On 1 October 2017, an eerie silence descended on Camp Nou as Barcelona beat Las Palmas 3-0. Less than an hour before kick-off, the club had announced the game would be played behind closed doors following unrest in the city, as Catalans headed to the polls to vote on whether they wanted the region to secede from Spain.
For generations, FC Barcelona has been a symbol of the pro-independence movement, epitomised by its slogan: ‘Mes que un club’ – more than a club. When fascist dictator Franco rose to power in the 1930s, his regime had set about suppressing republicanism in Catalonia and in the Basque region. Even ‘Futbol Club Barcelona’, as we know them today, were told to change their name to the Castilian Spanish version, ‘Club de Fútbol Barcelona’.
Out of such repression, a culture of defiance was born. Republicans looked to the club for a hero and in the 1970s they found one: not a Catalan himself, but a Dutchman.
Johan Cruyff had grown up in a climate of Amsterdam’s 1960s counter-culture and liberalism. When he joined Barcelona, the cult that would develop around the forward was about much more than football. Legend has it that on one occasion, after being sent off, he left the pitch kissing his gold and red armband – the colours of Catalonia. It was said to be a symbol of rebellion against Franco, whose favourite team, Real Madrid, would suffer at the feet of Cruyff several times, including in a dazzling 5-0 triumph for Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
Cruyff, who would later manage Catalonia’s national side, encouraged individual thought and expression, both on the pitch and off it. They are traits which remain a key element of Barcelona’s identity and in the last two years, they have become more important than ever.
On the day of the 2017 referendum, Gerard Pique implored his fellow citizens to vote, reminding them:
“In the Franco era, we couldn’t defend our ideas. I am, and I feel Catalan, and I am very proud of the people.”
Pique, like many others, was appalled by police violence against voters, as rubber bullets were fired, ballot boxes seized, and approximately 850 people were injured. In the international break that followed, the centre-back was booed by large swathes of Spanish fans. He even threatened to quit the national team.
However, other La Liga teams made their feelings known too. Las Palmas had taken to the field with Spanish flags embroidered onto the players’ shirts. In the capital, Real Madrid fans waved flags above their heads and sang Y Viva España. Fittingly, Zinedine Zidane’s side were facing RCD Espanyol, also based in Barcelona. They are supposed to be a club with no particular political affiliation, but the very name of the club carries its own connotations of Spanish unity. Its fans – the ‘pericos’ – have increasingly expressed loyalty to the crown, with more flags and banners being seen around the stadium since last year.
The aftershocks of the vote continue to be felt, not just in La Liga, but elsewhere in football. Pep Guardiola was fined £20,000 for wearing a yellow ribbon on the touchline at Manchester City games. It was a show of solidarity with Catalonia’s separatist leaders, many of whom were arrested in the aftermath. At Barcelona games, supporters regularly chant pro-independence songs with 17 minutes and 14 seconds on the clock – a reference to the 1714 Siege of Barcelona, when the city fell to Felipe V during the War of Spanish Succession.
There have once again been questions about what would happen to Spanish football if Catalonia did become a separate nation. In the past, players like Carles Puyol, Pique and Guardiola have played in friendlies for Catalonia, but the team is not officially recognised and cannot play in FIFA tournaments like the World Cup. Ahead of the referendum, La Liga chief Javier Tebas threatened that Barcelona risked being expelled from the league if the region did secede.
Football carries on as normal, for now, but the question of Catalan independence has not gone away. The potential consequences for the game, both in Spain and in wider Europe, should not be underestimated.