Seemingly loose talk about Catalunyan independence aside, there is also tension between this region and the centre which spills over into sport. Historically, Barcelona FC has served as a rallying point not just for sports fans but for opposition to the repressive regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in his high pomp. As such, clashes with Barca arch-rival Real Madrid have served as a proxy war of sorts that continues to these post-Franco times:
Barca has been seen as a bastion of Catalan identity dating back to the three decades of dictatorship when Catalans could not openly speak, teach or publish in their native Catalan language. Barcelona writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban famously called the football team "Catalonia's unarmed symbolic army."
Barca-Real Madrid matches have a nickname: "el clasico" — the classic — and they are one of the world's most-watched sporting events, seen by 400 million people in 30 countries. But local passions run high. In Spain, where football has deep political and cultural connotations, many see the clashes of Spain's most successful teams as a proxy battle between wealthy Catalonia and the central government in Madrid. If Barca is a symbol of Catalan nationalism, Real Madrid is an emblem of a unified Spain.
Perhaps not surprisingly this soccer behemoth has a massive fan base that stretches far beyond its home in the northeastern region of Catalonia, across Spain and beyond. About 1,500 supporter clubs are registered with Barcelona, the majority outside of Catalonia.
But some non-Catalan fans are finding their emotional ties to the club coming under strain as Spain's economic crisis gives way to growing calls in Catalonia for independence. Nationalist fervor reached fever pitch during an Oct. 7 match against Real Madrid. Fans at Barcelona's 98,000-seater Camp Nou stadum held up cards to form the red-and-yellow striped flag of Catalonia and punctuated the air with calls for independence.
Many Barcelona fans elsewhere were appalled. "Some of our members wouldn't be best pleased if Catalonia became independent," said Xavi Navarro, a 48-year-old web developer who heads the Barcelona supporters group, or 'penya', in Mostoles, a town on the outskirts of Madrid that also happens to be the birthplace of Real Madrid captain Iker Casillas. "You've got to remember that 95% of our members aren't Catalan," says Mr. Navarro, himself a Catalan. Francisco Carrasco Rivero, 53, a police officer in the Andalucian port of Malaga, 500 miles away from Barcelona, and head of another Barcelona penya, goes further. He says the club has already lost some support in Andalucia as a result of recently-heightened political tensions.The notion that sports and politics are often inseparable has a 0% originality factor. That said, Catalunya's critics would, after all, question why a Spaniard would display allegiance to a "foreign" club:
Barcelona's non-Catalan supporters say they've long been in the cross-fire of Spanish nationalist politics and accused of supporting a "foreign" club. Now such animosity is on the rise, they say. "At almost every sporting arena we go to these days we're met with growing aggression from opposing fans due to the tensions that have accumulated and which have nothing to do with our views," says Mr. Navarro, the web developer.
Barcelona's non-Catalan fans sometimes get it from both sides, he adds. "A small section of Barcelona fans don't understand that Barcelona is a universal club and not just a Catalan club. The fact we speak Castilian [rather than Catalan] shouldn't detract from the fact we are standing up for Barcelona," he says.To paraphrase Robert Putnam, the battle for Catalan secession also has two (sporting) levels--the national one of Catalunya supplying so many top Spanish players who've brought home so much hardware in international competition, and the domestic one of Barca fandom being subject to debate as to the "Spanishness" of the club that will only reach an even higher pitch if the independence movement gains further steam. Appropriately enough, the overlap constitutes a win-set. But, for how much longer will it exist as we know it?