Could El Clasico be no more?!

In Sport on November 27, 2014 at 1:10 PM

Big change may be soon be afoot in Spanish football. The country’s football league chief, Javier Tebas, claimed, ahead of the possibility of an independence referendum for Catalonia on November 9, that Barcelona would not be allowed to compete in La Liga if the region broke away from Spain. He claims legislation only allows one non-Spanish territory to compete in the Spanish league system, and this is currently occupied by Andorra FC, who play in the sixth tier of Spanish football.

Today, president of Catalonia’s regional government Artur Mas has called off the official referendum in reaction to Madrid’s continued insistence that it would be unconstitutional – but he has said there will be an unofficial vote, organised by volunteers, in which Catalans can express their views. So although there is no imminent separation, Madrid’s refusal to sanction a referendum could serve only to inflame already significant separatist fervour. Polls show Catalans’ voting intentions are split roughly down the middle, with much depending on what type of agreement is being offered, but a strong majority – about 80% – want a say on their future. Indeed, David Cameron is regarded as something of a hero in the region for granting this to Scotland, even though many Catalans do not generally share his political views.

There is certainly a lot of momentum behind it. On September 11, the National Day of Catalonia, 1.8 million people brought Barcelona to a standstill by forming a dramatic ‘V’ shape along two main roads in the striking red and yellow of the Catalan flag – the ‘V’ standing for “votar” (voting) and “voluntat” (will). And president of Catalonia’s regional government, Artur Mas, had seemed willing to defy Madrid, talking of his commitment “to call, to organise and hold a referendum and let the Catalan people vote”.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have long mirrored, if not actively shaped, Spain’s complex political and social history. Real Madrid, traditionally at least, is the ‘regime team’ – it translates as Royal Madrid. It was General Franco’s team, and he used to use them as a means of advertising the regime’s supposed successes and the ‘Spanish way’. The notion of “la furia” (the fury), football based on character as opposed to ability, became prominent. After they won the Copa Latina in 1955, all squad members were granted the Imperial Order of the Yoke and Arrows, and president Santiago Bernabeu had the Grand Cross of Civil Merit bestowed upon him a year later. Barcelona, meanwhile, sees itself as an expression of Catalan identity – hence the slogan ‘Mes que un club’ (more than a club) – and the underdog fighting a corrupt system.

One major flashpoint in the rivalry dates back to the semi-final of the Generalissimo Cup in 1943, four years into General Franco’s dictatorship. Barcelona travelled with a 3-0 lead from the first leg to Madrid, where they received a surprise guest in their changing room before kick off – Franco’s director of state security. He told the players: “Do not forget that some of you are only playing because of the generosity of the regime that has forgiven you for your lack of patriotism.” They lost the match 11-1. Thereafter, Franco suppressed political opponents, the Catalan language (and others) and cultural activities, for many rendering football the best, or even only, outlet for expression of opposition and Catalan identity. Still, some Spanish people (or ‘people in Spain’?) are relatively indifferent to the fate of the national team, if not actively wishing them to lose. Indeed, many have claimed regional divisions in the Spanish national team have accounted for its relative lack of success until recent years – though these doubts are probably overplayed.

Most players have kept their thoughts on the issue of independence to themselves – a wise move considering the criticism received by Andy Murray for declaring support for an independent Scotland in a not dissimilar situation. And indeed received by Gerard Piqué for merely supporting Catalans’ right to have a referendum: “I defend the rights of the Catalan people to express themselves. It’s important they are allowed to do so. That’s another thing though, I’m happy to play for Spain. If they want me to keep playing, then that’s what I’ll do. I don’t know if people watch me through a magnifying glass. I express my opinions because I am a citizen as well as a footballer, if I feel like I have to say something, then I will. I don’t think it affects me as a footballer at all.” Xavi is another prominent player to have strongly advocated a referendum. In fact, there is already a Catalan national team which plays in unofficial friendlies. Quite a tasty line-up it has too, featuring as it does Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and (formerly) Victor Valdes and Xavi, all of whom won Euro 2012 with Spain.

Andy Mitten writes on ESPN that “if Catalonia were to join FIFA and UEFA independently of Spain, the assumption is they would have to form a separate football league too, as did the Balkan countries in the 1990s.” There are currently 10 professional teams in Catalonia, of which Espanyol are the only other team in the top flight. I don’t wish to ignore or belittle those teams, but I’ll focus on the impact separation could have on Barcelona because of their global reach. If Barca were to leave the La Liga (although any move might not be permanent), it would be a tectonic shift in the power structure of Spanish football – and also complicate how, indeed if, Barcelona would qualify for the Champions League. They and Real Madrid have dominated the league since the 2004-05 season, when they finished 15 and 19 points clear of nearest rival Villareal respectively. Since then, until Athletico Madrid’s surprise La Liga win last season, the average points gap between these two and the team in third have been, respectively, 12, 5, 12.5, 12.5, 26.5, 23, 34.5 and 17.5.

So basically, Spanish football for the past decade or so has been a joint fiefdom between the two; a duopoly that would be broken up under competition laws by the regulators in most industries. Obviously this is far from ideal from a fans’ perspective, as many games later on in the season are reduced to fairly pointless games between mid-table teams playing each other or teams going through the motions against one of the big two. But still, two is better than one, especially when the two teams are probably the greatest in world football at the moment (with the possible exception of Bayern Munich). And particularly over recent years El Clasico has accrued, for many, the mantle of biggest club game in world football – certainly the estimated viewing figures of around 400 million a match bear this out (Liverpool v Manchester United is widely regarded the other pretender to this title.) Former Real manager Jose Mourinho said: “When Madrid plays Barcelona, the world stops. It is definitely more than a normal league match.”

Just think of all the footballing majesty we would have missed without El Clasico – Bale’s stunning, running-through-the-technical-area, injury-time winner in April’s Copa del Rey final; Messi weaving through half of the Real team as if it were a school game rather than a Champions League semi-final; Ronaldinho being so good that even the Bernabeau gave him a standing ovation; this 4-3 thriller; the ‘birth of tiki-taka’ in a 6-2 Barcelona win at the Bernabeu. And this is not to mention the Messi v Ronaldo sub-plot or all the mind-games, melees and melodramatics, which, unappetising as they are, are bloody good entertainment, let’s be honest. Most notably the pig’s head thrown at Luis Figo by bitter Barcelona fans and basically any game involving Pepe, who you can always rely on to start to start a mass brawl due to his ability to act like a thug one minute and a petulant cry-baby the next.

All this is to say that – while I sympathise with Catalonians’ desire for independence and the associated grievances with the government and monarchy, and I of course think politics is more important than football – I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there a little voice inside my head thinking, similarly to a hysterical Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons, won’t somebody pleeeeease think of the football?!

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