“Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important.”- Pope John Paul II
From the economic impact, to the enduring cultural benefits of autonomy, Spanish media is awash with debate surrounding the prospect of Catalonia seceding from Spain. An independent Catalonia would have massive repercussions, both off and on the pitch, the type of repercussions that could lead to FC Barcelona being banned from the Spanish league.
The president of the Liga Nacional de Fútbol Profesional (LFP), Javier Tebas, has marked his territory. His recent tweet effectively warns Catalonians to be careful of what they wish for.
Si se rompe España, se rompe LaLiga. Esperemos no llegar nunca a ese absurdo.
— Javier Tebas Medrano (@Tebasjavier) September 20, 2015
“If Spain splits, so too does La Liga. Let’s hope we never reach that absurd situation.”
Now, admittedly, this could be a comment laced with posturing. Tebas is a hard-right Spanish nationalist who cares more about Spain than he does La Liga. But, perhaps more alarmingly, it’s a statement that’s also been backed by Spain’s minster of sport Miguel Cardenal.
“FC Barcelona would be unable to carry on competing in the Spanish league. It’s absurd to think that if Catalonia becomes independent, the club could ask to be registered by the Spanish federation.”
Doomsday theories abound, but how likely is it?
The vote won’t definitively mean anything, but it would be a start
On Sept. 27th, Catalonians will take to the polls, with 135 seats in parliament up for grabs. Pro-independence forces are expected to gain the upper hand in the election. The resulting parliament will also vote in the president of Catalonia.
A victory for pro-independence candidates, however, does not automatically mean that Catalonia becomes independent. If the bloc holds a majority, it could begin moves to make a formal declaration of independence within a year and a half.
How are FC Barcelona involved?
A more apt question may be how are they not? If soccer is the most important of the unimportant, then Barcelona is where that line of demarcation becomes increasingly blurred.
The birth of the mainstream political ideology of Catalan independence (note: mainstream, not the latent desire that’s existed for centuries) can be tied to events of the last 15 years. At the risk of delving too far into the depths of a political labyrinth, here’s brief history of tensions.
2000 — The conservative party in Spain won a majority in parliament while not having to rely on the largest Catalan nationalist party. Thus the conservatives no longer had to make concessions to the group in order to pass their own legislation.
2006 — The Catalonian government agrees a deal with the national government to reform the Catalan Statute of Autonomy. The conservatives agreed to the deal but then challenged it in court after it was passed.
2011— The statue was defeated – largely seen as a stab in the back. The independence movement started to garner real tangible support.
Of course this coincides somewhat with FC Barcelona’s dominance of Spain and, in turn, Europe. It’s more correlation than causation, but if the political maneuverings behind the scenes were the foundation of the movement, Barça’s success has become a very visceral, blatant, and ultimately celebratory element of all things Catalan. As former England and Barcelona coach Bobby Robson put it:
“You have to understand that Barcelona is a nation without a state, and Barça is its army.”
In the wake of the elections however, Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has remained neutral: “I won’t comment. Away from the campaign we all have our opinions, but there are parties striving to get votes right now and Barça will stay neutral, as ever, on this score.”
Why the apparent hard stance from La Liga makes sense
Whether you agree with Tebas or not, his ideology works on a philosophical level. Tebas is essentially letting the Catalans know that they can’t simply pick and choose what parts of Spain they’d like to participate in. Independence comes with benefits and drawbacks. Simply put, you can’t just leave home then return every evening for dinner. He won’t let Barcelona have their cake and eat it, too.
UEFA and the Catalonian league
UEFA has also made their stance on the issue of new territories clear. Europe’s governing body would have to approve Catalan teams plying their trade in Spain, and doing so would run contrary to their apparent support for the idea that every country should have its own domestic league if possible.
While there have allowances for microstates like San Marino, Andorra and Monaco, there isn’t the open door policy that existed in the past. UEFA believe that if a country can handle more than one side it can find the means to host it’s own league, like Gibraltar.
