“The day the Camp Nou chants for independence is the day independence will arrive.” That’s what Catalan politician Toni Strubell i Trueta’s father always said to him, as told in Sid Lowe’s increasingly relevant book ‘Fear and Loathing in LaLiga’. Well, that’s exactly what the Camp Nou did on October 7, 2012, when Barcelona took on and drew with Real Madrid 2-2 in front of their own fans. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo both scored twice, but that wasn’t the only storyline that evening. In 1714, the city of Barcelona fell in the War of Spanish Succession and, as such, in the 17th minute and the 14th second many of the home fans stood up and shouted “In-Inde-Independencia!”, a chant which needed no translation for the world watching on. It wasn’t just in the stadium either. Some of the punters at the bar in Barcelona’s city centre where this author watched that match also joined in. The chant has been repeated in that same minute in every home game since.
Now, just six days short of five years later, Catalonia will hold a referendum on independence this October 1 – commonly referred to as the 1-O vote, which not insignificantly catches the eye of football fans. This ballot, though, is considered illegal by the Spanish government and tensions have been rising and rising in recent weeks. From Madrid, the argument is that this goes against the Spanish constitution and the response has been heavy handed, with many organisers having been arrested, with the offices of the Catalan regional government having been raided, with papers relating to the vote having been seized and with the referendum website having been shut down. Across Catalonia, Spain and beyond, this response has been labelled as undemocratic by scores of political commentators and officials. It has also been condemned by Futbol Club Barcelona.
There is a very important point to make here, which is that FC Barcelona as an institution is not for or against Catalonia becoming an independent state, whatever the views of its individual employees. Their position is simply that a vote should be held and that the Catalan people should have the “right to decide”, a phrase that is repeated time and again. They even joined the National Pact on the Right to Decide back in 2014, a manoeuvre which was also a big deal at the time. Then, last week, they spoke out again.
“In the wake of the events that have transpired in recent days and, especially, today, with regard to the current political situation in Catalonia, FC Barcelona in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defence of the nation, to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to self-determination, condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights,” a club statement released last Wednesday read.
Even if they’re not pro-independence, it has still been controversial for Barcelona to show support for the holding of a ballot. Many across Spain have said that a football club shouldn’t be getting involved in such matters because, for those who oppose Catalan independence, this is a huge blow, as they are aware of just how influential the club is in the region.
Given the increasing commercialisation of Barcelona, the idea of them being “més que un club” – “more than a club”, in English – is becoming increasingly hard for some football fans to believe, but it is true that when it comes to this referendum, FC Barcelona is more than just a football club. It is a Catalan institution and, for many Catalans, although of course not all, the club is a symbol of Catalanism. It is telling that during the pro-independence demonstrations held every September 11 – the National Day of Catalonia – many of those forming part of the pointillistic swathes of crowds on the streets are wearing their blue and red Barcelona colours, rather than the red and yellow of the Catalan flag. Even more telling, perhaps, was that pro-referendum organisers called up Barça legend Pep Guardiola to make statement in support of the vote to a crowd of 40,000 in June.
“Would you jump off a cliff if they told you too?” is a phrase every little kid to have heeded a friend’s bad advice has heard their parents say, with the answer obviously being “no”. But ask many adults “would you jump off a cliff if your football club told you too?” and many would probably pause to consider it. There can be no understating just how important football is in many people’s lives, especially in a country and region as passionate about the sport as Spain and Catalonia. So if FC Barcelona backs the holding of an independence referendum, many supporters will feel that it is their duty to join in and to support the holding of a vote too, and to then to cast a ballot – whether they ink the “yes” or the “no” box – when polling day comes.
It remains to be seen just how events in Catalonia will unfold over the coming days, from whether or not the vote will ultimately be held to how valid the results of it will be, considering it is not recognised by the central parliament. But one thing is for sure and that’s the importance of FC Barcelona in all of this. If the referendum goes ahead and if turnout is high – on both the “yes” and “no” side – then that will partly be down to the support of the right to decide that has come from the Camp Nou offices.