Barcelona has a long tradition of opposing fascism
Last month, on the same day that Spanish police invaded Catalonia to forcibly prevent people participating in the independence referendum, a bizarre spectacle took place in the Nou Camp Stadium, home of Barcelona FC. Arguably, the world’s most glamorous club side played a game against Las Palmas in front of empty terraces. The shouts on the pitch of players of the calibre of Messi, Suarez and Iniesta echoed around the surreally empty stadium with its capacity of 100 000. Outside, a crowd approaching that size was informed 25 minutes before kick-off that they would not be admitted. Hours earlier the club had requested to the Spanish football authority, La Liga, that the match be postponed in light of the violent scenes accompanying the police repression. The Spanish FA rejected the request (threatening Barcelona with a six-point penalty deduction if they cancelled the game) so not admitting fans was the club’s attempt to make known its dissatisfaction with the situation.
More than a club
To rub salt into the wound, LA Liga President, Javier Tebas, authorised the Las Palmas players to play with a Spanish flag displayed on their shirts in a blatantly provocative gesture of Castilian nationalism. The club issued a statement expressing resentment over how it had been treated: FC Barcelona, in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defence of the nation, to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to self-determination, condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights.
The current turmoil swirling around the club has particularly affected defender Gerald Pique who has been an outspoken supporter of Catalonian independence. Although a key member of Spain’s hugely successful national team, Pique had found himself being jeered in recent internationals by home fans due to his political commitment. He has even been criticised by team-mates in the national team, but that did not stop him posting an image on social media of himself voting in the referendum on 1sr October.
This latest controversy involving Barcelona and its players is just the latest in a series of clashes with the Spanish state that have characterised the history of the club, especially since the era of the Spanish Civil War. Barcelona’s radical football heritage possibly begins with the club's creation in 1899, with the decision to adopt the iconic blue and maroon striped kit (known as the blaugrana) influenced by them being the colours of the sans-culottes in the French Revolution. As Catalan culture was suppressed by the fascist regime of Franco from the 1930s onwards, football became an integral part of the campaign to sustain the self-determination of the people. The club has adopted the motto ‘Més que un club’, (More than a Club) as part of a recognition of the crucial inter-twining of sport and politics in the eyes of millions of supporters.
Murder in Madrid
If one point could be said to mark the real beginning of the politicisation of the game in Barcelona it would be the murder of club president, Josep Sunyol, in the first year of the Spanish Civil War. Sunyol was from a wealthy background yet found himself attracted to a left-wing version of Catalan nationalism in the 1920s. He joined Accio Catala, a pro-independence organisation with anarchist sympathies. In the following decade, he was elected to the Spanish parliament as a socialist politician and became an outspoken critic of the dictator, Primo de Rivera, who sought to use military repression to quash the rising tide of class struggle as the country grappled with the impact of the Great Depression. Sunyol was instrumental in the appointment of the club’s first female director in 1934 and founded a journal, La Rambla, which innovatively combined political analysis with football news. Tragically, Sunyol’s high profile as a spokesperson for Catalan separatism and the left was his undoing in 1936.
On a trip to Madrid, possibly to coordinate resistance to General Franco’s coup attempt, right-wing militia stopped, Sunyol’s car at a checkpoint. His driver had become lost in the outskirts of the city and mistakenly driven into a fascist-controlled zone. Sunyol and his entourage had been singing republican songs and waving the Catalan flag from the vehicle, thinking themselves safe in a loyalist sector. Sunyol was recognised by the fascists at the checkpoint and summarily executed, along with his driver and one other person. Once Franco had secured power, three years later, all mention of Josep Sunyol and his tragic death was banned from public discussion as part of the wider crackdown on expressions of Catalan identity. Today, as nationalism and the left have surged back into prominence, Sunyol’s memory has been reclaimed: the club’s directors’ box is named after Sunyol; a memorial has been erected at the scene of his murder near Madrid; and last year a documentary on his life and times was released in cinemas. Sunyol’s death, and posthumous fame, are both testimony to the fusion of football and politics that is central to the team’s importance in the region.
