Barcelona over Manchester United: a victory for Catalonia

The soccer team may reside in Spain, but it's raison d'etre is for regional autonomy.

Darren Staples/AP
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola is thrown into the air by his players after their Champions League final soccer match against Manchester United at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on May 27, 2009.

Short of gaining independence, the Catalan flag will probably never again wave en masse as it did throughout Spain and in many nations worldwide Wednesday night.

The source of such patriotic exuberance?

FC Barcelona beat Britain's Manchester United 2-0 to win the European Champions League, the world's most prestigious league soccer tournament.

In Plaza Catalunya, the heart of Barcelona, more than 100,000 people danced, hugged, and kissed through the night, climbing lampposts, lighting flares, and waving flags.

But unlike in other European cities, this party is not simple soccer mania. For many here, every "Barça" victory is an affirmation of Catalonia's autonomy and supremacy.

"Barça catalyzes Catalan nationalist identity," says Ferran Requejo, a political scientist in the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. "Many thought this would end with the return to democracy [in Spain], but many sectors still think our autonomy is insufficient. Barça has taken the role of Catalunya's national team. When it wins, Catalans win, but not Spain."

Barcelona's motto is "més que un club" (more than a club). Founded in 1899 by a Swiss businessman, it was built around Catalan identity. Its sports statutes include defending Catalan culture, including its language and broader concepts such as liberty and democracy. Every player's jersey carries, not the Spanish flag, but a shield bearing the colors of the Catalan flag.

"Barça is the most important institution, the most representative, and the one with which Catalans relate to most," says Xavier Sala-i-Martín, a Columbia University economics professor and advisor to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

"It represents democracy and liberty in Catalunya," adds Mr. Sala-i-Martín, a Catalan who is board member of the club and one of the top contenders in next year's elections for club chairman. "We have a universal vocation, but we don't hide our Catalan identity and we don't want people impeding us from showing it."

Catalonia is a region of seven million people sandwiched both culturally and geographically between France and Spain. For centuries it sought sovereignty, but its aspirations were constantly defeated.

Dictator General Francisco Franco, who ruled for almost 40 years, violently suppressed regions that sought more freedom from the central government, especially in Catalonia and the Basque region. Indeed, the Basque terrorist group ETA was born of this repression.

Josep Sunyol, the club's chairman when the civil war started, was executed by Franco's forces without a trial in 1936. Since those times, the soccer stadium became a sanctuary where Catalan was spoken and cultural symbols were displayed.

After Franco's death, Spain's provinces regained a degree of self-rule and few today will suggest that Catalonia will move toward secession. Catalonia already has its own language, police, government, parliament, and health care system.

But the history of repression still fuels pride in the soccer team. And victories, such as Wednesday's, are another notch in Catalonia's struggle to differentiate itself from the rest of Spain.

In fact, Barça is a national political touchstone as much as a soccer team. Spaniards are split between those who want it to lose – for political reasons – and those who want it to win. Rarely is there a middle ground or indifference.

Broadly speaking, Barça supporters lean ideologically toward a federal system with large regional decision-making, while those who loath it are believed to support a centralized, powerful central government.

In a telling example, when Barça played a team from the Basque region for the King's Cup in the presence of King Juan Carlos, fans from both teams hissed when the Spain's national anthem was played.

Sala-i-Martín also points out that the team's guiding philosophy is uniquely Catalan. Aside from a very aggressive style of play that the team has adhered to for decades, Barça flaunts the fact that almost its entire team is either Catalan or has been brought up here, including the coach.

Most European teams function like a business and bid for players based on skill sets. Barça demands allegiance to Catalonia's cause.

Related links:

To right past wrongs, Spaniards seek present change

Europe dances the devolution tango

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