On Sunday, Barcelona recorded their seventh straight win to open the La Liga season. During the 3-0 home victory, Lionel Messi scored twice, taking his tally to 11 for the season, and the club maintained their five-point advantage atop the table. However, the atmosphere inside the stadium provided a stark contrast with what went on outside. Events on the streets around the city overshadowed the play on the field in one of most surreal days in Barcelona history.
Outside the Camp Nou
In the hours before kickoff, Catalans around the city and the region headed to the polls to vote in a referendum on independence from Spain. What began as a day of excitement soon devolved into chaos with the intervention of Spanish national police. While Catalan police refused to intercede on behalf of the state, at times clashing with their national counterparts, Spanish police wielded batons, fired tear gas, smashed windows, confiscated ballot boxes, and injured hundreds.
Such is FC Barcelona’s history that these events are not tangential but rather intimately connected with the club. To their supporters, the Blaugrana represent something greater than mere sport, a sentiment encapsulated in the club’s oft-quoted motto més que un club (more than a club). That the motto is in Catalan, rather than Spanish, is also telling. In the years of the Franco dictatorship, which saw the Catalan language and flag banned, the club offered one of the few public outlets for regional pride—as well as antagonism towards the Spanish state. This continues today, as the Marcha Real, Spain’s national anthem, and representatives of the Spanish royal family are still regularly jeered at the Camp Nou. Given its standing in the community, Barcelona’s match against Las Palmas was always likely to be fraught with tension.
Inside the Camp Nou
As the situation outside the stadium descended into greater turmoil and confusion, the situation within, though calmer, was no more clear. Even with kickoff approaching and fans gathered outside the gates, it remained uncertain whether or not the match would go ahead. Barcelona claim the league denied their request to postpone the match due to safety concerns, while also informing the club that any refusal to play would result in an automatic 3-0 defeat and a further three-point deduction. Less than half an hour before kickoff, an official announcement came down that the match would be played behind closed doors.
Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu maintained he intended the decision to be symbolic, though, in reality, it seemed more of a hedge. For anyone who watched the match or saw the images of the nearly one hundred thousand empty seats, it proved difficult not to imagine that the people who normally occupied those seats were instead in the streets. But if Barcelona wished to send a message, suffering the six-point deduction would have been far more poignant. From a sporting perspective, however, one can understand why they played the match, as the deduction would have nullified the club’s early lead in the table. Las Palmas did not pass up the opportunity to make a statement either, expressing their support for a unified nation by sewing Spanish flags onto their jerseys.
What the future holds
Despite the lack of clarity over the future, some ramifications of Sunday’s events are already apparent. An outspoken proponent of Catalan independence, Gerard Piqué fought back tears in his post-match remarks during which he offered to end his career with the national team if his stance causes a distraction. He has since decided to stay on, though some fans subjected him to their ire during Spain’s training ahead of their upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
What effect, if any, recent events will have on the national team is one outstanding question. Another pertains to Barcelona’s ongoing participation in La Liga. Were Catalonia to declare independence, Barcelona, as well as Espanyol and Girona, would need to decide whether or not to remain in the league. While staying in La Liga makes the most sense, league president Javier Tebas came out against the club’s continuing participation in the event of secession. Sources suggest French Ligue 1, Italian Serie A, and even the English Premier League as possible future homes. Tebas’s tough stance may be for show, though, as losing Barcelona to another league would result in a massive reduction of La Liga’s revenue.
As long as the political situation between Spain and Catalonia remains unresolved, questions over the club’s future will persist. Years of unprecedented success provided the platform for growth undreamed of during the dark days of the Franco era. Sunday’s events suggest Barcelona is finding it hard to negotiate a balance between their current obligations as a football club, chiefly winning matches and entertaining their fans, many of whom are not from the region, and their historical standing as an emblem of Catalan identity.