There are many great teams across the world of football, but is there an unknown team that could be better than any other?
“Only people who have a state feel comfortable with their structures, with their national teams. In that case there is no politics. But in our case, I can’t support my national team – the Catalan national team – in the World Cup. Then football is politics. Of course it is!”
Joan Laporta, former president of FC Barcelona and Catalan politician, may well be deemed a controversial figure. His legacy at the club is ambiguous to say the least. His above point in relation to the status of the Catalan national team is a point that is becoming increasingly relevant by the day. It highlights the issues of international sport for nations which are yet to be formally recognised, and is a point which would likely be echoed throughout Barcelona and the Catalan region.
Of all latter day independence movements, that of Catalonia appears to have an unmatched momentum and an unshakable stability. The notion of a Catalan team appearing in World Cups or European Championships may seem a fanciful one at this time, yet, away from the publicity the recently successful Spanish team has received, such a team already exists.
The Catalan national team has played almost 200 unofficial friendlies since 1904. It has long been a symbol of Catalan nationalism, although its presence has been somewhat muted. The team’s most recent match was held on the 30th of December 2013 at the Estadi Olimpic Lluís Companys atop the hill of Montjuïc, overlooking the city below.
The Olympic stadium was renamed in 2001 in honour of Lluís Companys i Jover, former president of the Generalitat de Catalunya, executed at the nearby Montjuïc Castle in 1940 by the Franco regime. The stadium is but one symbol of the Catalan identity which permeates the city.
Catalonia emerged victors by four goals to one, with a brace from Espanyol’s Sergio Garcia, one from recent Wigan signing Oriol Riera, and a goal from Bojan Krkic, a graduate of La Masia once deemed FC Barcelona’s great white hope, who has recently joined former Barca man Mark Hughes at Stoke City.
The team has also availed of the absence of official FIFA status to allow guest players born outside Catalonia to feature for the team in the past. The need for outside players has lessened as Catalan players have formed the backbone of two of the most successful teams the international and domestic game has seen.
In the recent past, Andrés Iniesta, who has spent most of his life in Barcelona, and Pepe Reina, another La Masia graduate whose father attained hero status at the Camp Nou, have represented Catalonia. In a 1976 game against the USSR, the two Johans, Cruyff and Neeskens wore the Catalan shirt. Like most guest players, both played for FC Barcelona at the time.
Strangely, Alfredo Di Stefano, arguably Real Madrid’s greatest ever player, played and scored for a Catalan XI against Bologna on January 26th, 1955.
There are two teams in Barcelona, the eponymous FC and Espanyol. It is undeniable, however, that the Catalan team has, traditionally, shared closer links with FC Barcelona than the men in blue and white. The travails of FC Barcelona have long been seen as an expression of Catalan nationalism, with the club linked to the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. As the club’s global business interests expand, their link to Catalan nationalism may well be the only area where they can still claim to be more than a club.
As well as representing Catalonia on the pitch in 1976, Johan Cruyff also managed the team from 2009 to 2013, leading the team to a 4-2 victory over Argentina in his debut match. His links to Catalonia are firm and long established, with his son Jordi being named after the city’s patron saint. These links were forged during his time with FC Barcelona.
Pep Guardiola, a man indelibly linked with FC Barcelona, has long been an exponent of Catalan nationalism. He played for the Catalan team seven times, captaining them on occasion. He notably conducted all his press conferences while managing Barcelona in Catalan. When quizzed on his use of his native tongue, his response was to state simply that “it is our language.”
In a mid-2000s interview, he expressed the belief that while he was “pleased” to play for Spain, he remained Catalonian;
“One cannot betray what he feels, what he loves. I feel a strong bond to my country Catalonia”, espoused the notoriously eloquent Guardiola.
The traditional perception of Espanyol as an anti-Catalan club has shifted significantly in the last decade. As a club which bears the name Real, a result of royal patronage, they have often been associated with Spanish nationalism. They received favourable treatment during the reign of Franco, when Catalan identity was suppressed, and their hard-core support was home to many with fascist tendencies.
FC Barcelona were, in the words of Catalan writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, “the only form of expression of a set of (Catalan) sentiments,” whilst Espanyol were the antithesis of this.
Espanyol fans dispute this idea of themselves. Their current manager Sergio Gonzalez is Catalonia’s most capped player, having represented them 15 times. Their new stadium, Estadi Cornella-El Prat, hosts Catalonia matches, and their players represent Catalonia. Whilst the squad for the Cape Verde match contained 9 FCB players (with Xavi, Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol missing) and only 5 from Espanyol, this could be easily attributed to the relative success of the two clubs.
Espanyol translated their name to the Catalan spelling in 2005, and a section of their support, the Sarria Nord, actively promotes Catalan separatism. Their Spanish nationalist image has been difficult to lose, however. An Ultras group amongst their support, Brigadas Blanquiazales, are staunchly anti-separatist and can be seen on YouTube burning Catalan flags.
Polls have shown that support for an independent Catalonia has grown exponentially within the region, with a majority now favouring separation from Spain. As the Catalan economy consistently outperforms the rest of Spain, the urge for separatism grows.
It is impossible to travel through Barcelona and the surrounding region and not take note of the increasingly ubiquitous Senyera Estelada flags which appear to fly from almost every second window. FC Barcelona used the flag as the base for their 2013 away kit, and they are a noticeable feature in the stands at the Camp Nou.
As these calls for Catalan independence grow, it is likely that the significance of the national team will follow suit. Separatists have clung to the unprecedented success of a Barcelona team which has been built upon homegrown players, but the ultimate goal of men like Laporta is to have a team playing full international games in the Camp Nou.
Whilst Pique, Puyol and others have become world and European champions whilst representing Spain, it is not unthinkable that those who follow in their footsteps may spurn La Roja and represent Catalonia alone. A Catalan team would prove a major force on the European footballing landscape, and the effect on the Spanish team may just be catastrophic.
Eoin Hallissey, Pundit Arena.