With the political uprising in Catalonia continuing to escalate and cause controversy, Spanish football has been embroiled in a row and the remaining fixtures in La Liga have become uncertain. The league’s president, Javier Tebas, described the situation underwhelmingly as “something to be analysed”, when in truth, the issue has the potential to be a grave matter for Spanish football.
The Catalonia region’s government, led by its president, Carles Puigdemont, has proposed that the region should become a country in its own right, and therefore detach from Spain. Though Sunday’s referendum was highly irregular, and, in fact, illegal because Spain, who are in this case the central state, and as a result govern Catalonia at this time, failed to negotiate the legality of the proposal. A voting system on such a scale like this, akin to Brexit, can lead to drastic changes in territory and politics. For better or for worse, the effects can be felt for a long time.
Catalonia’s decision to hold a referendum, in which they will use the results as a reason to declare independence, is dangerous. The vote itself has created polar opposite debates, divided societies and has caused extreme behaviour and violence; Spanish football has taken a large brunt of the force and, sadly, the consequences are likely to continue.
In a symbolic vote, in which the result only stands to prove how strong, or weak, a bid has the potential to be, around 90 percent of 2.26 million voters in Catalonia decided that they were pro independence.
Catalan giants Barcelona played out their routine 3-0 victory against Las Palmas on Sunday, the day of the vote, behind closed doors at the Camp Nou. The city itself has seen more than its fair share of extremism and bad behaviour, but political discord has always failed to reach the walls of what is one of the world’s great football stadiums – until last week. A Barca fan club, called ‘Animation Stand’, threatened to launch a protest, during the game, over the aforementioned referendum. The powers that be at Barca, led by president Josep Bartomeu, decided to close the game off for spectators altogether to avoid potential riots between the club’s own fans.
Last week, along with RCD Espanyol and Girona, Barca led a general football strike during the build up to the Las Palmas fixture because of how violently the Spanish police treated pro-independence voters, which led to damning, harrowing images being posted on social media. More than 840 people needed medical assistance following violent charges by Spanish civil guard officers in ugly scenes as part of Spain’s deepest political crisis for decades.
But, simply stopping supporters coming to matches will fail to solve the problem; in fact, as some would argue, depriving them of watching their club may cause even more unrest in the long run. Barca will also suffer without fans paying good money coming through the turnstiles. Sunday’s episode cost the club €3.4 million.
If the declaration of independence was to come into force, the Spanish FA (RFEF) and La Liga would have to suspend matches in which the Catalan clubs were to be competing in until it is agreed that they are not breaching any sporting laws by competing against teams from what would be a different country in Spain. The law includes teams from Spain and Andorra, so if Catalonia was declared as separate, the simplest measure would be to suspend all fixtures until each club’s situation has been made clear to maintain a level playing field in the league. But, in a World Cup year, finding the time to extend the La Liga season, whilst also complying with the UEFA Europa League and Champions League, would be almost impossible.
Spain’s high court last week launched a criminal investigation against the Catalan police and the organisers of the referendum on suspicion of causing a rebellion against Spain. The Spanish king charged separatists, from Barcelona, for behaving “outside of the law and outside democracy.” With each day, Spain’s national authorities and the pro-independence bodies in Catalonia appear to be moving inexorably towards a dramatic confrontation.
Gerard Pique, who recently reached the milestone of 250 appearances for Barcelona, actively supports the independence campaign and felt the full force of the ill feeling from Spain towards pro-independence supporters. Despite being a key player in his country’s victory at the European Championships in 2008 and 2012, as well as the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, he was booed and heckled every time he touched the ball during Spain’s 3-0 victory over Albania last week by his own fans. He suffered an injury to the face after being elbowed during a goal-line scramble which, heartbreakingly, was met by cheers from sections of the Spanish supporters.
He said after the game: “For many years people could not vote here. It is a right that should be defended by all means. I am Catalan and I feel today, more than ever, proud of the Catalan people.”
Pique admitted that not only would his comments potentially displease large factions amongst the national team’s fans, but his views would also be met with disarray by his own teammates, his coaches and even the Spanish FA.
He said: “If the manager or the Spanish FA thinks that I am a problem, then I have no issue in stepping aside and leaving the team.”
Fellow national team regulars Marc Bartra, Jordi Alba, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets would potentially have the same issue, though none of them have been as outspoken as Pique in recent weeks.
Puigedemont, following a meeting with his team on Tuesday afternoon, has asked for the Spanish parliament to suspend the effects of Catalonia voting for independence in order to hold talks with Spain; his decision was perhaps influenced by the Madrid government’s threats to send him to jail for the irregularities in his independence bid. He has set out plans for the future of the province – these new laws could influence the Catalan teams’ involvement in La Liga.
Since the vote last weekend, which was marred by violence by Spanish police towards voters, relations between the Spanish government and the separatists have reached a new low. La Liga, and the Spanish national team, are examples of establishments that could be descended in chaos if, or more likely, when, Catalonia’s independence comes into action.
It is difficult to imagine La Liga without Barcelona. When football was introduced to Catalonia in the late 19th century by British immigrant workers and visiting sailors, the region led the way in developing football in Spain – Barcelona was, in fact, one of the founding clubs of the football association in Catalonia before moving to compete in La Liga in 1928. But, what about now? It is unfathomable to think of one of the greatest clubs playing anywhere but Spain’s top division but as the political unrest grows, the club’s position is under threat.