Pitchside Europe

Barca a catalyst for Catalonia’s independent streak


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Lionel Messi had just scored a 79th minute winner - a rare header - when the loudest songs of the night started. Barcelona had come from 2-1 down at home to Spartak Moscow last week in the Champions League, a game which fans thought would be predictable but proved otherwise until the Argentine's late brace.

That's when most of the Camp Nou crowd started singing - for Catalan independence from Spain. I've watched over 200 Barca games at Camp Nou and have never witnessed anything like it. Fringe groups have sung songs or hung a 20-metre 'Catalonia is not Spain' flag from the second tier during Barca's very biggest games, but they have long been the actions of minorities hoping for mainstream coverage.

Last Wednesday was different and in keeping with the current mood in Catalonia, where between 700,000 and 1.5 million people took part in a pro-independence rally on September 11 — depending on which estimates you believe. In 11 years spending more time in Barcelona than any other city, I've never seen so many people on the streets.

Josep Guardiola, the most famous living Catalan, wasn't at the march as he's living in New York for a year, but he appeared on a screen and was greeted with huge cheers when he said: "From New York, here you have another vote." That was taken as his support for the cause. Guardiola's former president Joan Laporta is now in politics with the single aim of leading Catalonia to independence, though he's had less success at the ballot box than as club president and there are bigger fish in the independence movement.

Earlier in the day before the march — on the national day of Catalonia — current club president Sandro Rosell, coach Tito Vilanova and captain Carles Puyol made the annual trip to lay flowers at the monument of Rafael Casanova, a hero to Catalan nationalists for his role in the siege of Barcelona 300 years ago.

A few days later, stories appeared that Barca's away kit next season will be red and yellow stripes, like the Catalan flag. If it is, it couldn't be any worse a colour-clash than the current vomit-inducing effort.

Barca have always existed with a dual philosophy of Catalanism and an acceptance of outsiders, from the wonderful world-class players they have signed to fans in different countries. But Catalan identity is now at the fore and as former coach Bobby Robson put it: "Catalonia is a country and FC Barcelona is their army."

That's not quite true, but nowhere do so many Catalans gather on a regular basis as at Camp Nou. Last week at the stadium, I tweeted what I'd seen and heard and had over 900 retweets, mostly from Catalans wanting absolute independence. The pro-independence movement is gathering momentum because of Spain's economic crisis and the fact that Catalonia, Spain's richest region, sends far more money to the Madrid government in taxes than it gets back.

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People gather at Sant Jaume Square during a pro-independence rally in Barcelona (Reuters)

Politics and sport are oft intertwined, but what would happen to Barca and the other Catalan teams like Espanyol if Catalonia did get the independence which many want?

Barca fans, especially those outside of Catalonia, are alarmed at the prospect of Barca leaving Spain's Primera Liga and the end of clasico matches against Real Madrid, though the club's president Sandro Rosell claims: "If Catalonia becomes independent, it would make no difference. We would keep on playing in the Spanish league just like Monaco in France continues to play in the French Ligue, despite being a separate state. I am convinced of this. Even in the situation of an independent Catalonia, we would continue to play Real Madrid."

Rosell may also cite the examples of Swansea City, Cardiff City, Wrexham, Newport County et al as Welsh teams who play in the English leagues, but it may be wishful thinking on his part. There is no guarantee that UEFA or FIFA would agree to a club playing in what would be another country.

Football's international governing bodies have not been impressed by Rangers or Celtic's past efforts to join England's Premier League, nor by the suggestions occasionally mooted for leagues drawing clubs from different countries, from a North Atlantic league to one drawn from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. That might be the biggest warning for Barca, as a once thriving league featuring sides like Dinamo Zagreb, the two Sarajevo sides, Red Star and Partisan Belgrade and Hadjuk Split, has been reduced to five separate leagues, where teams which once played in the third or fourth division find themselves in the top flight.

If a Catalan league had to go it alone, there would be a vast disparity in size between Barca, then Espanyol and then the rest. The next highest performing clubs are second division Sabadell, Girona and Barca's B team. None attract average crowds higher than 4,000. Both Lleida and Gimnastic Tarragona have played in Spain's top flight in recent years, but both currently languish in the third tier.

There are numerous semi-professional clubs in and around Barcelona (including Europa who were founder members of the Spanish league in 1929), but they would be dwarfed by Barca and Espanyol in a domestic league — not that television companies would be willing to pay anything like what they pay now for a league which would be won annually by the same club.

UEFA and FIFA would accept a Catalan national side, though, and for a nation of 7.5 million it would provide a superb team. While the current European and world champions Spain would be decimated, Barca alone could provide a current XI which would beat most countries: Valdes; Montoya, Puyol, Pique, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Roberto; Fabregas, Cuenca and Tello. Players like Espanyol's Sergio Garcia, Capdevila and Verdu or Milan's Bojan and Sevilla's Fernando Navarro would add strength, while the currently unemployed (through choice) Guardiola could be coach.

There's no shortage of talents coming through the ranks at Barca or Espanyol, nor Catalans in other countries like Jordi Gomez and Roberto Martinez at Wigan. Though not recognised by FIFA, Catalonia have played more than 200 games since 1904.

There are varying demands for change from increased autonomy to absolute independence and 'Catalonia, a new European state' which the marchers talked of. The politics will make the headlines but what happens to the sports teams remains a significant issue in the formation of any future Catalan nation.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us on all matters in La Liga throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

Follow @AndyMitten

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