With the rise in nationalism and diplomatic tensions across the world, the old canard that sport and politics should be kept separate is increasingly outdated.
Russia’s 2018 World Cup has come under scrutiny due to their role in the Ukrainian conflict, with notable politicians such as British deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the host. In 2014, prior to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. The Scottish referendum on independence was just weeks away and there were fears that Scottish nationalists would use the games to voice animosity to the ‘Auld Enemy’.
A spokesman for the Glasgow 2014 games reassured Team England that such an event would not materialise. Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome and the eventual referendum on September 18, 2014, saw the Scots vote against independence. The Scottish referendum was also followed with considerable interest in Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain whose separatist movement has often been compared to that of Scotland’s. Just five days before Scotland’s independence vote, the La Liga game between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou was another fascinating example of the Gordian Knot that is sport and politics.
For the first time in Barca’s 115-year history, the club sported the iconic yellow and red colours of Catalonia in front of their home crowd. The decision was awash with political nuances. The yellow and red strip denotes the Catalan flag, La Senyera. Furthermore, the build up to the game had been marked by the tri-centennial Diada Nacional de Catalunya (National day of Catalonia), a commemoration of the regions defeat during the War of the Spanish Succession on September 11th, 1714.
Catalonia has long harboured a strong separatist movement and Spain’s economic crisis has only served to reinforce these sentiments. Throughout Barca’s existence, the club has provided an outlet for Catalan nationalism, especially during the reign of Fascist dictator, General Franco, whose policy of ‘cultural genocide’ threatened to extinguish Catalan identity altogether. General Franco used Real Madrid as an arm of his virulent anti-Catalan policy, seeing the capital’s club as another means through which to suppress Catalonia and humiliate Barca.
Franco prohibited the flying of La Senyera at Blaugrana matches while the Catalan language was prohibited. Real Madrid versus Barcelona was no longer a football match but more a de-facto battleground between the centralist powers of Franco and the separatists of Catalonia. Referring to the clubs role during this era, renowned Spanish author Manuel Vazquez called Barcelona “the symbolic unarmed army of Catalonia.”
Despite the politically infused kit change, La Liga accepted the clubs request to wear the Senyera shirt. This was followed by a statement released by the Blaugrana denying the club mixed sport with politics.
“The Senyera shirt is not being worn because of the 11 September [National Day] – we are doing it to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona at the hands of the troops of Philip V and the French in 1714.”
The move delighted followers of the Catalonia independence movement. Club defender Gerard Pique, who was born in the city, made the link explicit after he joined a march for Catalan independence and tweeted a picture of himself and his son, Milan, who was wearing the shirt. This example serves to reinforce the argument that it is nigh-on impossible to keep sport free from politics, despite the pretence of those in charge.
Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution may lie in tackling the problem head on. Shaun McCarthy, ICSS Director of Research and Knowledge Gathering, has suggested that the most prudent way forward involves forging some form of convention that protects sport from corrosive aspects of politicisation. Should Barcelona have been allowed to wear a shirt that was championing the Catalan cause? That’s down to ones interpretation of what constitutes corrosive politicisation, a question with no easy answer. In this instance, Barca’s political maneuverings brought neither the security nor integrity of football into disrepute and as such, perhaps unwittingly, La Liga followed Shaun McCarthy’s advice and decided that the kit change was not a ‘corrosive aspect of politicisation.’
As recently as November 2014, 80% of people in Catalonia backed independence for the region in an informal, non-binding vote. The ballot went ahead despite fierce opposition from the Spanish government. The game between Barcelona and Real Madrid this weekend will be the first played at the Camp Nou since Catalonia’s unofficial referendum vote. This will only foment the antagonism surrounding the fixture and undoubtedly inspire yet more gestures of political defiance.
As the clock hits 17:14, chants of ‘Independencia’ will bellow down from the stands of the camp nou. It is and always has been a politically infused chant remembering the date Catalonia lost it’s independence. So let’s stop pretending we can keep sport free from politics and rather focus on how we can harness a positive relationship between the two.
Part of this article was originally published on These Football Times