Homage to Catalonia

By | December 23, 2009

Perhaps cribbing the title of George Orwell’s famous 1938 account of the Spanish Civil War is a little much. But, seventy years on, with the question of the what status Catalonia has and should have within Spain still a serious issue, football has become an important battlefield in its own way. Yesterday’s victory of the Catalan “national” selection against the Argentinian team, 4-2, represents the latest chapter in this long-running story. Coached by the legendary Johann Cruyff, with a lonely, exiled, Maradona watching from the stands surrounded by opposing fans, the Catalan team shone in a town used to rallying around Barca as a symbol of town and nation. But what does their victory mean?

In an interview with So Foot before the game Jordi Casals I Vilalta, the new president of the Catalan Football Association, spoke of football and politics in the self-contradictory way preferred by sporting officials. On the one hand, he insisted that football isn’t politics, that the football association and the team they were fielding was not “a party.” At the same time, he made clear he considers the existence of the Catalan team itself a signal and a symbol of the aspiration for autonomy and independence. He declared that “when” Catalonia had won its independence, FIFA — which has not recognized the federation or the team — would allow them to play official matches, just like Spain. Indeed, he added that if the team could “help the dream of so many Catalans become a reality,” that would be a positive thing. Having confidently imagined a future independence for Catalonia and hoped that the “national” team of a nation-not-yet could help realize this dream, he then retreated once again, re-affirming that they were doing “football not politics.”

It’s fascinating to me to see how, even in a situation where football is clearly being used for political purposes, those doing the mobilization so frequently deny that this is what they are doing. Why the hesitation? It almost seems as many fear to admit the obvious, and feel compelled to re-assert that sport is not politics. Or else all officials feel an unbending pressure to conform to the dogma that sport is not politics, and to declare this as a kind of self-evident truth, even as they enthusiastically demonstrate the opposite. The very fact of organizing, and paying for, such a big-time match up, and of mobilizing players for the team, makes broader sense only in the context of a political project.

Barcelona fans take pride in the fact that their team’s jerseys are the only ones left in Europe that don’t advertise something. The subtext is that the jersey symbolizes, as the team slogan goes, “more than a club” — that it represents a region, or more: an aspiring nation. To have an advertisement on the Barcelona jersey would, the logic goes, be a kind of violation: after all, national team jersey’s don’t carry advertisements (though of course Nike and Adidas have found many ways to cross that line…). And of course the Barcelona-Real rivalry has long had, as at least one of major components, serious political overtones, something you can read about in detail in one of our Soccer Politics Pages.

The Catalan selection, meanwhile, consisted of volunteers — players who were paid nothing, and who are under no obligation to play, since unlike national teams this one does not have the FIFA-granted authority to call up players. Indeed, Arsene Wenger refused to release Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal to play, though Fabregas had expressed his with to, something he could not have done if the request had come from the Spanish federation.

In watching these events, I couldn’t help think of another case (whose story I tell in my book forthcoming book Soccer Empire) in which football was put to use in pursuit of national independence. During the Algerian war when professional players in France — two of them tapped to play on the French national team in the 1958 World Cup — vanished and re-appeared in Tunisia to form the “national” team of a nation-not-yet. FIFA was much harsher then, punishing several federations who played against the Algerian team, which nevertheless toured in Asia and the Eastern bloc as well as the Middle East for several years.

If that team worked as a political symbol, of course, it was because they were good. They won accolades, and gained audiences, through their vivid and victorious football, in the process spreading the Algerian flag and anthem, and the giving the independence movement a sympathetic and attractive face. Of course, the political contexts of Algeria and Catalonia are drastically different, and shouldn’t be conflated. It’s a different time, a different place, and obviously a completely distinct history.

Interestingly, the French imperial orbit provides us with a few other more contemporary comparisons that might, in fact, be more useful. On the one hand there is New Caledonia, a Pacific territory that is still part of France but has a fairly autonomous administrative situation and seems to be well on the road to full independence. FIFA has already admitted New Caledonia, whose football federation is now independent from the F.F.F. (French football federation) of which it was once a part, and they competed this year in World Cup Qualifying matches. They didn’t make it, but perhaps one day they will — so, perhaps, we can look forward to a France-New Caledonia game down the road. Here, the independent football team has arrived at the end of, and as a result of, a larger political process that included a violent uprising against the French state, and violent repression, during the 1980s before a negotiated settlement put in place the current political process.

On the other side of the world, meanwhile — another story I tell in Soccer Empire — the French Caribbean departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique are both members of CONCACAF, and field teams in the Gold Cup. The Guadeloupean team has been noticed a great deal of late, especially in 2006 when they made it into far into the tournament under the leadership of Jocelyn Angloma, once a star of the French national team. This case might illuminate the Catalan case even better than either Algeria or New Caledonia. Although there has long been a forceful independence movement in both Guadeloupe and Martinique, today it seems highly unlikely that either island will gain independence any time soon. In part, integration into France and therefore into the European Union includes many perks and advantages, and indeed help make Martinique the wealthiest island in the Caribbean. Nationalists in the region have repeatedly mobilized football to political ends, and in a way the inclusion of the islands in CONCACAF is a kind of nationalist gesture, and the Guadeloupean uniforms, red and green, echo the colors of the nationalist flag.  At the same time, however, you might say that it is a beautiful compromise. Guadeloupeans and Martinicans, who are quite football mad, get to have their own “national” teams in the Americas, while also remaining part of the F.F.F., and indeed supplying the French team with an impressive number of its star players — including Thuram, Henry, Gallas and Anelka, to name just a few.

Maybe the Catalan selection will find a similar way forward? What if UEFA admitted Catalonia, so that they could compete in regional competitions, even against Spain? This might be an interesting way to have it both ways, just as a compromise form involving increased local autonomy without independence seems the most likely political future for the region.

Yesterday, in Barcelona, the Catalonian selection showcased effective and at times beautiful football, bringing pleasure and certainly pride to their fans. It was, among other things, a nice moment in the meeting between the “total football” once embodied in Cruyff’s Dutch team and today’s Barcelona football that Joaquin Bueno wrote about here several months ago. Whether a nation awaits, of course, is a rather different matter. But if football doesn’t make politics, it certainly shapes it. The question, of course, is precisely how. Perhaps having a Catalan “national” team on the pitch can assuage, even lessen, nationalist aspirations off of it: people can celebrate the nation in the stadium, and might worry less if they can’t celebrate it elsewhere. Or perhaps having such a team can help to trigger and condense a form of national feeling. And if there is some day — who knows? — an independent Catalan nation, people will probably look back and say that football helped pave the way.

One thought on “Homage to Catalonia

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