personally invested in either team. These are the once-a-year games, twice in a year if we’re extraordinarily lucky, but without politics, the rest is Stoke on a rainy Wednesday. We huff, puff, and lump the ball downfield, but little is accomplished.

It is also true that not all politics in sports is good politics. There is the long-standing idea that Franco used Real Madrid as his European fixer, capable of smoothing over his dictatorial regime’s violence through the conquering of the European Cup. There is the story of the 11-1 in 1943, when Franco’s minister of state security allegedly visited the Barcelona locker room before the match to remind them of the regime’s “generosity.” There is the story of Josep Sunyol, president of FC Barcelona, murdered in the Guadarrama Mountains during the Civil War by Francoist troops. Those troops were called loyalists.

Now, the estelada flies in the stands and independence is on everyone’s tongue. It is not insane to fall on either side of the debate and, indeed, it makes sense that a fairly large number of fans would be pro-independence while another equally large subset would be for continuity with Spain. The problem is the one that faced Josep Bartomeu on October 1: you are either with me or against me. You either support full-throated independence or you might as well be beating people in the streets alongside the Guardia Civil.

The United States suffers from this plight all too often, so I know it well. In the wake of a sustained protest from various National Football League players against police violence, the backlash has been swift and strong. The President of the United States called them sons of bitches and encouraged their firing. That they are black men is both why the players are doing what they are doing and why large segments of the population feel comfortable burning their jerseys or calling them horrible names. The United States, like Spain, is a country that has not truly faced its past and has not accepted that sports, like most things, are viewed through the cultural lens with which we approach everything.

I grew up in a part of the world drenched in red, white, and blue, where calling yourself a Patriot came with a capital P. It seamlessly incorporated 2D American historical perspectives, jingoism that bordered on an obsession with violence, and a deep-seated desire to eschew dialogue. Such desires have now led my country down a path of decaying commitment to democratic ideals (such as they ever were) and an intense partisanship that demands the blood of those who would dare to point out the country’s failings, regardless of validity.

This the danger both of Partido Popular’s message to the rest of Spain and Puigdemont’s Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català message to Catalunya. Both are trying to divide and conquer as best as possible and both are ignoring many portions of the electorate because they have the political capacity to do so. Bartomeu has done so in the past as well, on a far less important scale, but an institution like Barça cannot sit on the sidelines. It must speak both to the realities on the ground and the ideals it claims it stands for. Mes que un club or nada mas que un club. Spain is no stranger to the siren call of nationalism and it must resist it at every turn to have a chance to move beyond its momentary crisis.

We, as fans, must think of the greater context of our actions and desires, just as we demand that our politicians, our celebrities, and our heroes do. Gerard Pique has come out against independence, which is a rather brave thing for him to do. He has not allowed the fracas around him to distract from what he believes is right: dialogue and a commitment to fostering relationships. We cannot merely demonize the other side for its minor transgressions or we will end up reaping what we sow. We are not perfect, neither are they, and it behooves us to remember these things before it is too late and we have poisoned our own well to spite our potential enemies.

We need politics in sports and we need to listen to those who would point out our follies. We should not haul ourselves up onto the shoulders of others and expect them to carry us the rest of the way. Pique and Andres Iniesta, two of the smartest, most erudite players around, have both asked for dialogue rather than ratcheting up the noise levels to drown out those who disagree with us. Barcelona must denounce the state violence from the Spanish central government in the strongest possible terms as well as point out the blunt nationalism of the Catalan separatist movement. They are not equal statements and they do not need to be, but if FC Barcelona is to remain the Catalan flagship, it must take into account the thoughts, desires, and needs of all Catalans, not merely those who have temporary access to the levers of power.

It is not incidental that Jesse Owens was a black sprinter. The United States used his image to project a sense of superiority and to laugh at the foolishness of the German Reich. It is also not incidental that Jesse Owens said, “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus…I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”

Independence may very well be the best possible solution for Catalunya, but there is much to lose by gaining it through nationalistic appeals.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.

22 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    October 7, 2017

    That’s an incredible well-written comment, thanks a lot! Levelheaded and clear.

    Sports is intertwined with politics already because of the status we give to athletes. At the top level, they have become projections for one’s own desires and hopes, and how dare they say anything other than what we feel and think? And everyone has a political opinion, even those who pretend to be “a-political”. Whether they use their influence to promote harmful or beneficial ideas, I often wish that it were like Piqué mentioned, and the political opinion of footballers wouldn’t be valued much differently than that of a mechanic.

    • ooga aga
      October 9, 2017

      Yep, need to read a bit more closely for the context there.

      • ooga aga
        October 9, 2017

        Sorry this was meant in response to Nick/Kevin/Peter below.

  2. Nick
    October 7, 2017

    “You either support full-throated independence or you might as well be beating people in the streets alongside the Guardia Civil.”

