On a weekend which carried such huge significance for the future of Spain’s political and social landscape, you would imagine that such fripperies as football would be put to one side. But in such a fractious and delicate country, where in-fighting, regionalism and historical grievances dominate the national conversation, sport and politics have become so deeply intertwined that football cannot escape the effects of political turmoil.
There is no club that encapsulates this more than Barcelona. While the club itself professes (or, until this weekend at least, professed) to be politically neutral, it has come to represent the entire region, becoming a symbol of Catalan nationalism. The worldwide fame of the club allows pro-independence fans to express their views in front of a huge audience, and their long-standing rivalry with Real Madrid is emblematic of the political stand-off between Catalonia and the Spanish establishment.
Why then, did nobody realise that scheduling a Barcelona home game for the day of the controversial referendum would be problematic? The likelihood of violence and disorder on referendum day was always high, as neither the Catalan nor Spanish governments would back down from their opposing stances; staging a football match on the same day was always going to be difficult for the players, the fans and the police.
As it turned out, the police gave their blessing for the match with Las Palmas to go ahead, and the decision lay with Barcelona over whether they wanted to play. This led to frantic discussions among the Barça board, and the ensuing disagreements caused two board members to resign. Eventually, minutes before kick-off, a decision was made that didn’t really satisfy anyone – to play the game behind closed doors.
The fans who had waited outside the gates were turned away, and the players, some of whom reportedly didn’t want to play, had to do so all the same. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu claimed that they decided to play the game “in exceptional circumstances to show the world the exceptional and unacceptable situation” in Catalonia, but a cynic would suggest that his real motive was to avoid the six-point penalty for forfeiting the game.
As it transpired, Barça won 3-0 to continue their perfect start to the season, but to many fans and some players, the match itself was of little importance on such a significant and controversial day in their region.
Defender Gerard Piqué in particular seemed profoundly affected by the events on Sunday. His support for the referendum and perceived Catalanist inclinations have seen him become a divisive figure in Spanish football, and the suspicion is that he is in favour of independence, although he has never declared his leanings one way or the other.
There are many in Catalonia who oppose secession from Spain, but believe they should have the right to vote on this issue, and Piqué may well be one of those. But this ambiguity and his outspoken nature means he has often been the subject of boos and taunts from opposition fans, and even from Spain fans when representing the national side.
He is one of several Catalan players who turn out for the selección, but no other player gets anywhere near the level of abuse. He can feel rightly aggrieved at this, as he has been an exemplary performer for the Spanish side over 91 caps, and was a key part of the sides that won the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championships.
He announced plans to retire from the national side following next year’s World Cup after being wrongly accused of cutting the Spanish flag off the sleeves of his shirt in a World Cup qualifier in Albania last year, and this week said he would retire now if fans felt his presence was a problem. Spain manager Julen Lopetegui has repeatedly stated that he has no reason to doubt Piqué’s commitment to the national side, but that is unlikely to prevent the centre-back’s detractors from showering him with abuse during Spain’s match with Albania in Alicante on Friday.
If Catalonia does gain independence in the next few years, it would be interesting to see whether players such as Piqué, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba would continue to play for Spain, or switch allegiance to the newly-independent state. The precedent set when Kosovo gained full FIFA membership would allow them to make the switch, and there is a rich seam of Catalan talent available to make them a very competitive side.
On a domestic level, the issue of whether Catalan sides can continue to play in the Spanish league is already being discussed. La Liga president Javier Tebas, famously a Real Madrid supporter, has insisted that the law dictates that Catalan sides would lose the right to play in La Liga. Bartomeu, on the other hand, has suggested that Barça will look at joining another European league should they be ejected from La Liga.
While they are both publicly adopting a hardline stance, in reality they both want the same thing. The last thing Tebas needs is for La Liga to lose one of its crown jewels, and the lack of a Clásico would seriously devalue his product. Bartomeu knows that he can’t just rock up and join the French or English league, and a Catalan league involving Barcelona, Espanyol, Girona and a number of lower-league also-rans would appeal to no-one. If independence should come to pass, a deal would no doubt be struck to keep Catalan sides within the Spanish league structure.
As it stands, such hypothetical scenarios won’t have to be dealt with any time soon, or possibly ever. But the deep divisions in Spanish society have only got deeper since the weekend, and the existential crisis currently engulfing Spain will continue to cast its long shadow over every aspect of Spanish life, including football.
While the lines between sport and politics have always been blurred, all semblance of political impartiality was thrown to the wind this weekend. Barcelona fans displayed banners saying ‘democràcia’ at Camp Nou, Espanyol issued a pro-referendum statement, Las Palmas wore Spanish flags on their shirts. These clubs nailing their colours to the mast shows that the deep chasms in Spanish politics are now pervading football more than ever.
A more conciliatory political statement came from a surprising source, as Javier Tebas changed his Twitter profile picture to a combined Spanish and Catalan flag in the shape of a heart. It was a gesture that was at best saccharine and at worst disingenuous, but sadly the message of unity the image portrays is one that now seems more distant than ever.