This weekend Spain’s two most successful football clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, will play each other in Spain’s national football league. As Alejandro Quiroga writes, the fixture between the two sides – commonly referred to as ‘el clásico’ – has increasingly become associated with the issue of Catalan independence. However he argues that support for the Spanish national team among citizens in Catalonia highlights that Spanish and Catalan identities are not necessarily incompatible.
On 26 October 2013 FC Barcelona will play Real Madrid in the Spanish league. The match will be preceded by its usual media hype and broadcast all over the world. Beyond legendary sporting rivalries, this year’s el clásico is to retain its customary political connotations.
For decades a good number of Barça supporters have defended Catalan nationalist postulates. These fans have tended to see FC Barcelona as the representation of modernity, democracy and Catalan traditions, whereas Real Madrid have been associated with backwardness, authoritarianism and the Franco dictatorship. Real Madrid fans, on the contrary, have understood their club as quintessentially international and modern. With no apparent contradiction, they have also conceived Real Madrid as a Spanish national symbol and accused Barcelona of harbouring separatist feelings.
In fact, Barcelona and Real Madrid are more alike than they would like to acknowledge. They are both economic giants with international fan bases, competing for world-wide football markets. They have also hugely benefitted from the economic support of regional and city council administrations in Barcelona and Madrid and the generous funding of powerful construction companies and banks – the latter closely linked to the Spanish political elite.
Besides, over the years, Barcelona and Real Madrid have received more than 50 per cent of the Spanish league’s TV revenue, just between the two of them. In the last decade, this economic and political inequality has led to a sort of ‘Scottishisation’ of Spanish football, where the ‘big two’ seem to play in a league of their own. Unsurprisingly, no other team but Barça and Real Madrid has won the league since Valencia did in 2004.
In the field of national identities, however, stereotypes and feelings are much more important than economic inequalities. Traditionally, Catalan nationalists have used the Barcelona versus Real Madrid games as a showcase to foster their political demands internationally. Yet the rapid growth of the Catalan pro-independence movement in the last five years has led to an unprecedented political use of football at Camp Nou, Barcelona’s stadium.
Barça’s president, Sandro Rosell, may not be the ardent secessionist his predecessor Joan Laporta was, but he has joined Catalanist demonstrations and lent the Camp Nou for pro-independence rallies. Additionally, Barça’s board of directors have publicly advocated the creation of a Catalan national football team to compete in international tournaments.
These symbolic actions are pretty much in line with the discourse of Catalan political and media elites who have recently opted for the creation of a Catalan state within the European Union. Yet it is difficult to measure to what extent this new secessionist narrative is entrenched in Catalan society. Research has shown that there is a sharp contrast between the discourse of the Catalan establishment and the way Catalan citizens feel in the realm of identities.
By and large, Catalans are more fluent in their multiple identities (Catalan, Spanish and European), more generous when asked about solidarity with other Spanish autonomous communities, and more willing to keep the current constitutional system than is indicated by the discourse of most Catalan political parties and media. Nonetheless, it is also undeniable that, in recent times, support for an independent Catalan state has rapidly grown out of grassroots movements that have incorporated into their discourse the narrative of Catalanist political and media elites.
Catalans’ multiple identities have been expressed during the celebrations of the recent victories of the Spanish national team. Spain’s victory in the Euro 2012 final, for instance, reached a TV audience of 75 per cent in Catalonia, a share that demonstrates that the Spanish national team was hugely popular in the Principality. Street parties, a profuse display of Spanish emblems, patriotic chants and balconies adorned with Spanish and Catalan flags made it clear that many Catalans strongly identified with the Spanish selección.
The popularity of the Spanish national team has to be understood within this context of fluent, multiple identities in Catalonia. Some analysts have pointed out that the ‘Catalanisation’ of the selección was crucial for marketing the Spanish national team in Catalonia. Although there is some truth in the observation that the high number of Catalans in the team and the selección’s Barça-like style of play were important, the popular support showed in Catalonia for the Spanish national team should not be read as the exclusive by-product of the ‘Catalanisation’ of the team.
Clearly, the process of Catalanisation made the selección more acceptable to some Catalans with misgivings about what Spain still represented in Catalanist imagery. Yet the popularity of the squad in Catalonia has to be interpreted against the background of a symbolic universe and a national narrative that has promoted identification with Spain over the years. The Spanish media, Spanish governments and the selección española all contributed to create a mental frame of national identification with Spain at different levels.
