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.