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In Barça, football has never been the only game at stake

Why FC Barcelona is more than a club


During more than a century, F.C. Barcelona has not only been known for its football, but also for its political position towards democracy and Catalan identity. Today, this commitment with Catalonia’s political future seems stronger than ever, as thousands of fans call for independence in every match. Either for its long sociopolitical ethos or its strong international projection, Barça emerges as a social phenomenon that transcends the world of football. Meet the main reasons why Barça is still more than a club.

Match day at Camp Nou

October 20. In Barcelona, today Barça meets Bate Borisov, on the fourth match of this year’s Champions League. As thousands of fans crowd the streets surrounding Camp Nou, I foresee my colleagues in the front terrace of a local bar. As it was predictable, the main topic of the discussion flows between the latest political events and Luis Enrique’s possible alignment against Bate. Although I do not often go to the stadium, my friends do, as they belong to a fan group known for its unwavering commitment both with the club and the country. Today’s match is special for them, as some organizations have proposed to fill the Camp Nou with esteladas (Catalan separatist flags) after UEFA’s banned the use of it in the stadium. After a little, some friends even show up with a pack of these flags. As soon as they start to hand them out to the crowd, everybody seems to wants one (even clueless tourists).

In the stadium, everything appears to be as much politicized as theatrical. In the beginning, the Champions League anthem is received by a loud blast from the fans. Later on, shortly after the stadium watch marks the seventeenth minute, the major part of the crowd stands up to raise his estelada and shout out independence; an action that will be repeated in the second half as a tribute to the events of 1714, in which Catalonia lost its sovereign institutions after its defeat against the Bourbon king Philip V. It must be noted that this routine has been followed by the major part of fans for several years, either in normal matches or the most important ones, as a parallel phenomenon to the exponential growth of separatism in Catalonia. It could be said, in the end, that is not unusual, as Camp Nou has always been a good thermometer of Catalan society: a place in which we expressed our feelings and thoughts in times in which it was forbidden to express them publicly.

         A history of the club

The first memorable episode of this nature dates back to the twenties, when Barça’s stadium was closed down by the army after the crowd whistled the Spanish national anthem in response to the hostile policy against Catalan nationalism carried out by Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship (1923-1930). Despite this fact, it was a time of success for Barça, with the appearance of some of its first legends and an important rise of its supporters. Still, that positive progression would drastically end with the emergence of fascism. In 1936, Barça’s president Josep Sunyol was arrested and murdered by Franco’s men due to his relation with Catalonia’s ruling party. In 1939, after the conquest of Barcelona by Franco troops, the club fall to the control of the regime, which purged the institution from its Catalan symbols and employees related to the Republic.

It must be said though, that during Franco era Barça mixed harsh times with great victories. Following the aftermath of the civil war for instance, the club lived a successful decade, getting to sign Kubala (one of Barça’s greatest legends), to win five national cups (1952) and to inaugurate its current stadium (1957). Still, the years that followed were generally deceiving, as few titles were won. The general position between present supporters about the relation between Franco and Barça could be summed up as a ceaseless policy of hostility against the club, combined with a strong support to Real Madrid through funding, control of referees and influence peddling in the La Liga signing policy. Objectively speaking, not all of these details seem provable today, though it is true that Real Madrid signed its Argentinian star Di Stéfano in a process surrounded by a strong controversy, at the same time the Spanish club soon became the best in Spain and Europe by wining five European cups in a row. What could have been the regime reasoning behind that institutional support to Real Madrid? As some historians point out, creating a valuable asset with strong international projection, which helped normalize its situation among the international community (it must be recalled that Franco’s rule was established after a coup d’état against a democratically elected government and that he expressed strong sympathies for Hitler during Second World War, hence a public diplomacy strategy was urgently needed after the conflict).

From the last years of Franco dictatorship to current days, Barça has met its most glorious era: world legends such as Cruyff, Maradona, Romario, Ronaldinho or Messi have left their mark in the club, confirming it as one of the best in European football. Socially and politically speaking, this transition from local to global has not come without a cost, as Barça has had to make concessions and renounce to several parts of its own identity. Nowadays for example, it is hard for Barça managers to arbitrate between a major part of its local fans, who wish to see a major engagement from the club concerning the Catalan cause; and its Spanish supporters, who do not understand this imbrication between the club and nationalism and fear to be left aside. The following data very much expresses this dilemma: it is calculated that between 15 and 20% of Spaniards express some kind of sympathy for Barça, in front of a 25% who prefer Real Madrid.

