‘Mes que un club’ for real

“Mes que un club” has become one of the more misunderstood phrases floating about. People wrap weird notions around it, say that Barça isn’t “mes que un club” when it pops for a high-priced superstar or lets a Masia talent fly the coop. Hell, even the club itself has expanded its meaning.

What it represents harkens back to the days when it was still a big football club, a Catalan enterprise more than a multinational corporation based in Catalunya. The club has a rich history that encompasses so many aspects of life. It includes the politically motivated assassination of a club president. It includes the Camp Nou being, for some time, the only place in which Catalan could be spoken. It’s the club’s deep, rich history as this entity that that represents more than wee blokes having a kickabout on a manicured lawn. Barça is political even when it doesn’t want to be, even when it isn’t, even when businessmen wrap themselves in the Senyera and say things they don’t mean to avoid saying what they really want or mean.

The upcoming home leg of the Classic has been moved to December from its original October 26 date. It has been moved because of the manifestation of a struggle that puts the club squarely in the middle of it all, not only as an affected party. When prison sentences were handed down to the politicians who organized the region’s independence referendum, there was only one way this was all going to go down: millions rising up in protest, at least one postponed home match and the club having to say something.

When the sentences came down, the club issued a statement that said, essentially, “Prison isn’t the answer.” It’s as close to a political statement that the club has made since coming out for the right to decide in the matter of independence, but this one was a little stronger. Some will say that it artfully trod the line between taking a side in the cause and remaining a disintersted multinational.

Nah.

The strength and truth of the statement came in its call for, “the release of convicted civic and political leaders.” Prison isn’t the answer. Not for this. And irrespective of where you stand in the matter of independence, in the center or on the sidelines, the club has given succor. “See? They don’t support independence.” “See? They want the prisoners released just as we do.” It’s also a far cry from the mealy mouthed statement that came out after FC Barcelona decided to play a match behind closed doors, while heads were being cracked outside as people did indeed exercise their right to choose. That decision was wrong then, and would be wrong now.

We can wonder what the club would have chosen in the face of the extraordinary events that are going on in Barcelona, and look set to continue for some time. Was the decision to postpone the match the correct one? Good question. The club, of course, in its statement about the match, said it had the fullest confidence that its supporters could handle their business and the match could go on.

The Club has the utmost confidence in the civic and pacific attitude of its members and fans who always express themselves in exemplary fashion at Camp Nou.

Football is passion. I had no real idea what being culer was, in many ways, until my first live Classic. I arrived early in my excitement, and the wave of scorn that greeted the Real Madrid players as they came out for the warmup was visceral enough to surf on. It was amazing, chilling and thrilling. Even if the seats for most matches in the Camp Nou are stuffed with tourists such as myself when I come to town for a match, the Classics are different. They feel different, the atmosphere is different. Every kick, touch, foul, gesticulation matters. In that environment, having a match in Barcelona about two weeks after the sentences that precipitated the massive uprising would have been misguided. The league makes a lot of boneheaded calls, but it’s pretty difficult to argue with this one. The fans would have been awesome, as they usually are. But adding so much fuel to an already burning fire of a political match at a highly political time in a city where heads are once again being cracked by truncheons? Nopenopenopenope.

You can also wonder if the board didn’t breathe a sigh of relief at having someone take the decision of potentially damaging the product away from them. It’s hard to sell sponsors on your bright, shiny thing if, in the case of just one possible occurrence, there are police in the stands to ensure that matchgoers don’t display independence flags, to try to control the chants that would undoubtedly break out from people doing exactly what the club says it stands for, exercising their freedom of expression. And the authorities have tried to censor the Senyera before at Champions League matches, even as they can’t stop the chant for independence that begins at 17:14.

Football clubs make political statements all the time. Corporations don’t have politics, even as they do. But rare is the club that is so completely ingrained into the political life of a region as FC Barcelona. It’s at times such as this one that people fully understand what “mes que un club” means. Yes, any football club based in a city roiled by protests would have had to postpone a match. But Barça, a symbol of Catalanisme, who sends players to the Catalan national team, whose team has been called “the people’s army” by journalists, has a bigger stake in this thing. The astute will note that the club makes liberal use of the Senyera, rather than the more politically pointed Estelada. We see both in the stands at matches, and debate roils Catalans and culers who are or aren’t Catalan.

But the larger point worth making, the bigger question is how long is the club going to be permitted to sit on the sidelines, walking a line of “We support your right to choose.” Intense times make people want their institutions to take a stand, are you for us or against us? Not being for either can be interpreted the same as being against both. And it will be at that time, watching the club navigate the thicket, that people will gain an even deeper understanding of the oft-used, overused “mes que un club.”

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.