Dual identities are possible because this Spanish frame of national identification is not perceived as incompatible with a complementary frame of national/regional identification with Catalonia. Hence, long-held dual identities facilitated the unproblematic identification of many Catalans with the Spanish squad in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Support for the selección fitted well into the predetermined mental frame of Catalans who felt attached to Spain.
Moreover, this support is not incompatible with cheering for FC Barcelona when playing Real Madrid. After all, the simplistic reading of el clásico as a Catalonia versus Spain game does not hold much water. Still, Catalan nationalists’ identification with FC Barcelona should not be dismissed. For many supporters Barça is the national team of Catalonia and games against Real Madrid will, most probably, be increasingly politicised as the pro-independence movement grows.
A hypothetical secession poses a number of difficult questions in footballing terms. Would FC Barcelona play in the Spanish league? Would Barça have to compete in a Catalan league? Would FC Barcelona lose its Catalanist connotations should a Catalan national football selecció compete in international tournaments? Could Catalan players play for Spain should they wish to? One can only speculate about an independent Catalan state and its sporting repercussions, but it seems more than likely that football will remain a conduit to elaborate, transmit and recreate Catalan and Spanish identities in Catalonia.
A longer discussion of this subject can be found in the author’s book, Football and National Identities in Spain: The Strange Death of Don Quixote
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Alejandro Quiroga – Newcastle University
Alejandro Quiroga is a Reader of Spanish History at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology in Newcastle University and a Ramón y Cajal Fellow at Universidad de Alcalá de Henares (Spain). His research interests include Spanish history and politics, twentieth-century European history, nationalism and ethnic conflict.
Given that Catalan national teams have been constantly boycotted by the Spanish government ( see http://www.helpcatalonia.cat/2011/05/sports-and-catalan-teams.html), Catalans are only left with the option of following the team where Catalans player play, or supporting whoever plays Spain which will translate in audience for the match. But anyone that has lived in Barcelona ( clearly not the author of this article) would know that the Spanish team dies not feel the same as the national team for anyone else, that is the role FC Barcelona plays. In my opinion, this article is just a rushed patchwork inconsistent narrative mostly based on anecdotal evidence. I am appalled that someone who is an academic write this sort of “wishy washy” arguments,clearly denotes that Spanish studies these days is not rocket science,…
I think this criticism is a bit over the top. Most of what is said in the article is backed up by the latest “Moreno question” surveys in Catalonia – that only around 22 per cent of Catalans see themselves as ‘only Catalan’, which is less than in Scotland.
You could also say it’s just as anecdotal to point to personal experience in Barcelona. Maybe the idea that just because people are watching Spain in Euro 2012 doesn’t mean they support them is fair enough, but half of the Spain team play for Barcelona so there’s clearly going to be conflicting loyalties somewhere.
Surely some Catalans do not like (or hate) the Spanish national team but the reality is that the wide majority of them (including nationalist voters) do support Spain or as they like to call it now: “la Roja” (the politically correct term in the Catalan press)
For instance more than 75 thousand people reunited to watch the final of the world cup in avenida Maria Cristina in Barcelona. http://www.lavanguardia.com/deportes/futbol/20100711/53962012199/miles-de-barceloneses-celebran-el-triunfo-de-espana-sobre-holanda.html
Any person that visits Barcelona during the European Championship or the World Cup can testify this. People launched fireworks, were running the streets with the football team t-shirts, flags, etc. This is an inconvenient truth for the pro-independence movement but impossible to conceal.
Of course not all Catalans hate the Spanish team. But the fact that some people reunited to celebrate the victory of ‘La Roja’ means very little statistically speaking. Writing about this as a sign of the ‘fluid identities’ of Catalonia is just not appropriate. One choose the utter rejection of bull fighting to make the counter argument. But what I have clearly seen happening inn Catalonia is that the Spanish team is supported ‘sports wise’ rather than ‘identity wise’. The choice of support is more a second best choice (when he Catalan team is just not allowed to participate) than a real expression of identity
In term of participation in the league or not, Monaco, plays in the French league, so could FC Barcelona is the Spanish FA does not allow participation of Catalan clubs. Given that the Spanish league would loose its stance worldwide was than to happen, I bet it would not,….but again, it will benefit fit the French league, or would prompt the creation of a Catalan league such as the Scottish one ,…no big deal! More time to focus on the Champions league.
