FC Barcelona and Catalan Independence

Barça's Role as a Symbol for Catalonia

I recently received some questions from a student who is writing his dissertation on FC Barcelona's position as a symbol for Catalan Nationalism and the club's role in the independence movement.

I think he is approaching the issue from quite a British point of view and consequently, misses out on some of the subtle realities of the political situation here.

I don't think the Catalans, in general, are nationalistic in the sense that a British person would understand the term and FC Barcelona is much more a reflection of the political situation in Catalonia than an instigator of any movement.

Anyway, as I always enjoy being given the opportunity to set the record straight, I have replied to his questions and you can find my answers below.


1. What does 'Catalan Nationalism' mean to you? Does it have to include the promotion of Independence?

Firstly, Catalans rarely use the word "Nationalism" because of its negative connotations, which are often exploited by the Spanish right in terms like 'nazionalista'. We have the difficult to translate expressions "sobiranista" or sovereignist, which is basically someone who believes that Catalonia is a sovereign nation and therefore has the right to decide its own political future by means of a referendum, and "independentista", who by definition is a "sobiranista" who believes that Catalonia should be an independent state.

They probably existed previously but both of these words have only come into common usage since the Catalan independence process really took off after 1.5 million people took to the streets of Barcelona on the Diada or Catalan National Day on September 11th 2012. The traditional term, which is also the one I prefer, is "Catalanism", which began as a political movement in the late 19th century and favoured the interests of Catalonia within the Spanish state. I cover this topic in the chapter on The Rise of Political Catalanism in my book Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective.

2. Where would you draw the line between Catalan Nationalism and Catalan Patriotism?

To paraphrase Orwell, a patriot is someone who loves his country while a nationalist is someone who dislikes other countries so as I said before they are not terms that are in common use. Obviously, there are Catalans who are nationalists and dislike immigrants whether they are from other parts of Spain or other countries.

This attitude is pretty untenable, though, because the Catalan independence movement includes groups such as Súmate, which is made up of Spanish speakers in favour of independence, and Nous Catalans or New Catalans, which mainly comprises people from developing countries. I'm quite active both in a group of pro-independence English speakers and also in a number of projects involving expats from other European countries.

Obviously, the word "nationalist" is occasionally used and generally means someone who is in favour of independence. I suppose Catalanism more or less corresponds to patriotism but normally refers to someone who actively promotes the Catalan language and culture. As I'm a strong advocate of the Catalan language and write extensively on Catalan history, I generally describe myself as a Catalanist.

3. Do you think FC Barcelona actively promotes Catalan Nationalism?

No, for the reasons stated above, FC Barcelona doesn't actively promote Catalan Nationalism. As a club with a broad fan base, which comes from the rest of Spain and all over the world, as an institution, it can't really promote a political position. Consequently, institutionally, the club doesn't come out completely in favour of independence for Catalonia. This doesn't mean that many fans, including members of its board of directors aren't openly pro-independence, though.

The club is both a symbol and representative of Catalonia and would definitely define itself as Catalanist. This means that the four red stripes on a yellow background of the Catalan flag are used alongside the blue and claret club colours in many of the stadium mosaics and club images.

Furthermore, whilst necessarily multilingual, Catalan is the preferred language of the club simply because it is the authochtonous language of the territory where FC Barcelona is located. For this reason, El Cant del Barça, the club anthem, is proudly sung in Catalan by Catalans, Spaniards and foreigners alike. It's important to note one of the lines in the first verse "Tant se val d'on venim", which means "It doesn't matter where we come from" and is hardly a typical nationalist sentiment.

4. If so, do you think this process is constant through the club's history, or does this promotion happen in phases?

If you know anything about the History of FC Barcelona, the club's role as a symbol of Catalonia and consequently of Catalanism goes back to its origins. The club's founder Hans Kamper was a Swiss businessman who became enamoured by Catalan culture. He was known by the Catalan version of his name, Joan Gamper, and generally spoke Catalan.

As early as 1926, during the dictorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, the Les Corts Stadium was closed down, when fans whistled and jeered the Spanish national anthem when it was played by a British Navy Band, which had been invited to the stadium, and then applauded when the confused band struck up the British national anthem.

During Spain's second 20th century dictatorship, General Franco realised the power of football as a cultural ambassador and promoted Real Madrid as a symbol of Spain, particularly from the 1950s onwards. He also realised that it was safer to have political dissention contained within the context of football rather than manifesting itself in street demonstrations so certainly didn't discourage Barça's role as representative of the much hated Catalans.

In the early, 1970s as the dictator was beginning to lose his grip on Spain, FC Barcelona signed Johan Cruyff, another foreigner who realised the value of being openly pro-Catalan, coined the phrase "Més Que Un Club" or "More Than A Club" and commissioned Jaume Picas and Josep Maria Espinàs to write the club anthem in Catalan, something that would have been impossible at the height of the dictatorship, when speaking Catalan in public was virtually illegal.

The club was less stridently Catalanist under José Luis Nuñez, who became club president in 1979, at a time when Spain was still going through the Transition to Democracy and most Catalans felt optimistic about their new found freedoms. Catalanism came back, however, under Joan Laporta in 2003, which coincided with the drafting of the new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia and the realisation that democracy had returned as much freedom to Catalonia as many had hoped.

Basically, Barça is more of a barometer for Catalan society than an instigator of political change and simply reflects the mood of its fans, the majority of whom are inevitably Catalans.

5. Broadly speaking, what role do you think FC Barcelona plays in the controversy of Catalan Nationalism?

Firstly, I don't think there's any particular controversy surrounding Catalan Nationalism, Catalanism or the Catalan independence process. It's a sentiment that has bubbled to the surface ever since Catalonia was forcibly annexed by Castile in 1714. As I said earlier, Barça just reflects the feelings of its supporters towards the current political climate.

Paradoxically, I think the club's main role has been as a force for social cohesion and as a softener of potential tensions in Catalan society. When the mass immigration to Catalonia from the rest of Spain began in the 1950s, becoming a culer, or culé in Spanish, was a key factor in integrating into Catalan society for any new arrival.

To this day, supporting FC Barcelona is still an identity marker, whatever your position on Catalan independence. You don't have to be a Catalanist but if you support Barça, it's very difficult to be anti-Catalan.

Our group of football mates is made up of people who prefer speaking Catalan and others who favour Spanish. I'm well-known as a supporter of independence for Catalonia and one of my best friends is vociferously unionist, but what unites us is our love of football, in general, and of Barça, in particular.

One of the reasons why Barça is More Than A Club is that it is a force for unity and, whilst reflecting the sentiments of the majority of its fans, just like the rest of Catalan society, is eminently inclusive.

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