The dumbest thing that anyone can ever say about Spanish football is that it shouldn’t be mixed up with politics. Lots of people do say it, of course. When it’s convenient for them, Spain’s best-selling sport tabloid ‘Marca’ says it (both directly and indirectly), but in sheep-bleating the empty phrase they themselves are being political – of course.
I became interested in Spanish football precisely because it is so politicised, almost to the extent that Spanish football and Spanish politics are one and the same. The whole Barça-Real Madrid rivalry reflects the cultural and political history of Spain in a very accurate fashion. How could anyone deny this? Sid Lowe has written an excellent book about it (Fear and Loathing in La Liga) and if you look at another book called ‘Morbo’ (not sure who the geek was who wrote it), you’ll find plenty of the same. And it’s not just Barça-Madrid. Far from it. There’s enough political bad-will floating around the rest of Spain to keep those particular batteries charged for another millennium.
In Ed’s quiniela for this weekend, he was hinting as much in his interesting phrase ‘Girona will get a point on Saturday, out of sheer confusion’, by which he was implying that the Catalan flag-waving fest that the new ‘derbi’ would inevitably become might neutralise the obvious superiority and form of the visitors. Well he was wrong, as it turned out, because Barcelona won 0-3, but the game was still very interesting, from several perspectives.
The Spanish state is often accused of meddling in football, mainly by supporters who feel that their regions are not looked upon favourably by central government, particularly when the right-wing Spanish nationalist PP (Partido Popular) is in power. This may well be paranoia and a sort of Franco-era hangover, but good evidence for the fact that it is untrue was Saturday’s fixture. I mean that when the Madrid-based fixture committee sat down in summer and glanced at the computer-generated games that represented season 2017-18’s first draft, somebody must have reacted in horror (either silently or otherwise) to the sight of Girona versus Barcelona a mere week away from the October 1st referendum on Catalan independence. Of course, the referendum is illegal, according to the Constitution, and will apparently not take place – but something will happen, even if it means Catalan nationalists (dressed in Barça shirts) running down the road with ballot-boxes in their arms, pursued by baton-wielding Guardia Civil chappies (dressed in green military shirts). It would make a funny cartoon, if it weren’t so serious.
And so – Saturday’s derby was not the game that anyone wanted, if you think that the principle of a referendum on independence is wrong, that is. If, on the other hand, you think it’s a reasonable idea, given that Spain labels itself a democracy, then you were probably rubbing your hands in glee at the prospect of the clash in Girona’s intense little Montilivi stadium. I was there for their first-ever game in La Liga in August, and although the guy-next-to-me, a lower-league ref, supported both Girona and Real Madrid (you won’t find many of those in the Camp Nou), Girona city is pretty Catalan, and just to prove the point the leader of the independence camp and President of the Generalitat, Carles Puidgemeont, accidentally managed to be in the VIP seats for the game. Now how did he get those tickets?
By the way – in case you thought this was turning into a pro-Catalan independence rant, let me just say that I’m fairly neutral on the issue. I don’t know if it would be a good idea or not – to secede from Spain. I’d say the same about the Basque Country, where I live. But since around 42% of Catalans (and probably more now) think it would be a good idea, I’m all for letting them vote on it. To prohibit such a vote in 21st century Europe seems both fascistic and not very smart, basically. If the tanks are out on the streets next weekend, it will be a sad day for post-Franco Spain.
Futhermore, according to La Liga President Javier Tebas, in a front-page rant on Marca recently (non-political, of course), Barcelona would not be able to play in the Spanish league, in the event of their independence.
Well, that’s a tricky one for Catalan nationalists, stuck between their desire for a nation-state and the cultural necessity to play the clásico a couple of times a year. Television networks and advertisers would also prefer the status quo to continue, for obvious reasons. Espanyol, the other team in Barcelona, have already pronounced on the issue and stated (through their president) that they only want to talk about football. All fine and good, but if they are facing a Catalan league in which they can only aspire to be runners-up every season, then the issue also concerns them. A section of their supporters published a letter at the weekend lamenting the club’s silence on the matter, and urging some kind of stance. Espanyol, as befits their name, do not harbour (in general) Catalan nationalist tendencies, but this does not mean that they see the referendum ban as a good thing.
The derby between Barcelona and Espanyol was thankfully played on September 10th (Barça won 5-0), and the political gulf between the two sides was less evident because the game was played in the Camp Nou. In Girona, consensus was in the air, as were masses of the Estelada, the (unofficial) Catalan flag with the blue star of independence.
Down on the pitch, the most interesting aspect of the action was the man-to-man marking job carried out efficiently on Leo Messi by the 20 year-old Pablo Maffeo, a Catalan born and bred but presently one of the loanee foals from the Manchester City stud farm. Maffeo, whose annulling of Messi caught the headlines, gave the press a certain insight as to what goes on at pitch level when he explained that Leo had entered into conversation with him on various occasions during the match, at one point asking him how old he was, and if he was over from Manchester City. We don’t know if he asked how Pep was, whether he sent his love or if he asked how much Agüero was earning now, but the rest of the team just got on with matters and used the other spaces that opened up because of Maffeo’s trailing of his quarry. Six games played, six games won. Who needs Neymar?
But let’s get back to politics. Imagine that eventually, after Messi’s retirement, the Catalans get their wish and become a nation-state. They will be shunned by the European Union, but then invited to play in the English Premier League, in a sort of Brexit-wasteland solidarity. As long as you don’t fly Ryanair, it’s a short trip over the water every fortnight, and the EPL will benefit greatly from the quality, status and economic attraction of the newcomers. Celtic and Rangers were once seriously contemplating it, so why not Barça?
The only reason why it will not happen is that the relationship between Real Madrid and Barcelona is one of symbiotic antipathy. Now that’s a phrase that Sid Lowe never used, but his book’s all about it. They’re deadly enemies, but they feed off each other, like a flea to its host. If one of them went, the other would die. Javier Tebas, who as a youngster was a paid-up member of the neo-fascist group Fuerza Nueva, knows this only too well. He hates Barcelona with all his soul, but he doesn’t want them to leave him. Real Madrid and others like them would wither and pine. So I was only joking, my friend. Football will determine the eventual result of this historic struggle, and the enemies will stay together. Their very existence depends on it.
Elsewhere, Barcelona ladies side beat Real Sociedad 0-1 in Zubieta, and I enjoyed the game very much. There were a few Esteladas, brought along by Basque sympathisers, but nothing on the scale of Girona. Later the same evening I saw a very good Valencia side pick off the inexperienced defence of Real Sociedad and win 2-3 in Anoeta, with a lethal display of counter-attacking. Watch out for them this season. They seem to be emerging from the dark at last. Getafe stuffed Villarreal 4-0 – an unusual result but evidence of the latter’s decline this season, and Eibar’s poor start continued with a 0-4 hiding at home to Celta, who’ll be glad to have kicked off their season at last. Real Madrid scraped it, 1-2 away at struggling Alavés, and next week play Espanyol on the day of the referendum-that-doesn’t-exist. Barcelona play on the same day (against Las Palmas) in the Camp Nou at 16.30. Get your votes cast, dodge the police and tanks, and get down to the stadium. I reckon Eduardo will put that one down as a ‘1’ on his quiniela.