         Between idealism and pragmatism: Barça and Catalonia

The history of the club, which focused the first part of my article, summarizes the deep relation between Barça and local politics. In this sense, the club’s history has always been defined, with the exception of Franco era (1939-1975), by a strong relation between fans, club managers and Catalan nationalism. This political imbrication permeates today on plenty of aspects of the club’s life, from institutional relations to unconventional exhibitions of patriotism, such as the tradition to call “Visca el Barça i Visca Catalunya” among the players of the team during trophy celebrations (no matter their origin). To focus on the Catalan issue, however, would only explain a half of the club’s political compromise with its environment, being the other half its strong commitment with democracy. In this sense, Barça has generally advocated for a democratic Spain (especially during times of war and repression), yet its major efforts in favor of participation have been related to its own functioning as a club. In this regard, it is shocking to observe how Barça is not constituted as a private company, but as a club owned by its more than one hundred thousand socis (partners or associates who pay an annual fee to the club). At an institutional level, this democratic functioning is translated into the election of the club’s board of directors through the vote of its associates; an institution that is supervised annually by the same associates in a general assembly. The fact that this democratic functioning was boosted during the late sixties (in the equator Franco era) proves that Barça has understood its role as a local leader, capable of promoting social change in its environment.

It must be said though, that this democratic nature is far from defining Barça as a whole, as its deep functioning might be as much elitist as the one of any other successful football club. In this regard, the Camp Nou VIP box plays an important role for the social life of the city elite: primarily, because it acts as a showcase for luxury and well connected people, but also because it is an excellent framework for businessmen and politicians in which to close profitable deals. It must be recalled that Barcelona concentrates more than the 40% of the luxury business in Spain, and that Catalonia represents its wealthiest community. By the time, that quota of power and wealth even lead to the rise of an institutional establishment inside Barça’s government, formed by renowned members of the city bourgeoisie, and which not only controls the general functioning of the club, but also its related media. That being said, it is interesting to analyze how this group has also developed close relations with Catalonia’s political, finance and mass media establishment, and how this network deals with separatism and Madrid with both idealism and pragmatism. It must be pointed out, however, that this “deep state” inside Barça’s government has not always been in full control of the club, as former president Laporta, which ruled between 2003 and 2011, was considered to be an outsider.

         When football meets international relations

International visibility also plays a key role in understanding Barça as a phenomenon that transcends the world of football. After its successful golden decade (2005-2015) for instance, the club has achieved the figure of 270 million followers on a global scale, an audience that uses to promote values and social change alongside its partnerships. It is by these and other reasons that we could consider Barça as a rising international power, given that the club 1) holds a set of self-interests which 2) wields through its soft influence in 3) certain arenas of international life by 4) maintaining direct relations with an assortment of international agents.

A lot could be said about this peculiar angle in Barça’s institutional profile, yet the specific question I would like to raise here is mainly teleological: What functions can modern clubs such as Barça have in international life? From my point of view, a great deal of its role is related to the club’s good publicity, as a great deal of international agents take advantage of its branding possibilities to promote their own interests. It is the case of countries such as Qatar (which has maintained a substantial economic partnership with the club since 2011), organizations such as UNICEF or corporations such as Nike or Beko. That broad set of collaborating agents prove that international life is not only restricted to bilateral relations between states, nor entirely based on coercive actives or economic relations: in this sense, Qatar’s interest to sponsor Barça’s kit shows an open aim to promote its public image through the success of a football club, in the same way that Beko aspires to increase its international sales or UNICEF to achieve greater quotas of political impact by the same way. That proves an important idea in relation to our understanding of international relations and geopolitics: countries are not only interested in increasing its power, but also in making themselves attractive.

That being said, I would even identify a second role in my analysis, although it might be more vague and shadowy to prove. By that I am referring to the consolidation of Barça as an international agora where powerful relations between national and international agents are established. In recent years for instance, Barça’s establishment has acted as a resourceful channel for foreign investors wishing to achieve valuable assets in Spanish soil, mainly hotels, real estate and retail areas. The geographic origin of those flows came mainly from Gulf countries and South America, with a minor impact of Russian and East Asian wealth. The best example of this multipurpose exchange is the current sponsor of Barça’s kit, Qatar Airways, a company which has invested heavily in Barcelona’s airport in recent years (aiming to establish an intercontinental hub in southern Europe). One of the competitors of the Qatari, Fly Emirates, seems to follow the same strategy, by sponsoring Real Madrid’s kit and investing strongly in Barajas airport.

         Is Barça really that special?

Indeed, a reader of this article which is also a connoisseur of the current situation in European football might think that the case of Barça is really not that special, given that other clubs have experienced the same transformations that Barça in recent years. Personally, I think that this is true to some extent, considering that countries like Qatar also fund other large clubs, and that football has been a forum for wealth, business opportunities and political networking for years. In this sense, the aim of this article has been to describe how those items have been playing a significant role in the life of Barça and Catalonia for a long time, and how this relation has been growing relevant in recent years due to the ongoing political debate in Spain.

Photo Flickr by Andrei Pop

Jaume Puigpinós
Jaume is Project Assistant at Oxfam Intermón in Barcelona. He previously worked at the Consulate general of Spain in Amsterdam and at the European Institute of the Mediterranean in Barcelona as a Junior Research Fellow. He graduated from Pompeu Fabra University in Political Science.