Barcelona vs Madrid: Battling on the soccer field and off

Spanish soccer rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid tied in a brilliant match yesterday, which was representative of a political battle as well: The Catalonian government is pursuing independence.

Sergio Carmona/Reuters
A giant pro-Catalan independence flag is held up during the Spanish first division soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona, October 7.

Legendary football rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid tied yesterday 2-2 in brilliant clasico, a match of Spain’s top league that attracted some 400 million viewers worldwide.

But it was not simply one of the best games ever played between two of the world’s best teams, and certainly some of the world's best players, including Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Andrés Iniesta.

There was a parallel, yet overlooked battleground. The Catalonian government’s decision last month to pursue independence added a passionate twist, making the match perhaps the most intense and politically charged in decades. The two teams embody the modern vanguard of a centuries-old standoff between nationalism and regionalism; Madrid is the national capital while Barcelona is the regional capital of Catalonia.

Poignant symbols on display

Barcelona’s motto is més que un club (more than a club). Founded in 1899 by a Swiss businessman, it was built around Catalonian identity. The club represents “Catalanism, civism and universality,” according to its website.

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Gen. Francisco Franco, who ruled ruthlessly for almost 40 years, violently suppressed Catalonia. Josep Sunyol, a president of the Barcelona club, was executed by Franco’s forces in 1936. The Barcelona team stadium, Camp Nou, became a sanctuary to speak Catalonian and to showoff nationalistic symbols like the flag.

Yesterday the stadium, which seats 90,000 fans, was covered with Catalonian flags precisely at minute 17 and 14 seconds. It was not a coincidence, of course. Catalonia lost its last independence war against Spain’s monarchy in 1714.

Even before the match started, fans sang Catalonia’s national anthem without any cue from organizers, fans held up colored pieces of cardboard to form a gigantic Catalonian flag with the word Barça – the Barcelona team's nickname – in the middle instead of the region's name or emblem, tempering the powerful symbolism. And throughout the match, fans shouted and hoisted letters that spelled “independence.”

A Barcelona player said ahead of the game that it was not only a Barcelona-Real Madrid clasico, but a Catalonia-Spain face-off, a statement he quickly retracted and apologized for. But the football-triggered political crisis was seen as inevitable.

Catalonia's outsized economy

Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo today criticized the stadium showcase for adding to the “bad” image portrayed recently in international press. He said he had no doubt that calls for independence in the stadium were “damaging” to Spain's ability to attract badly needed foreign investors. Spain is showing “an image of internal division at a time of [economic] convulsion, when countries around the world are competing for scarce capital.”

Catalonia has the biggest economy of all Spanish regions and if it were independent its gross domestic product would be bigger than a dozen European Union countries.

The regional government moved up local elections to Nov. 25 to secure the political mandate to seek a binding referendum on independence. The Spanish government has refused, but Catalonia's regional government has threatened to hold it even without Madrid’s green light.

Independence controversial, even in Catalonia

Polls in Spain have consistently showed overwhelming opposition to a breakup of the country. It’s also unlikely a sufficient majority of Catalonians would support it; while the level of support needed is yet to be determined, most consider two-thirds to be the threshold.

Furthermore, independence would take years, as secession is illegal in Spain and the EU. Catalonia has its own language, police, government, parliament, health care, and more. But the possibility of a protracted standoff with the central government is threatening to destabilize Spain even further.

Madrid will host the next clasico in the spring of 2013 and maybe then it will be more clear who wins and who loses, both on the field and in politics.

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