    Say what now? How do you guys even come up with such analogies…

    • October 7, 2017

      You miss the context. Isaiah is talking about the perception of people when they talk about the club and its actions. The entire paragraph is here, again for context:

      Now, the estelada flies in the stands and independence is on everyone’s tongue. It is not insane to fall on either side of the debate and, indeed, it makes sense that a fairly large number of fans would be pro-independence while another equally large subset would be for continuity with Spain. The problem is the one that faced Josep Bartomeu on October 1: you are either with me or against me. You either support full-throated independence or you might as well be beating people in the streets alongside the Guardia Civil.

    • October 9, 2017

      For me it’s criticism of the two extreme positions and PoVs during that moment:. No middle ground was allowed or tolerated.

  3. ooga aga
    October 9, 2017

    Looks like Meymar wants to get us kicked out of the UCL for not paying his bonus. Ha ha

  4. ooga aga
    October 10, 2017

    The world (cup) is better with Messi in it.

  5. Jim
    October 11, 2017

    Just watched extended highlights. I think I heard the sound of a Balon D’Or being engraved.

    That was just unbelievable. Completely unbelievable. At altitude ? You’re having a laugh. And yet throughout all his efforts, amazing skills and determination I couldn’t help feeling sad at the pressure put on this one person to perform. Maradonna had a great team around him. There is nothing here. Don’t know how he copes.

    As well as that, two goals for Luis Suarez. Good to see the quality of the finishes. Still don’t like the idea of him carrying a knee cyst for any lengthy period of time.

    On another note, I see the independence question has been kicked down the road. For me, a good thing as far as the club is concerned but will also give Catalunya the chance to dig into some of the important questions we had to get to grips with such as what currency will we use, who do we trade with ( especially in their case if nobody recognises them) and how do we stop the drain of businesses who don’t like uncertainty and want access to EU trade. I don’t know how much this has been discussed there but it needs to be before any irrevocable decisions are made. A UDI would have been, and still would be, a disaster for them. Glad more sensible thoughts are prevailing, at least for the moment.

    Just with reference to the discussion above, it also for me validates the measured response of the club which supported the right to decide, deplored the violence but sat on the fence for the rest.

  6. October 11, 2017

    The UDI was only kicked down the road because Puigdemont’s party saw that despite the disgraceful police brutality of Oct 1, the Catalan independence would only be recognized by half of Catalunya, the Scottish prime minister and presidente Maduro (in related news, Maduro harshly criticized Rajoy over Oct 1, saying he did it all wrong, a true leader pays off government militia to shoot at protestors with live rounds and/or kidnap and disappear college students who resist).

    Junts Pel Sí is hoping that by suspending independence and offering dialogue, they will be seen as the side who tries to avoid conflict. They are no doubt hoping that any move Rajoy undertakes will result in more unrest in Catalunya and they are counting on supporters of independence to take the streets.

    In the meantime the important questions you asked are answered with a sprinkling of fairy dust.

    Which currency will we use? The euro of course!
    Who will we trade with? We’ll negotiate our re-entry into the EU immediately, they aren’t stupid, we are too important for them economically.
    What if we can’t get back into Europe? Then we can finally promote our own industry!
    How do we stop the drain of businesses? The businesses are not leaving, the businesses are not leaving, the businesses are not leaving…

    You get the idea.

  7. Jim
    October 11, 2017

    Yeah, those were pretty much the answers that failed to satisfy the majority in our country . . . Interestingly in our case it was very much the older Scots who were against. Just looking at the makeup of the crowds on TV it seems it’s not very much different..

    If the national government have any sense they talk, give them increased autonomy,making sure that they have tax raising powers included, and bingo, we can all get back to footie for the next few years. Btw, did Pique actually come out against independence ? Must have missed that. More power to him sticking his neck out defending the right to vote if that was his view.

    Mind you, I’m not one to talk. Just look at the fist we’re making with regard to the EU negotiations. Sigh, is the whole world going daft or is it just me getting cranky ? Everywhere, everything. Common sense and tolerance seem to be evaporating before our eyes. For example, ( humour me here) maybe some our our American friends caught up in the knee can explain to me why in the first place you would ever play a national anthem before a match between two club teams ?

    Anyway, back to footie this weekend, thank goodness. No point in uttering the single most useless sentence in football regarding rest for Messi so I’ll stick to noting that Barto has shuffled his sporting team as I suggested he would. Mind you, I don’t know any of them so no idea for the better or not. I suppose we’ll find out.

    • georgjorge
      October 12, 2017

      As a non-American, I would guess that the anthem is played so people in the stadium know which country they’re in. Otherwise, something like the Super Bowl could easily be mistaken for, say, a parlamentiary debate in Estonia. People should know where they are.

      You seem to be getting a bit cranky ; ) but I wouldn’t argue against globally rising stupidity levels, similar to global warming.

    • RealTimShady
      October 12, 2017

      I think the national anthem is played before matches largely out of tradition. It started with baseball like a hundred years ago (because everything in baseball started a hundred years ago). What’s interesting is that in the NFL, the players didn’t used to be on the field at all during the anthem (they remained in the locker rooms). That only changed in 2009, and only because the military paid the NFL to make it happen.

      There’s an awful lot of imposed patriotism and military aggrandizement at American sports.

