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Old 30th October 2017, 13:14   #1
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Default Catalans are looking to FC Barcelona for leadership again, but will they provide it?

Catalans are looking to FC Barcelona for leadership again, but will they provide it?

Sam Wallace Chief Football Writer
28 October 2017 • 6:00pm

It began with the Sang Cule, the fans of basketball franchise FC Barcelona Basquet, whose banner supporting two imprisoned Catalan leaders was confiscated by the club on the flimsiest of pretences before their EuroLeague game on Tuesday against the Lithuanians Zalgiris Kaunas.

The club’s official response was that they did not have sufficient time to “review the content” of the banners, trying to keep up the hopeless pretence that many sports institutions have attempted to maintain, that old lie that sport and politics should be kept separate. In Catalonia they know better than most that sport is politics and politics is sport and sooner or later their world famous football club is going to have to take a stand one way or another on the region’s push for independence.

The Barcelona basketball fans were there to protest the jailing of the two civic leaders, Jordi Sanchez from the National Catalan Assembly, and Jordi Cuixart, from Omnium Cultural. Both men have helped organise the demonstrations and protests that have brought millions of ordinary Catalans onto the streets and for most of those people, the two Jordis are regarded as nothing less than political prisoners.

The basketball fans who had their banner confiscated ended up walking away from the game in protest at the refusal to allow them to make a statement. FC Barcelona Basquet is part of the giant multi-sport institution over which FC Barcelona presides and it is inevitable that this great symbol of Catalan identity will soon be drawn into the debate. The team played away at Bilbao on Saturday night but by the time they return to the Nou Camp to play Seville on Nov 4, the effects of Mariano Rajoy’s order to impose direct rule on the Catalan region will be felt keenly.

Of more immediate interest is Real Madrid’s away game on Sunday in Girona, owned by Manchester City, ruled over by Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere, and in a hotbed of Catalan nationalism. The European champions are a symbol of the Spanish state and it would be safe to say that even without the current civil unrest they would be assured of a hostile reception at Estadio Montilivi.

As of Saturday evening there was still no statement from FC Barcelona on the dissolving of the Catalan government and the dismissal of its president Carlos Puigdemont. That in itself is unusual and suggests that, as with the basketball banners, the club is desperately trying, for as long as possible, to stay out of the argument that is gripping the region of which it is such an integral part.

There is some sympathy for the club’s position given that the referendum and the Catalan government’s subsequent declaration of independence is deeply divisive itself among the region’s population with a turnout was as low as 43 per cent for the unofficial ballot. FC Barcelona’s decision to play their Oct 1 Liga game against Las Palmas behind closed doors on the day of the referendum was a move that pleased neither side.

It was a weak compromise that gave into the unreasonable threat by Liga president Javier Tebas, a man with right-wing political sympathies, that there would be a points deduction if the fixture was not fulfilled. It demonstrated the bind in which the modern Barcelona find themselves as a European super-club, locked in an endless battle for supremacy with Real Madrid over trophies, the world’s top players, and the golden promise of football’s new growth Asian markets.

They embrace and cherish their heritage as a club that stood against the 37-year Franco dictatorship when the Nou Camp remained one of the last places where the Catalan identity could be celebrated. Indeed, the “Mes Que Un Club” slogan is just one more subtle nod to those days and that commercially priceless reputation that Barcelona fans from all over the world buy into: that of a rebel club which heroically thrived in spite of the powers ranged against it.

In the 40 years since Franco died and fascism ended in Spain, the club has evolved into a brand of world-renown with an annual revenue projected to be €897 million in their next accounts, and now pitched again into the centre of a political dispute that is arguably more complex to navigate that its 20th century predecessor. Is Barcelona still more than a club, or will an institution that has been largely defined by its political stance attempt to frame the argument that sport and politics must be kept apart?

It is an indication of just how divisive the notion of Catalan independence has become that two directors immediately resigned from the Barcelona board in the wake of the decision to go ahead with the Las Palmas game. Tebas has talked in the past about the impossibility of Barcelona, Espanyol and Girona playing in La Liga were Catalonia to push ahead with independence and the club will also have noted the falling share prices of Catalan banks in the wake of Friday’s announcement.

For the most part, leadership of major European football clubs has been about making money and spending money and nowhere more than in the Premier League where the old political allegiances of clubs are more frayed than ever. The Victorian roots of all our major clubs were in the urban working-class populations that supported them, yet the bigger and more global they have become, so that connection to the politics and the culture of ordinary people has been lost.

At Barcelona there was always the sense of something authentic, the thrill of a more important struggle beyond the glory of the majestic football that the team played. That struggle was entombed in the past - usefully dormant and extremely marketable. The events of the last few months in Catalonia have proved that the old arguments, divisions and recriminations are still alive and now the people once again look to their famous football club for leadership.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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