Following Franco’s victory in the civil war, the dictator adopted Real Madrid as the favoured team of the Castilian state and consequently, their arch rivals, Barcelona, became an unofficial focus of counter-cultural resistance to the fascist establishment. The Catalan flag (known as the senyera) and language were banned in the postwar period but, of course, it was impossible to police the latter inside a football stadium. The significance attached today to the ‘El Clasico’ fixture between the two clubs stems from this era when they came to symbolically represent the conflict between left and right in the eyes of many of their supporters. This was certainly the way Franco perceived the relationship between the two clubs, as proved on a couple of infamous occasions.
In 1943, they went head-to-head in the semi-final of the Spanish Cup (renamed the Generalissimo’s Cup in Franco’s honour). The Catalan club looked to be in a comfortable position after taking a 3-0 lead from the first leg in Barcelona. Bizarrely, the blaugrana, were then routed 11-1 in the second leg in Madrid! It is possible the Catalans were totally outplayed but perhaps more likely that the result was linked to a visit to the Barcelona changing-room at half time by Franco’s director of state security. According to one report, the Barca players were threatened with deportation if the outcome of the match turned out to be unacceptable to the Generalissimo. They were cautioned: “Do not forget that some of you are only playing because of the generosity of the regime that has forgiven you for your lack of patriotism.
Franco exerted his considerable influence on the El Clasico again the following decade when both clubs were pursuing the services of the player widely regarded as the best in the world at the time, Alfredo Di Stefano-nicknamed The Blonde Arrow .The Argentine striker participated in talks with Barcelona representatives that were so far advanced that he turned out for the club in four friendly games in 1953. With a deal to bring the world’s greatest player to the club, he regarded as politically subversive, Franco promptly introduced a law banning the purchase of foreign players! When Barcelona complained, Franco’s representatives informed the club the only way around the ban was to accept a ridiculous deal in which Di Stefano would play for both the big clubs on an alternate basis-one season for Real, one for Barca and so on. At this point, the Catalans understandably gave up the pursuit of the player, only to learn the ban had been rescinded and the Madrid team had signed Di Stefano! To rub salt into the wound, in his first game, the Argentine scored four in a 5-0 victory over…. Barcelona! There was no direct evidence of Franco’s intervention in the case but it was General Moscardo, minister for sport and one of his key acolytes, who conducted the negotiations with Di Stefano’s agents.
The Cruyff turn
The Generalissimo was not so lucky in the 1970s, however, when he was once more intent on bringing the world’s greatest player to Real Madrid-this time, Johan Cruyff from Holland. A rising tide of class struggle and growing international isolation were indications that the Franco dictatorship was on borrowed time. Symbolically, the politically- aware Dutchman stated that he would not be willing to play for a club that was widely perceived to be part of the dictator’s propaganda machine. Instead, to the delight of Catalans, Cruyff in 1973 signed for the blaugrana (even though they were bottom of La Liga at the time) and promptly led them to the Spanish championship in his first season. His popularity was only intensified by naming his son, Jordi, after Catalonia’s patron saint despite being warned by the government that it was illegal to use Catalan names. The highlight of Cruyff’s momentous first season at the Nou Camp was a 5-0 away victory in Madrid that seemed to many to symbolise the resurgence of Catalan nationalism at the expense of the ailing fascist dictatorship. In the same year, a famous photo was taken of Cruyff being led off the pitch by Spanish police following a red card in a game against Malaga. The image attained symbolic importance for Barcelona fans, representing for them a hero of the nationalist movement defying the power of the state.
In December 1975, a few months after Franco’s death, Barcelona fans, for the first time in decades, proudly waved the Catalan flag inside the stadium. The ban on symbols of Catalan nationalism, such as the senyera flag, was still in place so the willingness of supporters to defy the state reflected the growing confidence of the working-class that would bring down the entire fascist establishment a few years later. When Cruyff died last year, a local newspaper superimposed his image over the iconic photo of Che Guevara from the 1960s, encapsulating the view of his political significance among Catalans.