“Mes que un club" read the empty seats of the Camp Nou as Barcelona played host to Las Palmas on 1 October, the day of the recent Catalan referendum—deemed illegal by the Spanish authorities—and which ultimately led to violent scenes on the streets of Catalonia as police authorities of the Spanish government came down heavily upon the Catalans casting their ballot.
Barcelona had asked the Spanish football authorities to postpone the fixture in view of the mayhem on the streets, but their request was refused, and in a show of defiance the club decided to play the game behind closed doors. Making “mes que un club" stand out in an empty stadium. Las Palmas, for their part, adorned their shirts with a Spanish flag to clarify which side of the divide they stood.
The unexpected consequence of Barcelona playing on the referendum day in an empty stadium made the prominence of “mes que un club" symbolic.
When Narciss de Carreras became the president of Barcelona in 1968, Spain was still seven years away from the end of General Francisco Franco’s rule during which all the local languages across the country except Spanish (Castilian) itself remained outlawed. Not just the language, the symbols that could arouse regional pride were also banned, meaning the inhabitants of Catalonia could not speak Catalan or fly the senyera (their regional flag) in a public setting.
In the given circumstances, Carreras, during his inaugural speech, according to an official history on the club’s website, went on to describe the institution as “mes que un club" (more than a club). In a phrase he summed up what Barcelona meant for the Catalans. It was a sanctuary where they could sing their songs and wave their flags without fear.
Without saying much Carreras had said everything and in time the motto has been proudly adopted by the Catalan institution, which writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban once described as the “symbolic unarmed army of Catalonia".
Thirty-two years before Carreras made his famous proclamation, Barcelona had lost president Josep Sunyol, who was assassinated with his companion on 6 August 1936, caught in a crossfire at the start of the Spanish civil war.
Barcelona, the football club, being a representation of the Catalan pride, has been deeply affected by the happenings in Madrid, both on and off the field. One of the heaviest defeats in the club’s history came at the hands of arch rivals Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the 1943 Copa del Generalisimo (now known as Copa del Rey).
The Catalans had won the first leg at home 3-0. However, the away dressing room, according to a report in the Guardian, was allegedly visited by Spain’s director of state security. He came in with a gun in hand warning the visiting players of the consequences of inflicting defeat at the home of Real Madrid. Barcelona, who also had a man sent off in the first half, went on to lose 11-1.
Over the years the dichotomy between the capital-based Real Madrid, with its association with Franco and as a symbol of Spain; and Barcelona with its symbolism as a proud Catalan institution and an avenue to showcase regional pride, has enriched Spanish football. Their rivalry has propelled the two football clubs among the European elite and they have both become every footballer’s dream destination.
However, the recent referendum, which saw a turnout of 2.28 million of 5.31 million registered voters and with an overwhelming majority voting for independence, has not only threatened to alter the Spanish map, but also jeopardize Barcelona’s place in the Spanish league.
Three weeks on since the referendum, the Spanish government has decided to strip Catalonia of its autonomy, forcing the regional parliament to decide upon a course of action in light of the unprecedented move by the central government. Speculation is rife that the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont will ask members of parliament to vote on a unilateral declaration of independence when they meet on Thursday. Such a scenario will push Catalonia and Spain in an unchartered territory.
In case of independence, Barcelona—and other Catalan clubs, including Espanyol and Girona who are both playing in the top division this season—could soon be looking for a new league to play in.
Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, has been categorical in saying that in case of Catalonia declaring independence the Catalan clubs will cease to be part of the Spanish league system. “If this process (Catalonia’s independence) progresses then Catalan clubs couldn’t play in what remains of Spain", he was quoted as saying Spanish daily Marca. In that case, the Catalan outfits will be left looking for alternatives.
There are rumours of Barcelona potentially applying to play in other top European leagues. Due to their geographical proximity, France and Portugal have been mentioned while more far-fetched options include Italy and England. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, so often the voice of reason in matters such, has weighed in on the absurdity of Barcelona playing in the Premier League, saying it would be better to invite Scottish outfits Celtic and Rangers over Barcelona.
The logistics of Barcelona playing in another country are unsustainable. While the option of the Catalan clubs playing each other in a regional Catalan league will never be lucrative enough to gain much popularity outside the borders of Catalonia. Moreover, it will be a real struggle for the clubs to generate the same money without the lustre of competing in a league the size and quality of La Liga.
The possibility of Barcelona leaving La Liga is also hugely detrimental to the Spanish league. Barcelona versus Real Madrid is the most lucrative match in all of club football and their assured two Clasicos per season is a big money-spinner for the league. The two outfits’ season-long tussle for the league title is what gives the league its most compelling narrative.
Barcelona are one of the best-supported football clubs in the world and riding on the back of their ability to draw upon a massive fan base spread across the globe they generated a staggering €620.2 million in revenues, according to a Deloitte report—second only to Manchester United—during the course of the last season. The current La Liga TV deal, which came into effect at the beginning of the 2016-17 season and runs for three years, is worth €2.65 billion, according to an AFP report. It is hard to see the Spanish league attracting the same kind of remuneration with the departure of one of its biggest crowd pullers.
Simply put, La Liga sans Barcelona will be poorer and not just for the quality of the football.
Notwithstanding the ultimate consequences of the Catalonia independence, Spain and Barcelona need each other.
However, going by impassioned reaction that Barcelona in general and proud Catalan Gerard Pique in particular, who had fervently supported his people’s right to vote, received from Spaniards during their first post-referendum visit to Madrid—for their league fixture against Atletico Madrid—on 14 October, a compromise seems some way off the horizon, with neither side willing to cede an inch for the time being.