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The Pep Paradox

FC Barcelona aims for Catalan independence yet still wants to play in the Spanish football league. How would this work?


The Catalan football team. Photo: FCB.

Local talent: Barça's members of the Catalan team, which currently only plays friendly games, pose with the region's flag. Photo: FCB.

August 2016: The newly-proclaimed state of Catalonia has separated completely from Spain, whose flags no longer fly anywhere in the city of Barcelona except on the flagstaff of the Spanish Embassy.

The sports press is full of news about the recent “friendly” international between the Catalan and Spanish national teams, the first in history, which despite a few ugly incidents outside the stadium passed off without a hitch. A goalless draw was seen by many as a fitting result to symbolise the relations between Spain and the nascent Catalan Republic. And of course the main story for sportswriters, as always, is FC Barcelona – Barça – as they prepare for a new season… playing against Real Madrid in the Spanish Football League.

We could call it the Pep Paradox: the only part of the new Catalonia that remains in Spain is Barça, Catalonia’s most famous name.

This future scenario is also the vision of Sandro Rosell, the current President of FC Barcelona. Rosell attended the September 11 rally for Catalan independence “in a personal capacity” and in a recent statement he has said that in a prospective Catalan state, Barça must continue to play in the Spanish league, “just as Monaco does in the French league”.

He rejects outright any proposal, such as that made by Catalan Football Federation president Andreu Subies, that Barça play in a Catalan league, where their only worthy opponent would be Spanish First Division tail-enders Espanyol. All other teams would be small second- and third-division local sides, a prospect which for obvious reasons would be unacceptable to the mighty Barça. Rosell moved quickly to reassure Barça fans that independence need not mean the end of football’s greatest tradition: “In an independent Catalonia, there would also be a Barça-Madrid ”.

However, the footballing authorities in Madrid disagree. Madrid’s right-wing daily ABC quotes unnamed sources in Spanish football’s governing body the Real Federación Española de Futbol (RFEF) and the Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP), which manages the league competition. These sources state that in a hypothetical case of Catalan independence, “all Catalan teams would be excluded from any national tournament as all clubs must be affiliated to the RFEF” – though of course rules can be changed if a consensus is reached.

The same anonymous sources scoff at the Monaco comparison: “It’s completely different. In that case the principality has a number of accords with France that go beyond merely sporting issues.” So, as with Catalan independence itself, the continuation of football’s famous clásico, and possibly the survival of Barça as a world-class team, would depend on complex negotiations between Catalan, Spanish and European authorities. The Pep Paradox is a microcosm of the Catalan independence question itself.

Barça is famously “more than a club” – it carried the pride and prestige of Catalans through the years of Franco’s dictatorship, when the Catalan culture was officially suppressed and its language outlawed. In democratic Spain the club continued to represent the heart of Catalan sporting culture, though it eschewed separatist politics, preferring instead to represent a Catalan cultural identity.

Pep Guardiola, captain of the Barça’s nineties “dream team”, played for Spain’s national team. But for Pep, it was not a matter of choice: “The law said we had to play for the Spanish team… So if the Spanish coach called me up, I had to go. I was pleased to go, but one cannot betray what one feels.” Whatever he felt, Pep continued to put on the red shirt and do his best for Spain. Today Victor Valdés, Gérard Piqué, Cesc Fàbregas, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández and Carles Puyol play in three squads: that of Barça, the world champion Spanish team, and the Catalan national team, which plays only friendly exhibition matches.

And whatever the Barça bosses felt – as in Real Madrid, the FCB directors are chosen by a democratic vote of club members – they refused to step into the minefield of nationalist politics. But that all changed in 2003 with the election of Joan Laporta to the Barça presidency.

The divisive Laporta

Lawyer by profession and politician by vocation, Laporta is a man with great ambitions for Catalonia which have seen him form and dissolve a veritable alphabet soup of Catalan separatist groups since the nineties. Today, he is member of the Catalan parliament as an independent, but he is in essence a one-man army who is notoriously divisive, even within the fractious world of Catalan separatist groups.

During Laporta’s seven-year stint as Barça president (2003-2010), the club moved from expressing a Catalan cultural identity toward symbolic gestures in favour of independence. In 2003 he took the Spanish flags away from Barça’s Camp Nou stadium, and in 2007 and 2008 he made the junior Barça team boycott the Spanish national anthem in the Junior Club Cup. Just before he left amid a storm of allegations of mismanagement and corruption in June 2010, he agreed to make Camp Nou one of the electoral colleges for the unofficial April 2011 referendum on independence in Barcelona. This was agreed to by incoming president Sandro Rosell, who despite his stinging accusations of shady deals against his former boss and colleague, shared with Laporta two grand ideas: Catalan independence and the hiring of Guardiola as Barça manager.

Guardiola is of course a football giant, perhaps the figure most widely respected both in international football and in Catalan society. He has never hidden his belief in Catalan independence, but has kept it separate from his professional career and always responded courteously in Spanish to questions posed in that language.

On September 11, he appeared in a video shown at the massive pro-independence rally in Barcelona. From New York, where he presently lives with his family, he sent a clear message: “Here’s another vote,” while showing a green card symbolising a vote for Catalan independence. The crowd, who expected no less from their hero, went wild; those who had suggested that he would make a fine successor to Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque promptly changed their minds. Pep has never stated where he thinks Barça should play in an independent Catalan state. The Pep Paradox is far from being resolved.

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Published: Sep 21 2012
Category: Sports, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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2 Comments for “The Pep Paradox”

    • Hi Alan
      I’m a journalist working on a piece about the implications for Barcelona FC of Catalonia’s independence movement, and noticed your very insightful feature on Iberosphere. Wondered if you might be available for a chat on the phone. If so, drop me an email and maybe we can take it from there

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