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


ETA Disarms to Return Basque Nationalism to Civil War Resilience

The militant Basque separatists ETA have finally called time on their four-decade campaign of violence to secure an independent homeland in the north of Spain. At least 829 people have lost their lives since the bloodshed began in 1961, ranging from innocent children to the Spanish Prime Minister.

Police seize a declared ETA weapons cache in southern France

This violent strain of Basque nationalism emerged from the ashes of the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), with the victorious Franco regime denying the Basque people the little autonomy they previously possessed.

Nationalism and dreams of independence were not a new idea for the northerners inhabiting the French-Spanish border and the Basque Army fought ferociously to deny the advance of Franco’s Nationalists in 1937.

19th Battalion of the Basque Army, 1937

Particularly intriguing is the notable effort made by the Basque people during the Civil War to prevent the indiscriminate acts of violent retribution that plagued both sides and came to characterise the conflict.

‘The moderate Socialists and the Basque nationalists were in the forefront of efforts to put a stop to rearguard outrages…strenuous efforts to put a stop to arbitrary arrests and executions were made by Jesus Galindez of the Basque delegation in Madrid and by Manuel Irujo Olla, the piously Catholic Basque’. (Preston, pp. 291-292)

Additionally, the Basque country was the only region within the Republican sphere that did not see widespread looting and destruction of Church property, the clerical establishment having become inextricably linked with Franco’s forces.

Does this failed attempt at an honourable, bloodless resistance during the Spanish Civil War partly explain ETA’s violent course after its foundation in 1959? Undoubtedly many Basque people never associated themselves with what became a terrorist organisation, regardless of whether they shared some of the group’s ambitions.

The bombing of Guernica – a Basque town of no strategic importance – by Nazi & Italian aircraft in league with Franco, stunned the world

Perhaps it is telling that ETA evolved out of a student movement unhappy at the moderate stance of the Basque Nationalist Party. Young men who had not witnessed the ravages of war first hand were maybe unappreciative of what taking up arms really meant.

For millions of others in Spain, the legacy of civil war and the Franco dictatorship has ingrained pacifism. This has denied ETA the widespread support of the people it claims to represent and ultimately meant its bloody struggle – like that of the IRA – would end in defeat at the hands of a militarily strong and resilient democratic government.

Support for Basque nationalism remains strong but it will continue without the backdrop of ETA violence


Preston, P. The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (2012)