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La Liga: FC Barcelona, especially Gerard Pique, not likely to relent on Catalan referendum despite jeers

On Sunday evening, Gerard Pique struggled to hold the tears back as he spoke to the media about government repression. The following day, he was the target of irate fans at the Spanish national side’s training sessions — not for the first time. Within 24 hours or so, the FC Barcelona defender had once again been made aware of the divisions which have existed for decades.

Pique is a rare superstar in football. There have been others who have stood out for their politics but the centre-back is in an unusual position. He plays for a national side which derives its legitimacy from the Spanish state. However, if it was an option for Pique, he would represent Catalonia. But he’s proud to play for Spain too, as long as he is not seen as a disruptive presence. This is an unresolved conflict, for reasons beyond him.

Gerard Pique has had a tough time picking sides in the last few weeks. Reuters

Gerard Pique is a soft target for fans who espouse a unified Spain. Reuters

Pique is a soft target for fans who espouse a unified Spain. Here’s a footballer who is FC Barcelona royalty but somebody who has also experienced the highest highs on the international stage. Spanish fans feel cheated. How can you disrespect the very team which gave you the opportunity to become a world champion, they ask?

Well, Pique’s living a contradiction. But it’s an unacceptable thing only if you chose to wilfully ignore that life, in general, is riven with contradictions. Pique’s conflict is Spain’s conflict. It is also FC Barcelona’s conflict. The club has been historically sympathetic towards the cause of Catalan independence. But it also knows that its status as an elite team derives currency from the Spanish football system.

Javier Tebas, who openly identifies himself as a Real Madrid fan while serving as the president of the Spanish football federation (RFEF), has already said that an independent Catalonia would mean the ouster of FC Barcelona from La Liga. The differences between the Catalan club and the RFEF have always been apparent. But the resignation by two Barça board members, after the side was forced to play its Liga encounter against Las Palmas on Sunday, suggests that there remains a huge appetite for struggle.

Left without choice, FC Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu chose to play the game behind closed doors. It was another of his decisions which did not please anybody, as has been the case throughout his tenure. Empty stands, of course, made a political statement of their own — one which the RFEF did not approve. A small respite for the federation was that there was no chanting for Catalan independence at 17 minutes and 14 seconds — done at every game to mark the year in which Felipe V took charge of the city.

But playing for three points did not please those who seek Catalan independence either. In their eyes, this is a bigger fight. A forfeited match was nothing in the larger scheme of things, they said. Bartomeu responded.

“We perfectly understand that many of our members and fans would have preferred the option of calling off the match. That is why I must say that this was one of the most difficult decisions that I have ever had to make as Barça president. I decided to play behind closed doors because we believed that the image of a football match being played in a completely empty Camp Nou would have been a responsible action and a way of showing how we utterly reject the exceptional and inadmissible situation going on around Catalonia.”

Bartomeu’s statement was an indicator of the compromises which will encircle FC Barcelona in the coming days, weeks, months and possibly years. One would think the way to get out of this mess is to be ‘apolitical’ like other clubs. But of course, that creates two problems.

FC Barcelona is not like any other club. Every fan will say so about their team, but it is impossible to understand the 'Blaugrana' without assessing its Catalan manifestation. It is a question of language — General Francisco Franco forced the official Castilian Spanish on the club during his dictatorship. It is a question of independence — Franco also oversaw the assassination of club president Josep Sunyol when he was found to support the establishment of a separate Catalan state. It is also a question of freedom — during the dark years of dictatorship, Camp Nou was one of those few public spaces where symbols and chants of catalanisme could be celebrated.

Secondly, no club is ‘apolitical’. Las Palmas chose to stitch the Spanish flag on their jersey on Sunday. Real Madrid continues to pride itself in the role of the club of the ‘Establishment’. As someone said on Twitter, sport and politics do not mix unless it’s your politics. The façade wears thin.

But after decades of moderate nationalism in Catalonia, why has the independence movement experienced resurgence? Recent years have seen the encroachment of the Spanish state on the region’s autonomy. Catalan people have always seen themselves as distinct from Spain. With the growing fear of erosion of rights and freedoms, it does not come as a surprise that the movement for independence has been re-energised. The weekend bore testimony to the apprehension.

And the assertion of Catalan identity cannot be done without Barça. As the first president of the Catalan regional government in post-Franco Spain, Jordi Pujol, said, “Barça is like other folkloric manifestations of our people — a reserve we can draw on when other sources dry out when the doors of normality are closed to us.”

From Pep Guardiola to Carles Puyol to Pique, Barça heroes have once again spoken out. The conversation is no longer limited to Catalan independence; it is also a question of the clampdown on civil liberties. Even an avowed supporter of unified Spain, Rafael Nadal, chose to speak out against the violence.

For an institution which has been accused of not having its heart in the right place lately, FC Barcelona’s response has been reassuring. There is the question whether the club can do more to speak out for Catalan independence. But questions over its own immediate future will wield a heavy influence.

Hundred years after adopting Catalan as its official language, FC Barcelona finds itself at a peculiar stage. If its political aspirations are to be realised, namely Catalan independence, its footballing aspirations will take a hit. Yet it cannot help but be pulled by its different priorities.

It is a contradiction which is alive within Pique too. He clearly wants to be a part of the Spanish setup but he’s a proud Catalan as well. His politics is not the majority’s politics. But his voice on Catalan independence rings loud. Pique cannot keep quiet. Not now.

Club president Bartomeu can foresee a future where Barça plays in a foreign league, if not in Spain. But what about Pique? He will retire from the national side after next year’s World Cup. Perhaps, he can then solely focus on the issues of Catalan pride and freedom. The conflict, though, will remain. Jeering and repression will not put the question of Catalan independence to rest. Pique and FC Barcelona will continue to be unrelenting as well, just like they often are on the football pitch.

Updated Date: Oct 03, 2017 19:38 PM

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