As if FC Barcelona wasn’t already the elephant in the room, it stepped even more squarely into the middle of the dispute on October 5.
Barca put out a statement. And it did so just four days after Catalans had voted in a landslide — about 90 percent — for their region to break away from Spain in a referendum that was unsanctioned and deemed illegal by the capital and the constitutional court, which was then obstructed in savage fashion by federal police forces.
Barcelona had always functioned as a kind of rallying point for the long-simmering secessionist sentiment in the region, which traces back many decades, if not centuries. The club’s uniforms are basically wearable Catalan flags. Around the 17 minute and 14 second-mark of Barca’s home games, the fans usually chant for Catalan independence. Why then? Because 1714 was the year that Barcelona was conquered and absorbed into a newly unified Spanish kingdom.
As well-known Spanish soccer journalist Sid Lowe put it in The Guardian, “That identification with Catalonia, while nuanced, shifting, unevenly embraced, sometimes vague and often problematic, is part of what gives Barça an explicitly socio-political dimension.”
Star defender Gerard Pique, who has always been vocal about his pride in being Catalan, made a public show of going out to vote — although he didn’t disclose how he voted.
On Oct. 1, the day of the referendum, as fate and an unimaginable lack of foresight would have it, Barca had a home game scheduled with Las Palmas. As government forces cracked down on the voting, which went ahead in spite of Madrid’s best efforts, Barca won 3-0 in a stadium empty but for the players, coaches and ball boys. The club wanted to postpone the game, but word from the league offices was that they would not only be forfeiting the match, but lose another three points in the standings.
On Friday, Catalonia’s regional parliament voted overwhelmingly to act on the referendum and declare independence from the Spanish kingdom. The federal government quickly moved to dissolve the Catalan chamber, take control of the secessionist region and call for new elections there.
It’s entirely clear what happens now. Catalonia is hardly unanimous in its decision, with dissenting parliamentarians boycotting the independence vote, leading to the deceptive 70-10 tally in a 135-seat body.
Which means it’s also hard to say how FC Barcelona will fare in the wake of perhaps the biggest political event in Spain since the death of the dictator General Franco in 1975, leading to the resumption of the monarchy.
So, about that statement.
“These last few days, Catalonia has been going through one of the most transcendental
periods in its recent history,” the club wrote in a fairly lengthy note, signed by the club’s embattled president Josep Maria Bartomeu. “FC Barcelona, as one of the leading institutions in the country, demands a process of dialogue and negotiations to find political solutions to the situation happening in Catalonia, and for this to be done with the utmost respect for the wish of the majority of Catalan people to decide on their future.”
“We are More than a Club,” it continued. “And it is precisely because of that that we feel that it is our duty to stand by our people, under such difficult circumstances as those that are being experienced right now.”
“Long live Barca! Long live Catalonia,” the statement declared in Catalan, before signing off.
Barca, in short, was calling for dialogue, peace and unity. But it was also calling for the referendum to be honored and an arbitration process to commence. You can read that several different ways. But it cannot possibly be understood as a denouncement of the rogue vote.
So now what?
What happens to one of the juggernauts of the global game — which was able to ascend to its perch in part because it played in one of the world’s biggest and most competitive leagues — if the city of Barcelona is no longer actually in Spain? While probably not a priority to a lot of Catalan people, these are questions worth asking. La Liga’s hard-line anti-referendum president Javier Tebas has already said that there would be no place for Barca in the Spanish league if its province broke away.
There seem to be three possible scenarios.
One, Spain stays together as the central government consolidates its power and either outmaneuvers or overpowers the secessionist movement. Barca’s place in La Liga, while hardly a primary concern, would be assured. But the club would become even more of a symbol for Catalan identity and separatist ideology. And the games with Real Madrid, and perhaps other Spanish clubs — Las Palmas, in that now-infamous game behind closed doors, had Spanish flags sowed onto its jerseys just for the occasion — would only grow more tense.
Two, Catalonia breaks away but a deal is brokered to keep Barca and the other Catalan clubs, Espanyol and Girona, in La Liga — and probably ensure the inclusion of Catalan clubs in lower divisions as well. There’s a precedent for this. Welsh soccer clubs are active in the English pyramid of leagues. (Then again, Wales remains a part of the United Kingdom and has never seriously threatened to secede.) And, likewise, AS Monaco plays in the French league even though it technically plays in another nation. (By the way, Catalonia, like Monaco, borders France.)
From a soccer perspective, this makes the most sense for everyone. While, politically, it would seem like Catalonia was having its cake and eating it too, both La Liga and FC Barcelona are immeasurably better for their continued association. But it would apparently require a change in the Spanish laws for Barca to stay in La Liga from an independent Catalonia, potentially making the process long and fraught.
Or three, Catalonia breaks away and Barca, as well as Espanyol and Girona, are kicked out of La Liga. Now, they either have to form their own Catalan league, join up with some foreign league or perhaps begin an international super league, as has been intermittently discussed by clubs displeased with the limitations of their domestic revenue streams.
This would have a dramatic impact on soccer and an even larger one on the club itself. A sizable chunk of Barca’s income stems from its television revenue. Recently, the league began pooling its money and dividing it equitably, after the Barca-Real duopoly had hogged half the pot for years. Without regular El Clasicos, those rights would be worth much less both to Barca and what remains of La Liga. Meanwhile, the Catalan clubs would have to come up with sufficiently worthy opposition to put on a competitive and compelling league.
In all likelihood, Barca would suffer enormously from being ostracizing from La Liga. And La Liga, likewise, would be diluted if its duopoly at the top of the competitive heap became a Real Madrid monopoly.
But Barca will probably have little say in the matter. Its fate is in the hands of politicians, whose actions could have significant ripples into the soccer world.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.