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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Spain Seeks to Hide Problems with Gibraltar Disruption: threatens rift with UK

The UK has lodged a formal complaint to Spain, accusing border authorities of disrupting entry into the British protectorate of Gibraltar. Stories of young children and pensioners being forced to wait up to six hours in boiling cars before being permitted across the border after increased vehicle searches has reinvigorated a long-standing dispute over territorial sovereignty.

It is convenient that Spanish authorities should decide to employ this harassment now, based on the feeble pretense that a new offshore artificial reef could encourage smuggling. In the wake of a disastrous train crash in the northwest of the country, and amidst dire economic turmoil and frequent evidence of government corruption, it is unsurprising that the Spaniards should reignite the Gibraltar debate in a bid to hide their woes.

Given the unpopularity of Mariano Rajoy’s government, and its conservative political stance, it is more surprising that pandering to nationalist sentiment over Gibraltar has not been employed more recently.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and between 1779 and 1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

British naval power enabled the capture of Gibraltar
British naval power enabled the capture of Gibraltar

Spain has been persistent in its claims that Gibraltar belongs to the mainland and, at its worst, closed the border to vehicles between 1969 and 1985. Yet these claims are infused with hypocrisy for one simple reason. Namely, that Spain has similar possessions along the North African coast.

The exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are to Morocco what Gibraltar is to Spain. Geographically part of the African continent, the territories have been under European control for centuries.

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Ceuta was, indeed, the location of one of the most chivalric battles in history, when forces of King John I of Portugal captured the city in 1415, following which his three sons (including Henry the Navigator) were knighted for their heroic deeds.The Union of the Crowns (of Spain and Portugal) in 1580 saw Ceuta pass to Spanish control and it has remained that way since.

Henry the Navigator came of age at Ceuta
Henry the Navigator came of age at Ceuta

Melilla, on the other hand, was captured by Castilian forces in 1497 as the Reconquista spilled over Spain’s borders. Despite frequent skirmishes and sieges involving a plethora of Moroccan tribesman and dynasts in the succeeding centuries, Melilla has remained part of Spain.

And, like Ceuta, it is a part of Spain, having been populated by Spaniards who have necessarily imbued the territory with their traditional culture. The same can be said for Gibraltar which, as its population will tell you, is just as much a part of Britain as London.

Gibraltar is an unapologetically British outpost
Gibraltar is an unapologetically British outpost

These territories may be outdated remnants of bygone imperialism, of which both Spain and Britain remain rightfully proud, yet their cultural and social make-up has come to defy their geography.

The needless bullying tactics employed by Spain’s crossing guards will serve no purpose in changing what has become territorial reality and will certainly provide no respite to the more serious challenges facing the Iberian country today.