FC Barcelona's Game: Mixing Politics and Sport

Last April, in Barcelona's 99,000-seat Camp Nou stadium, the much-anticipated final game of the Copa del Rey soccer championship began. Just before kick-off, Felipe VI, the King of Spain, to whom the tournament lends its name, stood in the stands with his typical dignified, austere expression. On the pitch, players of the two teams, the Basque Country's Athletic Club Bilbao and FC Barcelona, stood in a line as tradition calls for, arms behind their backs. Then, the Spanish national anthem played.

The King did not look like he was having a good time.

During the playing of the anthem, fans began whistling (a generally understood gesture of disrespect), and the music soon became inaudible. Blowing in whistles handed out at the beginning of the match, the fans reached a noise level of a deafening 119 decibels. YouTube videos show the typically unaffected faces of the players from both teams even during the particularly raucous display, but also the dismay of Vicente del Bosque, the manager of the Spanish national team that won the World Cup in 2010. But there was one face in the stands, that of Artur Mas, the president of the local Catalan government, who stood next to the King and couldn't help but let a smirk slide across his face. Everyone there knew what was going on.

After the anthem ended, then came the chants: "In, inde, independencia!" And in addition to the orange and red cards placed on the seats by the stadium staff (which, when held up by the fans, form an enormous quasi-Catalonian Senyera banner surrounding the grass field), there emerged several of the starred Estelada Blava. Both the Senyera and the Estelada are often used as symbols of the Catalonian independence political movement.

It has since been revealed that the whistling ordeal was organized in part by Catalonian political action group Cataluña Acció. Its president, Santiago Espot, considers himself, and by extension Catalonia, victims of the same sort of oppression that was dealt out in Inquisition-era Spain and during the dictatorship under Franco. In his view, Catalonia is a disenfranchised victim of a forced cultural assimilation and oppression. For years a follower of FC Barcelona (also know as Barça), Mr. Espot sees in sports a valid platform for political peddling.

As a product of a young, highly individualistic culture born of a revolution against imperialism, it is easy for me to disparage the idea of a monarchy. But it is also easy to notice when blatant disrespect is being directed at a symbolic figurehead. Why would soccer fans in the year 2015 jeer the King of Spain? Put simply, it is because of the anachronistic view that the powers that be are still, to this day, oppressing cultures that are desperate to be recognized as wholly distinct from the traditional Spanish identity, Catalonia being the example at hand (the Basque Country has also long been associated with an independence campaign themselves, with famously brutal and violent manifestations, which seem to have tapered off in recent years). But the obvious problem, I would argue, may not be whether the Catalonia's complaints are legitimate or not, rather it is the venue of the protest.

Spain's State Commission Against Violence, Racism, Xenophobia and Intolerance in Sport have expressed like concerns, having fined FC Barcelona €66,000 ($71,900) for their fans' behavior and failing to quell an anticipated public disturbance.

FC Barcelona has framed the fine as unjust, while maintaining support for their fans' behavior as a "reflection of a sentiment, which [the Club] fully respects."

Mr Espot and Cataluña Acció have also been fined by the Commission, Espot being cited for his "involvement and personal participation" in the whistling protest.

It must be said, in the context of a free society, that shouting things at sports events must indeed be approached as an expression of speech that should not be legally prevented. And some may ask, "who cares about a bit of whistling or banner-flying at a soccer game?" Indeed, even if insults from fans are wholly offensive, it is commonplace in sports. And I suspect the King can handle the antimonarchist sentiment. But it is telling that the institution itself, FC Barcelona, not only repeatedly fails to discourage mixing local politics with international sports spectacles, but it perpetuates the narrative, through its stars, officials and local icons, and through its philosophy in general. Barça's logo reads "més que un club," Catalan for "more than a club." An innocuous slogan, unless your work for FC Barcelona, in which case it is laden with patriotic and personal meaning.

The episode at the King's Cup final is not the only time FC Barcelona has been chastised for their fans' behavior. Europe's main soccer governing body UEFA, was not pleased, for example, with political chants and banners from Barça's fans during the Champions League Final last May against Italian team Juventus. As a result, FC Barcelona was fined €30,000 ($32,700). FC Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu responded to the fines with a predictable vigor, veiled in support for fans.

"This is one of the values of our club and we are not going to change," he said. "I am not going to tell people, 'Sorry, you can't bring your flag into the stadium.' .... It's freedom of speech. It goes beyond football. We've been doing this for so long, why are you penalizing us now? "

Of course, political movements develop and grow beyond sports. But through sports? Important themes like oppression, social exclusion, extermination of language and cultural identity have no place next to a field where a group of grown men chase a ball around for 90 minutes at a time. Political movements carry an importance that is independent of sport, however much sport happens to entangle itself in those movements; and merely because it is predictable that this occurs does not necessarily make it acceptable. For FC Barcelona and its fans to take advantage of visibility on the world stage for mass protest sessions and to utilize the organization's multi-million-euro spending power as political clout, the actions ring of opportunism and a serious misappropriation of resources. It is safe to assume that most of FC Barcelona's international fans, like me, (their Facebook page boasts 85 million followers) are at best unaware of the internal politics of Catalonia (a population of 7.5 million), however important some Catalonians may consider them to be. Most of Barça's fans and sports analysts are busy paying homage to their superstar players, Argentinian Leo Messi, Uruguayan Luis Suárez and Brazilian Neymar Jr., for example. One wonders of their opinions on the matter, as they recently carried their team to win the "treble" of prestigious titles: the Spanish La Liga, Champions League and King's Cup.

Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, an icon in Catalonia for his service to FC Barcelona, and highly respected in the world of soccer for his brilliance as a coach, often utilizes a nuanced language and makes no secret about his political opinions, often well within the context of soccer.

"My country is Catalonia, and Catalonia is not Spain," Guardiola has said, "and I played with the Spanish team because the Catalonian team could not play in international competitions."

In press conferences representing Barça, particularly on the European stage, Guardiola has always made it a point to award his team's wins to Catalonia, and not to Spain. This is exasperating for many Spaniards, especially the ones who justifiably conceptualize Barça as a Spanish team made up of international players.

So, what does a years-long fan of FC Barcelona like me do? Do I simply take these incidents as mere cultural peculiarities? Should I relish or reject the esoteric insults to vague establishment symbols of Spain? Should I jump on the Catalonia independence bandwagon? And if not, am I somehow supporting a cause I don't identify with? Do I pretend that "més que un club" is just a good-natured motto? When the European Champions League season comes around, and I once again get into the mood to watch a soccer game with my friends, where will I be able to simply watch the game without somehow injecting myself in political affairs?

One idea occurs to me. Living a kilometer away from another soccer stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu, and as a transplanted Madrileño, I think I know where I'll start.