It is often argued that politics and sport should not mix, but when the sporting institution involved is FC Barcelona the line between the two is often blurred.
A repository for Catalan pride and exceptionalism since its formation, Barcelona’s fans have always viewed their team as the focal point of the region. To devotees of the club, Barcelona is implicitly the antithesis of Castilian Spain’s establishment club, Real Madrid. Franco’s team of choice prior to the return of democracy in 1975, and bearing a prefix which translates as “Royal”, clashes between Real Madrid and its Catalan rival are known as “El Clasico”. Unsurprisingly, the suppression of Catalan identity and language under Franco still fuels the rivalry among the Barcelona support to this day. It is against this backdrop that the latest controversy to engulf the club must be viewed, together with last month’s Catalan parliamentary elections which were viewed as a clear mandate for secessionist parties.
Having already been hit with a 30,000 Euro fine in July following the Champions League in Berlin, the club has been issued with a second fine following last month’s Champions League home game with Bayer Leverkusen. On each occasion the European game’s governing body, UEFA, argued that the flying of Catalan flags and singing of pro-independence songs by the Barcelona support contravened article 16 (2) (e) of the regulations laid down by their Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body. This edict specifically states that: “the use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature”
Barcelona fans have never been slow to voice their views on the question of independence from Spain, while the Camp Nou ground is often bedecked with banners proclaiming “Catalunya No Es Espanya” (Catalonia is Not Spain). The club’s administrators are, however, notoriously more taciturn. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, speaking in advance of last month’s Catalan parliamentary elections, stated “”Barca will stay neutral, as ever, on this score.”
The imposition of not one, but two, UEFA fines since July has clearly riled the Barcelona top brass, though. Following the second fine, club vice-president Carles Vilarrubi called the decision “monstrous” before firing a broadside at suspended UEFA chief Michel Platini , adding “It is monstrous to tell the socios what they can and cannot do in their stadium. You cannot stop people doing what they want in their own house. I do not know what UEFA are looking for, but the diplomatic route is over. We feel tricked by Platini and if we need to we will go to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”
Vilarrubi’s fellow vice-president Jordi Mestre struck a more conciliatory note this week as the club traveled to Belarus for a Champions League tie with BATE Borisov. Mestre argued that conversations with UEFA had so far come to nought, while adding “”There is not a war with UEFA but we are defending the interests of our club. We have always had a very respectful and well behaved set of fans. We would never tell our members and fans not to express their opinion’
For an organization which famously sees itself as “Mes Que un Club” (More Than a Club), FC Barcelona is once again, perhaps unwittingly, the standard bearer for Catalonia. This time, however, the enemy is not in Madrid but in the corridors of power in Zurich, headquarters of the European game.