The last week has been an exhilarating one for many Catalan nationalists, with hundreds of thousands of people marking la Diada, the national day of Catalonia, by marching through the streets of Barcelona calling for independence from Spain. Estimates of the number of people thronging the city's streets, waving the Catalan flag and holding up banners calling for the creation of a new European state, varied from 600,000 to 1.5 million.
Perhaps the most famous current living Catalan could not attend as he no longer lives in the city, but he did address the crowd via a video-link. Former Barcelona coach and Spanish international midfielder Josep Guardiola appeared on a big screen holding up his symbolic sheet of green paper to say (in Catalan): “From New York, here you have one more vote,” said Guardiola. This was greeted by huge roars, and taken by many to say that the club with which Guardiola is so associated was backing the call for an independence referendum.
This feeling was also heightened by
suspiciously well-timed stories which appeared in Catalan sports
paper Sport the day before the march, which claimed the team's second
jersey next season would be red and yellow striped, inspired by the
senyera, the national flag of Catalonia. These were neither confirmed
nor denied by the club, as president Sandro Rosell, new head coach
Tito Vilanova and club captain Carlés Puyol made the traditional
trip to lay flowers at the monument to Rafael Casanova, an icon of
on the morning of September 11.
As highly visible faces of Catalonia's most prominent institution anyone associated with the club has of course been questioned about whenever they faced the press this week. At this point the club’s Spanish international players have plenty of experience in batting away such queries, and on Thursday winger Pedro Rodríguez (born in Tenerife) was diplomatic when asked if he agreed with Guardiola’s stance on Catalan independence.
"Guardiola has said what he feels, they are personal statements and should be respected,” Pedro said. Pep’s successor Tito was also asked about the issue in his pre-game press conference on Friday, and also gave a careful reply - “We should let people express their views peacefully, as Guardiola did,” he said on Friday. “He can say what he likes, because we are in a democracy".
Former Barcelona president Joan Laporta was not so backward about coming forward with an opinion. Laporta, who when in charge at the Camp Nou was never shy about using the club to further his own political ambitions (which have since been thwarted by the Calatan electorate), gave an interview to Catalan nationalist online magazine Nació Digital the day before the march. He used this to point out he had always represented the club at la Diada events and rue that he could not have lead the club in a Catalan state: “I would have liked to be president of Barça in an independent Catalonia,” he said. “It would be nice.”
Laporta’s successor (and former colleague, but now bitter rival) Sandro Rosell, also attended Tuesday’s march, but only in a personal capacity. Careful to manage the image projected he posed for photographers but did not speak with any reporters while there. On Thursday he did say however that "If Catalonia were independent I don't have any doubts that Barça would continue in the LFP (the Spanish league), just as Monaco play in the French league.”
Rosell was clever to frame the issue in footballing terms, and to raise an important issue for many blaugrana supporters, inside and outside of Catalonia. Outright independence remains an unlikely event in the short term, but the odds on it happening in the coming years have shortened during the current economic crisis, with the regional government regularly pointing out that Catalans pay more in taxes than they receive back in revenue from the central government in Madrid. This opens up the very important question of what would then happen to FC Barcelona.
Despite what you might think from some of their marketing, especially when Laporta was president, Barça are not the Catalan national side. An actual representative team, made up of players born in the region who represent various clubs throughout the Spanish and other leagues plays a few games each year, usually around Christmas. They last played in December 2011, when a Johan Cruyff coached selection including Barca players Xavi Hernández, Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fábregas and Víctor Valdés drew 0-0 with Tunisia in front of 36,545 supporters in the Catalan capital's Estadio Olímpico Lluís Companys.
Were Catalonia to become independent this would be a ready-made national team to compete at a very high standard, and would likely be readily accepted into UEFA and FIFA, where they could automatically challenge to win trophies.
What would happen at club level, however, looks much more problematic. There was a short-lived Lliga Catalana during the Spanish Civil War, although the Barcelona team spent much of the conflict touring North and South America under the management of Irishman Patrick O’Connell and rejoined the Spanish league once the war had finished and have played there since.
A Catalan Cup was re-established in
1984, and is held each year, although the seriousness with which
Barcelona take it was shown by the cancellation of this season’s
rejigged competition final against city rivals Espanyol, as a date
could not be found to play it. Should La Lliga begin again it would
be dominated by Barca, and to a lesser extent Espanyol, with lower
tier teams such as Gimnàstic de Tarragona, Lleida, Girona, Sabadell,
Lerida and Hospitalet de Llobregat (who would all likely be beaten by
a Barcelona reserve or youth side) just likely making up the numbers.
Champions League qualification would be a given for Barca, even if
they would likely lose UEFA co-efficient points in the short
The biggest issue Rosell would have with a new Catalan domestic competition however is more than slightly awkward for him (or Laporta) to detail in public. Despite all the success on the pitch during Guardiola's historic last four seasons in charge, Barcelona are currently an estimated €578 million in debt. This is apparently a just about manageable situation considering their current assets, cash reserves and especially commercial revenues.
The lions' share of the latter however (€140 million a season through their domestic TV deal) is generated through their sometimes bitter but always compelling rivalry with Real Madrid. Leave the Spanish league, forego the typical four of five high profile clásicos a year, and Barca would be in serious financial bother. So much bother that paying the wages of all the Catalan players named above, and the club's Argentine talisman Leo Messi, would quickly become difficult.
This explains why Rosell was quick to float the case of Monaco this week. It maybe does not work quite perfectly as a precedent as that principality has much closer political, economic and defence ties than an independent Catalonia would have with Spain, but the example of Welsh teams Cardiff and Swansea competing in the English leagues is also there to be called upon.
But then there is no guarantee that UEFA or FIFA would be agree to a club side playing across national borders however, as their cold reactions to regularly mooted plans for Scottish teams Celtic and Glasgow Rangers to join the English Premier League show. Nobody really knows what would happen, but none of the possible sporting scenarios seem to work in Barcelona's favour.
Knowing this it could be that Guardiola, Rosell, Laporta and everyone else associated with the club, from players to fans, are all committed sufficiently to the cause of Catalan nationalism to risk the potentially damaging fall-out that would ensue from the creation of a new independent country. Or that they have not all thought it through properly. Or that they think (or hope) it's unlikely to happen and feel they are free to just go along with the prevailing mood in the region.