Clubkultur is a new Box To Box series exploring the true essence of the beautiful game, a look at the intangible feelings that keep us coming back to support our club, no matter how they’re playing, no matter where. In Clubkultur, we will explore the important cultural aspects of football clubs from all over the world, as our contributors see them.
This section will not always be able to relate directly to current events, so it seems prudent to shine the spotlight on these issues, through the lens of Clubkultur, where possible. Most clubs and their politics are deeply intertwined, so will find themselves in this section for many different reasons. What makes this case different though is that instead of distancing themselves from the often-harmful effects of political affiliation, this club is happy to open public dialogues to engage with it directly. That club is Barcelona.
The issue of independence is always one of the most contentious, no matter the nation in question, but Catalonian independence has been a burning issue since General Francisco Franco abolished the region’s autonomy during the Spanish Civil War in 1938. This put the club at loggerheads with the right-wing leader’s political establishment, instantly making the club a focal point for Catalonian people to congregate with a common cause and to become a symbol of secessionist hope. Fans still passionately commiserate Catalonia becoming part of Spain after the 1714 War of Succession with rapturous chants of Independencia! at 17 minutes and 14 seconds of every match.
Red and yellow, the colours of the Senyera (Catalonia’s flag), became known around the footballing world after adorning the chest of the Barcelona squad alongside the letters F.C.B. The club have twice in our recent history re-defined football, first with the total football philosophy and then with the logical progression of the ‘tiki-taka’ style, the use of transitioning possession with short passing, under Pep Guardiola. The squad have also been forcibly ‘re-defined’ off the pitch. Although the crest simply illustrated their heritage, wearing it was an act of rebellion in the eyes of General Franco who sought to quell its ubiquity.
The syntax of F.C.B. didn’t fit into Franco, or El Caudillo’s (The Leader’s) acknowledged rules of the Spanish language. He ordered the logo was changed in 1941 to C.F.B, the Spanish version of the club’s name. This hardline ban on displays of regional nationalism affected their crest until 1974, the year before Franco’s death. In that time Real Madrid dominated Spanish football and were widely perceived to be the regime’s team and a propaganda wing of Franco’s nationalistic government. Although Barcelona didn’t reach the on-field success of their capital rivals during this period, they began to embody a deeper ideology of freedom and change.
Their slogan, Mes Que Un Club, or ‘More Than a Club’ developed as an assertion that beyond a football club, they were a pillar of Catalonian social and democratic values. It wasn’t just the letters and colours of the badge that reflected their value system though, it was also the inclusion of the St. George’s Cross. Saint George was the brave dragon slayer, the one who selflessly conquered evil on earth and has since become emblematic of those noble virtues and the flag embodies this. Although based on mythology, St. George became a very relevant figure during El Caudillo’s reign.
George is a popular name in both Spain and the Catalonian region, although the name is subject to regional differences. The Spanish version is Jorge and the Catalonian is Jordi. As an extension of Franco’s language laws, in a bid to strong-arm separatist sentiment out of Spain, the laws included names too. No parent could give their child Catalonian names in an act of cultural genocide waged through carefully weighted legal conventions. It was a part of his bid to phase out an entire people.
Johan Cruyff is perhaps the personification F.C. Barcelona with his free-thinking footballing philosophy, rebelling against the conservative norms of the time. He was a staunch supporter of the Catalonian cause and in his most grandiose act of solidarity with the region, he named his son Jordi in 1974. His wife returned to Amsterdam to circumvent the legal restrictions during the final year of Franco’s life and in doing so updated the myth of the dragon-slayer.
The Senyera also faced prohibition from the Nou Camp during Franco’s reign, a rule enforced with the violence that was synonymous with the regime. The ‘four bars’ of red on the flag, that also appear on the club’s crest, was ordered by Franco to be reduced only to two. The colours remained, but it wasn’t their flag.
