Barcelona vs Madrid: on the streets and on the pitch, history and politics magnified

The case of Catalan independence has taken a new turn, with the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy now vowing to restrict the autonomy of the restive region in a bid to enforce Madrid’s rule. 

A series of pro- and anti-independence rallies have taken place throughout Catalonia after the illegal referendum of October 1, notably in its major city Barcelona.

Pro-independence supporters clash with police in Barcelona

Barcelona is perhaps better known world over not for its separatist inclinations, nor for its cultural or economic merits, but for its soccer team. Along with the team of the capital, Real Madrid, Barca comprise part of a sporting duopoly whose rivalry has almost become a symbol of the internal divisions between Spain’s historic powerhouses.

In the build-up to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) Catalonia became a hotbed of Republicanism. Barcelona FC were seen as the sporting representatives of a ruling elite who favoured greater regional autonomy, a political class intent on reviving the glory days of Aragonese democracy.

James I overseeing the Cortes of Aragon, an early institution of political representation

Real Madrid, meanwhile, were bastions of conservatism, the team of King and Church.

The General Election of 1936 saw the Popular Front (a leftist alignment of communists, socialists, republicans and regionalists) sneak victory over the Popular Front (a right-wing amalgam of Carlists, Christian Democrats and black-shirt Falangists). Part of the political reform ushered in by the Popular Front was increased autonomy for Catalonia, a reward for years of Republican support.

A strike by the Army in July 1936 set the country onto a wartime footing and a military uprising in Madrid against the Republican government was led by General Adolfo Melendez, a former Real Madrid player. A now-armed Popular Front repulsed the uprising and Real’s stadium and training facilities were soon turned over to public use; a socialist recreational arena.

Meanwhile, Josep Sunyol, president of Barcelona FC, was executed by Falangist militia on his way to Madrid.

Josep Sunyol, friend of the political left, became a Barcelona martyr

The civil war would ultimately turn sour for the Republicans. General Franco’s Nationalists seized Madrid in March 1939, having already received the blessing of FIFA for their proposed football federation in 1937, long before the outcome of the war was clear. One of Franco’s more prominent soldiers was Santiago Bernabeu, a legend of Real Madrid whose stadium still bears his name.

For Barcelona FC, synonymous with Republicanism and the cause of Catalan independence, the ascendancy of Franco was a period to forget. Bullied and harassed into accepting the authority of Madrid, they were made to pay for their treachery.

Of particular note was a 1943 national cup semi-final – renamed the Copa del Generalisimo for obvious reasons – in which Barca had won the first left of their tie against Real Madrid 3-0. Prior to the return leg in the Spanish capital, the Barcelona dressing room was visited by Jose Escriva de Romani, the notorious Director of State Security. He made it clear what the result should be.

Santiago Bernabeu. Real Madrid legend…Francoist stooge?

With free whistles handed out to the Madrid supporters so that they could show their displeasure every time their opponents had the ball, Barca lost 11-1. An historical enmity, already strong prior to the Civil War, was cemented.

For many fans, Barcelona vs Real Madrid is about football and nothing else. For many others, it is political, it is cultural. Progress vs tradition, liberalism vs conservatism.

When Barcelona defender Gerard Pique – an outspoken supporter of Catalan independence – offered to retire from the Spanish national team, there were howls of derision from Madrid. Both Pique and his predecessor, former club captain Carles Puyol, went so far as to play for a Catalonia ‘international team’, much to the disgust of their Spanish colleagues at Real Madrid. Indeed, with the two clubs supplying the bulk of the players for the national squad, it is little wonder that Spain’s footballers took so long to live up to the promise their undoubted talent merited.

Barca fans make their feelings clear

Despite the unrest, an independent Catalonia remains a distant dream for those who desire it. What Madrid’s latest move will provoke is unclear but with the ‘silent majority’ still reluctant to throw their support behind the separatists, it would take a violent reprisal of national police heavy-handedness to swing their support towards independence.

For Barca and Real, however, these developments will simply add an extra degree of spice to an already charged and hostile atmosphere when they next meet. Sporting and political affiliation, enveloped in the shadow of a dark and divisive recent history, has rarely been more significant.

