Javier Tebas, the head of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), has said that the Copa del Rey final should be suspended immediately if the crowd whistles the national anthem and the king. Let’s be clear: there will be whistling. There is always whistling. This is a cup competition named after a symbol of the oppression–real or imagined–that many Catalans feel and beginning with the playing of an anthem literally named the Royal March. The other thing we should be clear about is that this happens all the time.
It’s kind of incongruous: the best performing team in the cup named after the thing they are most against is Barcelona in the Copa del Rey. It used to be the Copa del Generalisimo during The Dark Years, when the sight of a blaugrana-clad captain taking the trophy from el caudillo feels as incoherent now as it probably did then.
Barcelona has won 10 more Copa del Rey trophies than Real Madrid, although both teams have competed in the same number of finals. Surprisingly, Real Madrid has won 19 while coming in runner-up 20 times. Barcelona sits at 29 heading into their 40th final, having lost just 10 appearances in the final. 9 of those victories for the blaugrana came during the reign of Francisco Franco (1939-1976). Athletic Bilbao grabbed 10 in that time period, but Real Madrid managed just 6, including exactly 0 during their European dominance from 1955-1960, though they did lose in 3 finals, all of them at the Santiago Bernabeu to Athletic Bilbao (1) and Atletico Madrid (2).
This wealth of success in a competition that seems expressly designed for capitaleños, being named after centralizing figures, is a strange phenomenon to witness. There’s a vein of protest, however, and a link to the oppression that was carried out in the name of anti-dissidence. It is easy enough to see it as a middle finger the very establishment you are against: we can beat you at your own game. Literally.
Tebas’ statements reflect a strange phenomenon within sport, itself a reflection of general society: polarization. The general nature of the day’s discourse includes lambasting one’s ideological opponents as creatures of a lesser species, putting pressure on dissident voices, and attack as a form of defense. Hyper sensitivity is hardly the problem: when Tebas demands fealty to a monarchical structure, he is requiring a singular approach to football, with centralization a main component. Hyper sensitivity shows us the nuance within a culture that has smoothed out to be as palatable for as many people as possible. Catalan separatists may not be your cup of tea, but they are certainly worthy of having around given that they–if they are truly interested in the nature of their own political positions, which is hardly a given in today’s climate–bring a different perspective to what may seem a simple question.
In a country that features the Valle de los Caidos, it’s not difficult to imagine the past as present. There are perhaps hyperbolic analogies to be made, but history is not dead in Spain. ETA is still making headlines and the central police have recently attacked voters. The question is not really whether they were legally voting, but what in the world they were doing voting for removing themselves and their homelands from the country in the first place. Tebas knows that the Sevilla fans will not jeer the national anthem–the city’s coat of arms is literally the king presiding over things with a motto meaning, roughly, “you [the city] never abandoned me [the king]”. The Catalans will whistle alone, but whistle they will, come what may. The whistling isn’t about football, it’s about politics, about identity, and about a middle finger to those who say they can’t. Some may call it childish, which it can be, or one can call it brave, which it also can be. Regardless, it will happen and then, after all of that, after the buildup and the screeching in the media and from podiums, the football will happen.
And what football it will be: Sevilla versus Barcelona, a clash of styles, of histories, and of competitive spirits. This will not–and nor should it be–a walk in the park. It took some kind of comeback to get a point at the Sanchez Pizjuan just a couple of weeks ago–an effort that many a cule has blamed for the subsequent loss in Rome that dumped Barça out of the Champions League. This should not be much different, except that Messi will start. Ivan Rakitic, a Sevillista in many ways, is looking to keep up his perfect record in the Copa, having won all 3 of the seasons he has been with Barça– and this time against his old club.
But it is not the actual match that interests me. It is not the storylines leading up to it that grab my attention. It is the before for political reasons and the after for reasons that stretch into distant future. This could very well be the last final of Andres Iniesta’s Barcelona career. This is a man who has earned the right to do whatever he wants, but it is also a man who has inspired so many in a such a diverse set of ways that it is hard to overstate his influence on barcelonismo. I once wrote a piece about him that finished with the thought that watching Iniesta is to watch possibility.
There is something about Iniesta that touches my soul. It is the pain in his face, the graying of his beard, the distant sadness of his looks. For most players, there is a sense that they would be good craic, as the Irish say. That hanging with them could be some sort of memorable affair that left you dazzled. With Iniesta, it seems more likely that you would sit by a fireplace and talk. And that is what makes his potential loss so much more devastating. He seems like a genuinely nice person, with a lot of pain in his past, who would give really nice hugs. He also awkwardly plays the bongos with his famous musician friends in an interview on Informe Robinson, which was weird and cute. He wears old man sweaters and seems totally at ease like that. He makes millions of euros and has a vineyard and is probably moving to China and there’s just no stopping Father Time from ruining everything and
Andres Iniesta will be missed in a way that Puyol and Xavi are not. There is some large part of the soul of this team embedded within him, as if he is the last bastion of something that was there and is eroding. I feel old writing this. I feel old feeling this. I feel heavy and sad and I don’t want it to end. But all things come to an end, even Andres Iniesta.
Here, then, is his chance to subvert the sadness, to upend all of it. He can score the winning goal and smile that little smile, and tell the cameras what an assist it was from whoever, and we will all know that he is off in the dark, whistling a tune as he heads to his future. There will be whistling. There is always whistling.