Now, the crest has returned to fully display their regional heritage and since the fall of the Francoist regime, F.C. Barcelona has continued to embody the Catalan spirit. Writer Manuel Vásquez Montalbán referred to the club as “the unarmed army of Catalonia”. It is the regions greatest institution, and it’s most powerful.
Although the region’s campaign for autonomy or independence has never gone away, it recently came raging to the fore again in a political volcano of dormant emotions that manifested into violent public displays of long and deeply held thoughts of resentment and anger. On the other hand, though, the displays of unity and togetherness from the people of Catalonia have reached all corners of the globe as a model of human strength.
F.C. Barcelona has remained impartial on independence but is fervent in their support of the Catalan people to have the freedom to determine their own future. On the day of Catalonia’s vote for independence, the 1st of October this year, the club were also scheduled to play Las Palmas at home. The club made the decision to play the fixture behind closed doors as an act of protest on a day that political violence marred the hopes that the Catalan people had for a peaceful election process.
The scoreboard was emblazoned with ‘DEMOCRÁCIA’ and the stadium seemed hollow, with echoes of the player’s shouts reverberating around. It was a solemn atmosphere in a place of rare tranquillity in a city that had seen tensions reach fever-pitch. Shocking photographs from the day were put into print. There were gruesome images of elderly people bleeding on the streets and totalitarian riot police effecting martial control over the city with commands from Madrid. The match ended 3-0 for Barcelona, but it might as well never have happened.
The club has released several official statements to clarify their unequivocal support of the democratic process being realised in peace as well as offering their measured condemnation of anything that stands in the way of that process. It’s no secret who the target of their scorn is. On the 20th of September, the club wrote: “FC Barcelona, in remaining faithful to its historic commitments 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.” Their message couldn’t be any clearer.
The decision to so boldly embrace this identity isn’t void of others reasons though. Without being too sceptical, it’s hard to imagine any football club making such public statements without having the potential economic implications in mind. The club’s adherence to the narrative of ‘fighting the good fight’ perpetuates the image of the club as a positive force in world football, although the situation in Spain may not be entirely as it seems. They’re footballs most successful and dominant underdogs and they’ve carefully cultivated that image.
Certainly, the supporters and members of the club have embraced the stories that paint them as being long-suffering at the hands of the commandeering government in Madrid. In Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga he writes that:
“The popular perception of the war, especially internationally, as projected onto and via Spain’s two biggest soccer clubs, is one in which Barcelona is the home of revolution and resistance to fascism. The Catalan capital is assumed to be the battlefield of the civil war, the scene of suffering and tragedy; Madrid is assumed to be the home of Franco’s government and thus the war becomes a kind of anti-Catalan crusade, a battle between Castile and Catalonia—as if Barcelona was the victim and Madrid the aggressor, as if the aim of the war was the occupation of the Catalan nation by the Spanish state. Taken to the soccer clubs, Real Madrid becomes Franco’s team, Barcelona its victims. The narrative is served. It is also flawed; at times the way it is presented is simply false.”
The oversimplification of a complex situation being boiled down to a binary of good and evil is a time-honoured part of the propaganda and media process employed all over the world. To believe it as simply oppressed and oppressor would deny the historical fact that both cities fought against Franco’s fascism and that only after the Civil War did Franco’s government locate in Madrid, as had been the case for the previous 400 years of previous governments. Although Real Madrid were very clearly favoured by the leader, they were in no way entirely his creation.
Barcelona are a club that has simultaneously defined and been defined by their geography in Spain and their antimadridista sentiment. Their indisputable support of the rights of the Catalonian people is a brave stance for the club to take and one that has endeared them to people well beyond their home region. We can only hope, as football fans, that if the region does make the decision to separate from Spain, that it won’t affect the clubs place in the La Liga and their part in the famous derby between their rivals at Madrid – the El Clásico.
Their exciting and innovative style of football on the pitch co-exists with the similar social and philosophical mentality that exists off of it. They are a club that truly embodies progression without risking their historic integrity. Through myth, politics and a lifelong dedication to an ideology, they have become the preeminent club that is much, much more than just that.