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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1492 vs 2017 Islam in Western Europe: Assimilation or Expulsion?

The recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester have reinforced the idea that the greatest security threat in Western Europe today is ‘Islam from within’, homegrown Muslims perpetrating atrocities against their neighbours. It follows on from similarly harrowing events in France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany in the last couple of years.

Terror in Manchester: many of the victims were children

Several of the terrorists have been second or third generation children of earlier immigrants, their targets being their countrymen.

This sickening threat continues to materialise even 525 years after Islam lost its last political foothold in Western Europe. In 1492, the year Columbus discovered the New World, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon – the sainted Catholic Monarchs – completed the conquest of Granada and united the Iberian Peninsula under a Christian banner.

Ferdinand and Isabella

This momentous event marked the end of Al-Andalus – or Islamic Iberia -which had begun in the 8th century with the Ummayad conquest of the Visigothic kingdom of Hispania and the subsequent establishment of the Caliphate of Cordoba.

At its peak Al-Andalus encompassed almost the entire Iberian Peninsula and part of southern France. During the Middle Ages, Islamic commercial power stretched beyond Iberia into central Europe, connected by the Mediterranean and the North African trade routes to the great cities of the Middle East like Damascus and Baghdad.

Art flourished in Al-Andalus, with garden scenes a particular Muslim favourite

Hopes of a Christian reconquista developed almost as soon as the Islamic crescent landed in Western Europe. But the Muslim powers were too strong, with the victory of the Almoravid forces at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086 proving decisive. Islam was here to stay.

Christian dreams now rested on the constant upheavals in the Berber world, with invaders regularly moving into North Africa from the Sahel and then on to Al-Andalus, prompting dynastic change.

This ultimately hampered the stability of the Islamic chokehold on Iberia, and the turning point would come during the Almohad Caliphate. In 1212 an alliance of Christian princes defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. The momentum gained proved unstoppable, Cordoba and Seville falling to the cross in 1236 and 1248 respectively.

The Cross triumphed at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

Only the Emirate of Granada (the Nasrid Kingdom) held on for another 250 years, a southern outpost that could be easily supplied and reinforced from Muslim North Africa. By the late 15th century, however, the Emirate was crumbling, with a united Spanish kingdom under Isabella and Ferdinand taking advantage of the political chaos within the Nasrid dynasty, hampered as it was by succession crises and political intrigue.

In 1492 the city of Granada fell, its leader Boabdil fled and the Iberian Peninsula was once again Christian. There has been no dominant Islamic polity in Western Europe since this point.

The final frontier of the Reconquista – Granada

This is not to say that Islamic strongholds don’t exist in Western Europe today. From Paris to London, Birmingham to Berlin, Muslim enclaves have developed as a result of prolonged and intensive immigration, precipitated both by the end of colonialism and war in the Middle East. It is such ‘hotbeds’ that have tended to produce the homegrown terrorists now so feared by the public in European countries.

So what to do?

In 1492, the majority of the defeated Muslims were expelled from Spain. Their flight was not a long one, however, for most could peacefully settle in the Berber territories of North Africa.

At the same time, however, an equally important development occurred in Spanish, indeed European, history. Isabella and Ferdinand issued an edict expelling the Jews from their lands.

Jewish people had been an important part of Al-Andalus culture for centuries, providing a commercial zeal and pragmatism valued by both Muslim and Christian princes. Their expulsion was tempered – or so the Catholic Monarchs saw it – by the fact that they could remain in Spain should they apostatise. Indeed, the edict may have been a ploy to encourage this.

Boabdil rides out to surrender to the Catholic Monarchs

Many Jews had, in fact, already renounced their faith, perhaps sensing that the imminent Christian unification of the peninsula would unleash a wave of religious fervour from which they would not escape.

These converts – or ‘conversos’ as they were derogatively known – encouraged the spread and intensity of the notorious Spanish Inquisition, whose leaders distrusted the genuineness of the Jewish (and in fewer cases Muslim) conversions.

The methods of the Spanish Inquisition included torture

Despite the fear provoked by the Inquisition, the majority of Spanish Jews took their chances in 1492 and publicly declared their faith in the Catholic God and his divinely-appointed monarchs. It was a more appealing future than risking life in Muslim North Africa, hardly a bastion of tolerance, then or now.

The gradual assimilation of the Jews would prove to be of great benefit to the nascent Spanish state, their commercial enterprise and financial sophistication way beyond what the Christians could initially offer.

Today, as in 1492, there seem to be two choices regarding how to deal with the Muslims of Western Europe:

1) Assimilation

2) Expulsion

The former option has been the one favoured since mass immigration began after WWII. Indeed, many of the initial immigrants were successfully integrated into their European societies, becoming a pioneering force in modern multicultural life.

Unfortunately, this peaceful assimilation has in many cases been overlooked and dismissed by later generations of Muslims, who have come to feel isolated within a culture that they do not perceive as their own. Recent immigrants from the Middle East and Africa – whilst on the whole respectful of their host country – have in larger numbers perpetuated radical views and acts.

Some Muslims advocate Sharia law for the UK

Should we, therefore, launch our own inquisition? Wiretapping mosques, increasing police presence in radical areas, and carrying out random interrogations of all ages of Muslims might seem unsavoury. Yet coupled with the influential input of peaceful Muslim leaders it might encourage a greater degree of cultural assimilation.

If this is a futile or unconscionable endeavour then expulsion surely has to be considered. Muslims guilty of, or even suspected of, supporting terrorism – and this is obviously a problematic definition in itself – must be forcibly removed, deported to a country willing to take them; asylum seeking in reverse if you like.

Most of the recent attacks have been carried out by people ‘known to the security services’. This begs the question: why were they allowed to stay and commit these atrocities?

The fear of infringing human rights and the desire not to radicalise other Muslims by seemingly victimising their brethren seem to be overwhelming factors. But do these considerations offset the bitter regret and genuine sadness of the ruling elite when dozens of innocent, law-abiding citizens get wiped out?

The prolonged battle to deport Abu Hamza showed the barrier human rights can raise against reason

These questions have been forced to the forefront of the general election debate in the UK, with people due to go to the polls on Thursday. Which party is going to be able to stand up to the terrorist threat, without further alienating an already disconcerted Muslim populace?

Forget Brexit, security is what is dominating the concerns of the average Briton today. Looking back to 1492 one revisits the question: Expulsion or Assimilation? Embrace diversity and reap the benefits of different worldviews? Or accept division and wait for the inevitable horror?

To which vision do you subscribe?