Sunday’s FC Barcelona v Las Palmas match should not have headlined this week’s news in world football. As was predicted, Barcelona cruised to a 3-0 victory despite a scoreless first half. However, the headlines from this match will not likely reflect the actual gameplay, but rather the political implications of the match. In the wake of political turmoil caused as a result of a Catalonian referendum for secession, Barcelona barred fans from entering in fear of fan and personnel safety. The effects of Sunday’s match reveal much about soccer’s societal impact.
A Brief Overview of Catalonia
In order to properly understand Sunday’s events, one needs a preliminary understanding of Catalonian culture. Catalonia is a Spanish province that sits in the northeastern corner of the nation, bordering the Mediterranean. Although the province is governed by Spain, the region is home to a vastly different culture. One of their defining characteristics is their separatist ideology, and this is reflected across multiple spheres of their life. To begin, Catalonia has its own language, known as Catalan. The vast majority of Catalans speak this language alongside Spanish, despite the fact that Catalan was declared illegal as recently as 1975. As an additional source of their pride, Catalonia is home to the largest economy in Spain, contributing more to Spain’s yearly GDP than any other province. As for soccer, the province has their own non-FIFA sanctioned national team, in which world football stars such as Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, and Xavi Hernandez have competed for. At the pinnacle of Catalan culture lies FC Barcelona, arguably the biggest sports brand in the world. Barcelona has been an extension of Catalan separatist ideals for decades. The clubs motto “More than a club” reflects the team’s recognition that their influence extends beyond the field of play, and into Catalan culture and politics.
Catalonia’s separatist mentality has culminated recently, as local governments held a referendum to secede on Sunday. Catalans became increasingly frustrated with the Spanish government due to their use of tax revenue. In the wake of economic turmoil, the powerful Catalan economy has helped keep the nation afloat. Consequently, the gap between Catalan tax revenue and the amount of that money that is reinvested into Catalan communities has been estimated around 10 billion dollars. Economic unrest, coupled with Catalan ideology, caused the province to vote for secession. In response to Catalan government actions, the Spanish government declared this election illegal, and deployed riot police to shut down polling stations and physically stop Catalans from voting.
Més Que un Club
FC Barcelona’s response to these events created a crossover between soccer and politics. In the days leading up to Sunday’s events, Barcelona legends such as Carles Puyol, Pep Guardiola, and Gerard Pique used their Catalan platforms to voice support for the referendum. However, the club feared for matchday safety and contacted La Liga in attempts to reschedule the match. The league did not grant their request, and threatened to penalize Barcelona six points if they cancelled the game. As a result, the club denied fans entry into the game, and played the match in front of an empty stadium. To counter this, Las Palmas played the match with Spanish flags sewn into their jerseys in order to make a political statement.
Barcelona’s response has a paradoxical relationship with the club’s ideology. Many Catalan purists called for Barcelona to take the six point penalty in order to take a stance against the league. In a practical sense, the club likely made a correct decision in looking out for fan and player safety by playing a ghost game. In another sense, the match could have served as a forum for Catalans to communicate their message with the rest of the world. For many, the silence of an empty stadium was just as deafening as a sold out crowd of screaming Catalans. Perhaps playing a ghost game created just as much stir as a protest would have.
The Catalan referendum served as an illustration of soccer’s political influence. This has become particularly relevant in American sports as many professional athletes have began kneeling during the national anthem as a means of silent protest. Many sports fans have a disdain for the politicization of soccer, claiming that sports should serve as an escape from world issues. The events in Barcelona reveal the contrary. As much as we as football fans would like the game to be a utopian paradise, we must humbly admit that there are more pressing issues in the world than the on-field results. World football has been given perhaps the largest cultural platform across the nations. If we as football fans yield this power responsibly, the game can be used to create positive societal change.