      Oh, and they’re not “clubs,” they’re “franchises.” They’re not community-based entities, they’re for-profit businesses owned by individuals. You can’t understand American sports without recognizing that mindset.

  8. October 13, 2017

    Mind you the anthem is played before any sports game in the States, including high school games.

  9. Jim
    October 14, 2017

    Hmmm, not great so far is it ? Too slow ball movement, too many passengers who can play easy balls but can’t create and a formation that just doesn’t suit us.

    If you’re gonna play 4-4-2 you need to be aware of the downside. Main one is it takes Suarez quite often out of the danger area where he isn’t great. It’s only point should also be to free up Iniesta to go where he likes and run our game ( like in the last fifteen of the half) but we seem to end up with both Rakitic and Gomes on the right, Busi playing DM on his own and Iniesta still with a lot of ground to cover.

    For me, I’d bring on either SR who can carry the ball or Deulofeu who can occupy the left wing ( I know he’s not as good there) so that Suarez can get in amongst the two CBs. We also need to remove Rakitic . Whatever folks think he does, and it must be quite limited expectations, he’s not even doing that. Schoolboy stuff on the first, caught out of position so many times and so so slow to recover position. I’m not even sure what Gomes has been asked to do so I can’t really assess him . Loving Semedo though. He’s a real keeper. Intelligent player for me.

    Anyway, something needs to happen and it won’t be easy with them sitting in.

  10. Jim
    October 14, 2017

    Iniesta off ? ?? This had better work or I for one will be piling in on the decision. How many creative players do we have against a packed defence ?

    And Semedo ? And we’re leaving on Rakitic and Gomes ? And my wine’s finished ?

  11. TITO
    October 14, 2017

    Quite strange decisions.
    We lacked danger in front of their goal with that 4 4 2 the entire game. We know how AM plays and that means that we need more creativity in midfield. You wont get that with Rakitic who plays more as DM and Gomes.
    What good is control if we dont create anything????
    Should have been SR for Rakitic and Gerard for Gomes.

  12. ooga aga
    October 14, 2017

    We finished the game quite well and couldve taken the three points. Atletico were walled inside their box most of the game. Typical. Yes we dropped points. After the international break, against the colchoneros, i will take it.

  13. PPos
    October 14, 2017

    Well, what a game. We had the bad luck of conceding early and falling right into atletico’s plans. Man did they double park that bus!!! It’s no coincidence that as soon as Paulinho entered the game, we tied. Some of our best moments came because he was acting as a secondary center forward. Helping the attack have a reference point. I wish Gomes would have shot instead of passed to Suarez. I reckon he would have scored. A low drive across the net is hard to stop, but im not surprised he didn’t. He’s low in confidence. Time is running out for him. He might not make it past January. He wasn’t playing bad by any means but wasn’t playing great. He was circulating the ball too slowly. He was where attacks went to die. There’s just no penetration with his play. He doesn’t take people on. Wasn’t he supposed to be a good dribbler and shooter? I’ve never seen it.
    Rakitic was poor as well. Poor pressing led to that goal. It’s strange. He played great against Ukraine with Croatia. Messi was amazing as always but Atlético stifled him too much. They definitely fouled him for a penalty. Suarez was good as well. I’m glad he has recovered justvin time. Deulofeu! He was great. He came in and added the pace to cut in the final third that we needed. If he had started instead of Gomes. It could have been a different game. Deulofeu needs to shoot. He needs to turn that pace into goals. It was his great cross field ball that almost led to a goal. FIFA virus and all. I think we did alright. If we had had 10 more minutes we would have scored. No doubt

  14. Davour
    October 15, 2017

    Not too worried about the points dropped, after the int. break with Messi carrying a nation on his back, but rather that we had so little threat going forward during large parts of the game. Messi dropped deep and there was nothing – the old problem the false 9, and it does not work well when playing something close to 442. Gomes could not offer a threat from the wing, but did rather well as LCM, I think. Another player I would start instead of Rakitic, at the moment. Andre has more purpose and energy; Ivan takes too much time for every decision (except playing it back). He offers some solidity in possession and cover in defence, but at the moment I would start Gomes or Roberto instead of him. Especially since Iniesta is not reaching his normal standard at the moment, which means we need som creativity on the RCM, too.

    I like Semedo a lot, and think he will be great, but to me he had a tougher time this game and struggled partly. Obviously, it’s a learning curve and I’m not worried, but it gives a hint as to why EV has not played him more in away games.

    Lovely how Deulofeu came on and brought speed and movement; exactly how he should be used, to my mind – super sub.

    And let us hope this goal brings confidence back to Suarez – we desperately need him.

  15. realdox
    October 15, 2017

    what a great game we played..I will like to hear people assessment of Andre Gomes when he slide into iniesta position not when he played as right winger ..if there’s​one thing about EV that’s stand out to me it will be an on field tactician..I will take this as a plus because of international break and other conditions too.

    • Davour
      October 15, 2017

      During the game I felt he did alright, and after catching a video of his CM-highlights, I have to say there were some promising signs of initiative in attack – dribbles, passes, movements. Still some way to go, but in the right direction.

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