I agree that many in Catalonia support the Spanish national team only as a second best choice. But I am not sure you can dissect ‘sport wise’ from ‘identity wise’. In fact identities (including national identities) are constituted by many overlapping dimensions. If the choice was merely linked to liking a football team for their performances people would be much more divided in their preferences. Proximity or vicinity are a major factor in the choice of a team. Even if many Catalans would prefer an only Catalan team, the fact that they still support a Spanish team seems to indicate that there is some sense of affinity or as Alejandro argues that these preferences are “not necessary incompatible”.
When speaking about identities dimension/categories in most cases do not exclude each other. The same can be perceived when taking into consideration other territorial levels. Many football supporters prefer their local clubs over their national team. This happens in Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain (and the UK). Probably Catalans would support the European team in the Rayder’s Cup as well. Although the intensity in feelings varies, most people feel comfortable “wearing” those overlapping identity layers because they are perceived as compatible.
Sorry, Gina. I think the post (and probably the book in which it is based) is much more solid than your comment, which is politically biassed and unnecessarily unpleasant with Spanish researchers. While the argument in the post may be arguable (of course!), opinions polls and personal experience (from those of us who do live in Barcelona) give strong support to the author’s views.
Excellent Alejandro, and very timely as well!
Excellent analysis. Issues that don’t relate to any English teams, although to at least four in Scotland. #COYS
It’s interesting to compare this with Scotland. Rangers have a link to British Unionism, but of course the real fault line is about Irish nationalism (Celtic) rather than Scottish nationalism. Rangers fans are all (minus the odd bit of superficial moaning about the national team recently) unashamedly Scottish and British.
There isn’t really any single Scottish team that’s associated with Scottish nationalism. The national team itself takes all of that – although it also has many supporters who don’t favour independence as well. It adds some weight to the idea that if Catalonia were allowed to play as a national team then Barca might not be associated with Catalan independence the way they are at present.
High television audiences for La Roja doesn’t in itself illustrate anything more than a love of football and an interest in the team that includes lots of Catalans. It’s not uncommon for people to watch important football matches without investing emotionally in the outcome. A better measure would be the extent to which Catalans publicly celebrated the World Cup victory and the terms on which they did so.
In footballing terms, could we imagine an Iberian league 2014-2015? Benfica, Porto, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Barcelona, Espanyol, etc. 😉
Excellent article, Alejandro. You make a point of focusing on overlapping collective identities and its changable position depending on local or national symbols (as they are the football teams)! Just an additional point: if living in the particular society we analize must be the key to get a proper result of our academic research, then it’s time to close for British academy ! Doing history of Catalonia compels us to live in Barcelona and, may be, feel in love with the country’s romantic claims of independence as they are reflected by, for example, institutional puppets like the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya? Come on guys, we’re not in the 19th century, thank’s God!
I’m Catalan and I want independence for Catalonia. But the fact that we want a new state, doesn’t mean we want to break relations with Spanish identity. That’s something not really understood. I have no problem with Spanish people, I have problem with Spanish State, in many senses. Of course, Catalan and Spanish identity attributes are not really that different. Perhaps they are so close. That’s why they live together in Barcelona without many problems. Recently, a colective called Súmate, integrated mostly by Catalans with roots from the rest of Spain, was created to support the cause of independence. These people likes La Roja and celebrates the Spanish national festivities, but they want independence for Catalonia because they believe in another order of things. As I see, the intense growing of independence support in Catalonia cannot be explained and would not reach the high support in polls it has without these sector of population identified with Spanish culture but fascinated by the opportunity of creating a new state which, of course, will respect both Catalan and Spanish identities. Being Catalan doesn’t mean give up being Spanish.
For example, I live with 3 Chileans. They live in Catalonia, and they celebrate their national festivities from Chile. And they feel Chilean. And they are here. And what’s the problem?
Alejandro Quiroga, why do you write about ‘Catalan nationalism’ while not mentioning ‘Spanish nationalism’, as if there was no such thing? I mean, the Spanish ‘national team’ seems to be a totally natural term to you… as in ‘the team of Spain’ (right?)
But what most strikes me is that, in order to prove your point, you only write about how Barça mobilizes the Catalan independence discourse, and say nothing about how Real mobilizes Spanish nationalist and anti-Catalan discourse.
As a Belgian living in Catalonia for the last 17 years, I think you could have tried to hide your ‘national identity’ a bit more…