Once Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola announced he was retiring, the season ending Copa del Rey final was set up as a fitting send-off for the most successful trainer in the club’s history. That the game was against an Athletic Bilbao side overseen by his friend and mentor Marcelo Bielsa seemed just right. All seemed set for a memorable shared football occasion between two of La Liga's most storied clubs.
Then news started circulating that Athletic and Barcelona fans groups (i.e. Basques and Catalans) were planning to whistle the Spanish national anthem before the game. This was not a huge shock, as you can’t follow Spanish football for long without learning that clubs work as containers of and symbols for local culture and pride. Foreign football writers soon learn to be careful about respecting different points of view - using ‘La Liga' club not ‘Spanish' club for example. Match reports and previews generally steer clear of political points, with the different rivalries just bringing some nice extra colour for readers. So a few whistles were to be expected.
The first hint that the Copa final might be more politicised than normal was Real Madrid declining to offer their Estadio Santiago Bernabéu as a neutral venue. There was also the Elephantgate scandal which looks to have ruled the King out of the game through injury, but the real feeling that something really different was brewing came on May 10th, when an outraged group of ultra right-wing organisations received permission from the Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Madrid (TSJM) to march “for Spanish unity” on the day of the final. The groups (which included La Falange, el Nudo Patriota Español, el Movimiento Católico Español, la Asociación Vieja Escuela Madrid and others) were claiming they needed to respond to “Basque and Catalan separatist provocation” and an intention to “insult all of Spain and all Spanish people”. ‘One flag against separatism' was to be their rallying call.
Such talk of provocation and insults moved things beyond the usual squabbles between competing supporters and club delegates. The last I’d heard of La Falange was when reading about the Spanish Civil War, and the references were generally not positive. I’d assumed the group had faded away in recent decades with democracy replacing fascism and all, but a quick google search brought up a website which had nothing about football or sport, but featured an article entitled ‘Democracy, the loincloth of tyranny’.
Permitting these guys to march seemed like a strange idea. Cristina Cifuentes, head of the central (PP) government's delegation in Madrid, justified the decision by invoking free speech, saying you can’t ban a march just because you don’t agree with the marchers’ views. This had me for a while, until I remembered that in three and a half years living in Spain I’d seen that not everyone gets to protest exactly when and where they want. It just two weeks since there were indignados forcibly removed from Sol.
Surely the authorities could let the right-wingers march, but maybe not when lots of football fans were also in town. It is not that unusual for there to be some trouble around big games. The last few months have seen Madrid police charging young Atlético supporters celebrating their Europa League success in the city centre, and, more seriously, a 28-year-old Athletic fan Iñigo Cabacas dying after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by Ertzaintza (Basque police) members reportedly trying to break up a disturbance after a game.
It was clearly time for some senior political figure to weigh in with a considered and balanced statement to satisfy all sides and take some of the heat out of the situation. On Tuesday Comunidad de Madrid president Esperanza Aguirre (also PP) decided to get involved. This was promising as she'd been keen to be associated with successful Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid teams in recent weeks, but her contribution was not as I’d expected.
“Insulting the flag or the anthem are crimes under the Penal Code,” said Aguirre. “We must not stand for this, and my opinion is the Copa final should be abandoned if there are whistles during the anthem, and played behind closed doors. This trophy was awarded by the President of the Republic when there was a republic, Franco when Franco was here and now by his majesty the King. This is a Spanish competition. If there are teams that do not want to play in a Spanish tournament, then don't play. But what cannot be the case is that it is converted into an act of hostile protest against Spain and Spaniards.”
Unsurprisingly, bringing Franco into the debate did not calm things down. Barcelona football club president Sandro Rosell and defender Gerard Piqué responded by saying supporters should be free to express their own personal views. Others in Catalonia showed impressive memories. Ex-Barcelona president and current vice-president of the RFEF (Spanish football association) told Onda Cero Catalunya radio that he recalled a final between Barca and Espanyol (in 1957) when there were protests against the then head of state: “If in those times the game was not abandoned by a dictator, I don’t believe that after so many years of freedom and democracy you can gag people attending a game of football.” The president of Cataluña Acción, Santiago Espot, went even further back (to 1925): "Aguirre is talking about doing the same as Primo de Rivera, when he closed Les Corts for whistles during the Royal March".
Then, as chance had it, on Wednesday I was speaking with football author Jimmy Burns who is currently in Spain promoting his new book 'La Roja, a journey through Spanish football'. As someone closely plugged into Spanish culture and society (his grandfather was doctor and writer Gregorio Marañon and his father worked in the British embassy during WWII), Burns brings his own personal perspective to the development of the game in Spain.
The book is filled with knowledgeable interviews and choice anecdotes and shows how in Spain football and politics have been entwined almost from the first kick-off. Barcelona president Josep Sunyol was shot by nationalist forces during the Civil War. Athletic’s Estadio San Mames was the safest place for expressing Basque identity during the Franco years.
You should always however be careful to avoid any simplistic or mythologised readings of the game's past, Burns told Trans-Iberian, and unfortunately the opposite had happened this week:
“I know Esperanza Aguirre quite well, and she is a very dynamic, charismatic and generally intelligent politician,” he said. “I think on this particular issue what she said was unfortunate. She made a political calculation and said something which clearly appeals to a certain section on the right wing of her party. In Catalonia and the Basque country it has gone down like a ton of bricks. Ironically, her justification for doing this was that football was becoming too politicised. But clearly she herself has politicised the final in a way it probably would not have if she had kept her mouth shut.”
Burns was not wrong. Basque politicians understandably felt they had to reply to Aguirre. Socialist ‘lehendakari’ Patxi López asked her to take back such “unfortunate comments”. PNV leader in Bilbao Andoni Ortuzar suggested that instead of whistling during the Spanish anthem, fans could sing songs in Basque or Catalan.
Politicians in Madrid were also called in. The minister of the interior Jorge Fernández Díaz stopped short of actually criticising his party colleague, but said the authorities would be better transmitting “serenity, calm and tranquility” and added that he “completely disagreed” with the TSJM ’s authorisation of the right-wing extremists’ march. PSOE leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba took the opportunity to say that clubs should contribute to the policing costs for such high-risk matches.
From a sportswriter's perspective it looks like the whole controversy has less to do with historical rivalries than with current issues facing Spain. Politicians have plenty of more important problems to be talking about and working on, and football has been deliberately dragged in to get people talking about something other than austerity, bank bail-outs, unemployment etc etc. That is what politicians do I guess, but heating up an already volatile situation is neither big nor clever. Some right-wing politicians in particular appear to be taking advantage of the situation to promote a particular conservative agenda. Guardiola's last game has already been overshadowed. And now it’s difficult to know what to expect from the day of the final.
About 60,000 Basque and Catalan fans are expected in Madrid, including 10,000 travelling without tickets for the game. Both clubs have been given designated ‘fans zones’ - La Casa del Athletic (or Athletic Hiria) is by the Puente del Rey on Madrid Río. Barcelona fans are asked to gather in the Parque Matadero. These are both sensibly close to the Estadio Vicente Calderón venue, and well away from the Falange-lead march, which begins at 6PM and goes between Plaza de Alonso Martínez and Plaza de Chamberí (a map is here). 2,300 police will be around to control the situation, including mounted officers, canine units and helicopters.
All this made me almost forget about the actual game, which kicks off at 10PM Friday and is previewed here. The previously all-conquering Barcelona side will want to send their coach off with a smile, while Bielsa’s exciting young Athletic team are well capable of springing a surprise. The hope is that everyone afterwards is just talking about the football.