Soccer and Secession

By: Elizabeth Valiaveedan

October 16, 2017

I imagine that a Californian vote for secession would be the closest situation in the United States that could parallel the Catalonian independence movement. However, cultural ties in Spain run deep, more so than any regional allegiances in the United States. Although the United States is a much larger nation, the differences among regions in Spain are by far more complex than differences among states in the United States. In the United States, accents and population demographics differ by region. In Spain, the entire culture, even essential elements such as language, may be entirely different depending on where you are. The more I learn of the recent referendum in Catalonia, the more I realize I cannot begin to understand it by imagining an American comparison. From riot police to empty soccer stadiums, there are symbols everywhere of how strongly Spaniards feel about an entire region leaving their union.

While I am living in the midst of the political fervor, I technically exist outside of it. Although I am in Madrid, I am not a Spaniard nor have I been here for long enough to have developed strong feelings about either side of the independence movement. What remains clear is where the majority of madrileños (people from Madrid) stand on the issue: Spanish flags are prominently displayed from windows and rallies for unity have taken place in Puerta del Sol, where I take the metro every day. I have heard that conversations among host families range from dismissal of the idea of Catalonian independence to outright anger. This issue has not only played out on the political scene but on the soccer field as well. The passion for soccer here has transcended fandom and become a part of Spanish identity. Even the motto of FC Barcelona, “More than a club,” reflects that Barça is not just a soccer team but a symbol for the whole region of Catalonia-- from its distinctive language and culture to its history of oppression and secessionist movements. Its rivalry with Real Madrid, which is a team of the capital of Spain, has become representative of the struggle between this autonomous community and the central government. It is not surprising, then, that the game between FC Barcelona and Las Palmas that coincided with the date of the referendum was politically charged. 

In an act of protest against the Professional Football League’s refusal to postpone this game during such a historical day, the Barça Club decided to close the doors to Camp Nou stadium less than an hour before the game. All of the fans were left outside of the stadium. UD Las Palmas arrived with new jerseys embroidered with the Spanish flag. Meanwhile, the Camp Nou scoreboard depicted the image of a ballot box with the word “democracy” for the entire match. Although the president of La Liga stated that Barça would no longer be part of the league if Catalonia is granted independence, players such as Gerard Pique of Barça have gone so far as to say that they would readily retire if support for this referendum becomes a problem. 

Barça won the game 3-0 that day with ease, but gaining independence is certainly a much more difficult task. While Catalonia is an economic powerhouse with the GDP of a small country, there are still many challenges to becoming a nation. I have learned in my class on the Spanish constitution that this referendum and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence were not actually legal. Protests have turned violent and have only led to more protests against this police brutality. The Spanish government may even invoke Article 155 of the Constitution, which could take away Catalonian autonomy entirely. Furthermore, Catalonia would still need to deal with the issue of its status within the European Union if it secedes. The political situation has drastically escalated since I have been here, and I am trying to keep up with it as much as my soccer-obsessed family and I have kept up with La Liga over the years. I am most likely going to wait to travel to Barcelona until the protests there die down, but I still hope to be able to visit this heart of Catalonia at some point during the semester. Fingers crossed that I will be able to catch a Barça game, too.

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Soccer and Secession