Additional Reading

Goldblatt, D (2006), The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football

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Catalan Nationalism and the Pioneers of Accountability

A recent deportation case in Spain has reignited debates over a potential referendum for Catalan independence. Nourredine Ziani, a Spanish-Moroccan was served deportation papers, amidst claims that he is a “threat to national security”. Ziani vehemently denies charges of collaboration with extremist Muslims or that he is a spy for the Moroccan government. Importantly, Ziani is a director of the New Catalan Foundation, an organisation that helps immigrants integrate into Catalan society. The foundation is pro-independence and consequently Ziani’s dubious deportation has been highlighted as an effort by the Madrid-based government to stifle a potentially troublesome voice.

Catalonia has always retained a strong regional identity, like most of the Spanish states. The recent push for independence from many Catalan quarters stems from the perceived misrepresentation of the region by the Madrid politicians. Catalonia pays a disproportionate amount of taxes and contributes significantly to the Spanish economy and yet the politicians continue along the lines of financial mismanagement and austerity measures within the province.

Catalan independence rallies intensified last year
Catalan independence rallies intensified last year

For the people of Catalonia, the lack of accountability from the government is unacceptable and this region of Spain is particularly well-imbued with such sentiments. Whilst medieval European societies remained dominated by powerful monarchies and noblemen, the Crown of Aragon (incorporating the domains of Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia) was setting an historical benchmark.

The Cortes, comprising representatives of the nobility, clergy and townspeople (the three estates), were particularly well developed in the territories of the Aragonese Crown. As early as 1283 in Catalonia, laws could only be created or amended with the express permission of both the monarchy and the Corts. This prevented a dictatorial monarchy. Furthermore, in Aragon, Justicias were appointed to prevent individual noble houses from acquiring too much influence within the Corts, to ensure that no royal officials broke the laws of the land, and to guard the individual subjects against any exercising of arbitrary power.

The Cortes of the Aragonese Crown were a rare medieval expression of democratic representation
The Cortes of the Aragonese Crown were a rare medieval expression of democratic representation

In 14th century Catalonia was developed the institution of the Diputacio. This consisted of three Diputats to represent each of the three estates of society and each Diputat was limited to an office term of three years. The Diputacio organised the payment of fair and reasonable subsidies to the Crown and the Diputats also became guardians of Catalan liberties. Royal officials overstepping their authority were brought into line with the withdrawal of subsidies and severe repudiations were handed out. Similar institutions would be established in Aragon and Valencia.

The three estates were therefore free from encroachment by the Crown as long as the Diputacio functioned effectively, a phenomenon alien to the rest of Europe at the turn of the 15th century. Writing in 1406, a representative of the Catalan Corts asked:

What people is there in the world enjoying as many freedoms and exemptions as you; and what people so generous? 

An allegiance oath to the Aragonese king in the 16th century is rumoured to have proceeded:

We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws: but if not, not.

Where else would you hear words such as this in late medieval and early modern Europe? The people equal to their sovereign? Before Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau espoused the virtue of a social contract between a ruler and his people, the Aragonese and Catalan people had entered into one with their king.

Such a process of accountability was a cornerstone of stability for the Aragonese Crown, allowing it to build a prosperous mercantile empire in the Mediterranean, with the acquisition of Sicily and much of the Italian peninsula. Political appointments made by the Crown to colonial outposts entered into similar contracts with the colonists, prohibiting their misrule.

Simultaneously, the Castillan (Madrid) model was one of unchallenged monarchical power and the favouritism bestowed on particular noble houses. For the Catalan people, lack of accountability for the ruling elite was unacceptable. When their liberties were challenged by a united Crown ruled from Madrid in the seventeenth century, the Catalans revolted to the extent that part of their territory was ceded to France.

The Catalan Revolt (1640-1659) challenged the authoritarian rule of the Spanish Crown
The Catalan Revolt (1640-1659) challenged the authoritarian rule of the Spanish Crown

With this history behind them, the people of Catalonia will not give up their quest for accountability, independence and, ultimately, control over their own destiny.

Source: J H  Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716