Electricity fills the air at Camp Nou in Barcelona, fans chorus the “Cant del Barça,” F.C. Barcelona’s anthem, and Lionel Messi just found the back of the net in the famous El Clàsico. As Messi trots back to the halfway line with a post-goal glow, the game clock strikes 17 minutes and 14 seconds and the whole stadium turns moods in an instant. The fans now echo the patriotic cries of “I-inde-independència”, while red and yellow striped Catalan flags ripple throughout the crowd.
The ever-passionate fans of F.C. Barcelona (Barça), arguably the most famous soccer team in the world, only match their passion for their soccer team with their fervor for their heritage. They do not consider themselves Spanish, but Catalan. This sense of identity not only has implications in the world of sports but also in the world of politics. Once upon a time, Catalonia ruled as an independent state of the Iberian Peninsula, adjacent to both modern-day Portugal and Spain. In 1150, the Queen of Aragon and the Count of Barcelona married and had a son; he inherited all the land associated with modern-day Aragon and Catalonia. It was run accordingly until 1714 when King Philip V was victorious during the War of Spanish Succession. This was a turning point in Catalonia’s history. He was known for abolishing the privileges of all of Spain’s medieval kingdom. Over the next centuries, various monarchs continued to squash the archaic traditions and language of Catalonia, however, the Catalans stayed strong in their culture. Eventually, the Spanish government gave up in 1931 and installed the Generalitat, the semi-autonomous government of Catalonia.
This autonomy quickly disappeared in 1938 as General Francisco Franco, a fascist dictator, set out to destroy the Catalan separatism and pride via genocide. He killed over 3,500 people and forced scores more into exile. Nonetheless, in 1977, modern rationality prevailed and Catalonia regained semi-autonomous rights. As expected, they grew tired of this diet version of independence and called for complete separation from the (in their eyes) Spanish
From Catalonia’s perspective, it makes perfect sense: they run their own government, they speak their own language, they celebrate their own culture, and, most importantly, they drive their own strong economy. Everything considered, an independent Catalonia could thrive. Unfortunately, the Spanish government would lose out. Catalonia alone provides almost 20 percent ($314 billion) of the Spanish gross domestic product. Barça deserve credit for an impressive portion of those billions.
Barça epitomizes all things Catalonia and, as such, supports the separatist movement. The club carries heavy financial clout as well. They have yearly revenues of $688 million, not including the millions players pay in taxes. Many players also own businesses and tracts of real estate in the area, so the club contributes several billions annually to the surrounding economy. Due to their financial success in a region of recent economic difficulty, Catalans consider independence as the most fiscally sound route.
Abandoning El Clásico represents just the tip of the iceberg of problems that would ensue Barça’s flight. While La Liga would lose its best two matches of the year, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champion’s League, a tournament of Europe’s elite clubs, still outranks El Clásico in importance. All recognize this tournament as the best club soccer competition in the world. Winning the Champions League constitutes the pinnacle of a soccer club’s success. Barça have won it a well-respected five times.
Football club managers must strike a balance between playing their best players weekly in their league while still keeping them fresh enough to compete in the Champion’s League; managers must confront this dilemma in order to find both domestic success and continental glory. If Catalonia becomes its own independent nation with its own smaller league, Barça may, on first appraisal, consider themselves lucky to not have to tire themselves out against tough teams like Real prior to the Champion’s League. However, if Barça considers the performance of two other famous clubs, Bayern Munich of Germany and Juventus of Italy, they would reconsider this logic: Both clubs struggle in the Champion’s League after winning their league titles with little resistance from other intra-league teams. Football veterans believe that players lose motivation or skill from the lack of challenging matches and so lose out to more tired, but better prepared teams at the Champion’s League. As such, Barça may decide against the creation of their own league. In this scenario, they would have to fight through mountains of paperwork to become a club that plays in the domestic leagues of foreign nations. Clubs like Swansea City F.C., Cardiff City F.C., and Monaco F.C. exemplify this: The former two, although founded in Wales, play in English leagues; the latter, although founded in Monaco, play in a French League. Although challenging to implement, such arrangements represent the only logical solution to such small nations; without the size necessary to support their own leagues, Wales and Monaco must compete in their neighbors’ leagues. Barça could do this because Spain would hate to lose revenue, but Barça would still need the Spanish government’s approval, which may prove difficult to gain after Catalan independence.
While Catalonia demands unparalleled respect in Spain, one wonders if the benefits of independence outweigh the costs. The idealist would say yes, but the realist would disagree. An analyst need not enter the sporting realm to realize that Catalonia depends on the Spanish government to find success. Spain stands to gain much if it finds a way to make the Catalans happy and feel respected. The Spanish government needs it, the Catalans need it, and most importantly the soccer world needs it.