Remember, Catalonia is not Monaco. Monaco, a country with a population of less than 40,000, doesn’t have the capacity to have their own league. The population of Catalonia is over seven million, putting them on par with the likes of Denmark, Switzerland and Serbia.
For clubs playing in larger countries, the concessions and allowances are practically non-existent. Even so, they largely focus on ethnic/religious strife, not level of competition. So basically, if Barcelona leaves La Liga because there is an independent Catalonia, it would struggle to meet any of the requirements to be allowed play in another league, even if it wouldn’t be a shock to see some “legacy” stipulation put in place to allow Barça to continue.
Additionally, Spanish law currently forbids clubs from outside of Spain to play in the league. The only non-Spanish clubs that are allowed to play in La Liga due to specific exception are those of Andorra (already stated in Spanish law). Could the law be altered? Sure, but in such a fractious issue dominated by pride it’s worth debating: Would the Royal Spanish Football Federation want to allow separatists clubs to participate in their national cultural institution?
What if Barcelona were allowed to stay?
Imagine the scenes at away games for Barcelona in a world with an independent Catalonia? These issues are so deeply entrenched that political tensions alone could inhibit the continued presence of Catalan clubs in Spain as well.
Even if the law is somehow altered to allow the likes of Barcelona and Espanyol to continue competing, it would reek of hypocrisy. Barcelona home games for years have been full of independence symbols and singing, with little to no regard for the fact that, while the partnership has been mutually beneficial, Barcelona would not be one of the most successful, biggest clubs in the world if Catalonia wasn’t in Spain. Barcelona wouldn’t be Barcelona if they weren’t allowed to play in La Liga.
It would be akin to saying, “Catalonia is not Spain! We want our freedom away from this country … but can we still play in your league?”
The Premier League
The Premier League just tends to butt its way into everything doesn’t it? No, Barcelona won’t be playing in the Premier League anytime soon (though I’m not sure who says ‘no’ under this scenario), but the global reach of the Premier League could have an implicit effect on La Liga’s decision.
In recent months, Tebas has been outspoken regarding La Liga’s push to truly compete with the Premier League off the pitch. He recently spoke about the league’s preparation after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi eventually leave, and he’s commented on the need for the league to grow as an entire entity, not only at the highest rungs.
While La Liga would eventually be able to stomach the loss of Barcelona over time, the initial impact would be a disaster, effectively ruining any chance of La Liga ever growing at its desired rate. Cutting Barcelona from the league at this point would be like losing a leg while trying to compete with the Premier League in a 100 meter dash.
Everyone loses in the end
Essentially this will boil down to an issue of pride. Truthfully, if Barcelona leaves La Liga, no one wins, at least in the short term. While the city will be overflowing with Catalan pride in the first months post secession, Barcelona’s fans will undoubtedly feel the prestige as their once famous clubs slowly begin to decline. There will be no Champions League. There will be no El Clasico. Can patriotism carry the club through the next decade of doldrums?
There are rumors of the French League allowing them a safe haven, but even if that unlikely scenario was to pass, Barcelona would undoubtedly be forced to start at a lower rung than Ligue 1.
Under the more likely scenario, the creation of a Catalonian league, Barcelona still lose, at least initially. All the massive television revenue would disappear. Getting global fans around the world to splash the cash to watch Barcelona play the likes of Espanyol, Girona, and Sabadell would be like putting their loyalty on trial. For Barcelona, the fairy tale would be over. That’s even assuming that Barça will be able to pay their debts with so little income.
And that’s if this ever actually happens. Frankly, a Catalonian league is mostly mere speculation at this point, with both sides showing their best poker face. Will Tebas stick to his guns when the very real economic impact of a Barcelona secession is put across his desk? Could La Liga truly stomach what a season would look like without the two Clasicos? That remains to be seen. Economic realities can often turn even the most hardheaded individual to a compromising pacifist.
The Catalan independence movement is something that isn’t going away anytime soon, and it’s an issue that stretches far beyond the confines of the soccer field. That said, the only real certainty seems to be that it would massively alter the landscape of Spanish soccer. And this isn’t even getting into what it would mean for the national team.