On Sunday, Catalonians attempted to exercise their democratic–if not constitutional–right to vote in a referendum for independence from Spain. The Madrid-based government’s response was violent and swift: Spanish police physically removed voters from voting centers, as well as clashed with firefighters attempting to protect citizens. The images that flooded the internet immediately tell a story of a stubborn-yet-peaceful populace being repressed by a government scared of its people. Caught in the middle of the situation was the Catalonian institution of FC Barcelona, the outer world’s symbolic representation of the Catalan region.
“Més que un club.” More than a club. For years, Barcelona has been best explained by those 4 words; the club is just that, a sports club, with one of the biggest and more popular soccer teams in the world. But Barca is also held up as a symbol of resistance for a region historically repressed by its Castilian overlords in Madrid. During the age of Franco, Barcelona’s refusal to bend to the will of the dictator (for the most part) was met with repercussions from the government and support from the Catalan people. While that spirit of anti-government venom is not felt nearly as much today–in fact, the “més que un club” phrase is bandied about more as a joking insult at the blaugrana, a claim that the club has forgotten its roots by abandoning its link to Catalonia in favor of world dominance–there was Barcelona again, at the eye of the storm on Sunday.
Gerard Piqué is Barcelona’s most outspoken Catalan player, a giant of a human with blood the color of the senyera flag. He’s been pro-vote for as long as he’s acted as the unofficial spokesman of the region for the sporting world. On Sunday, he went to the polls and was allowed to vote, and then he and the rest of Barca went to work at the Camp Nou in one of the eeriest scenes in recent sports memory. As the blaugrana took on Las Palmas, the famed and ginormous stadium lay empty, its fans not allowed in, partly due to security and fear of field invasions, and partly–as said by hated Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu–as a symbolic protest against the silence demanded by the Spanish government. A 3-0 win while their city (metaphorically) burned followed, but no one was in the mood to celebrate, what with an uncertain future lying ahead.
If Catalonia does declare (and succeed in instituting) independence, it will provide many a logistical problem for Barcelona. The first and most pressing is that the club might find itself kicked out of La Liga, the Spanish first division that they have called home since 1929. Gone will be their status as one-half of Spain’s soccer duopoly, and gone will be their minimum of two Clasicós a year against Real Madrid. To put into context how big of a loss that would be, the most recent La Liga Clasicó–Barcelona’s thrilling 3-2 win in Madrid on April 23–was watched by an estimated 650 million people worldwide.
To say that losing out on the Madrid rivalry would harm Barcelona is to say that getting your head cut off is a minor inconvenience.
To say that losing out on the Madrid rivalry would harm Barcelona is to say that getting your head cut off is a minor inconvenience. Every move that both clubs make is with the express intention of bettering the other; when Barcelona thrived off of a youth system in the early 2010s, Real Madrid copied it, and now the tables have turned. Barcelona’s historic purchase of Ousmane Dembélé this summer was as much a move to replace the departing Neymar as it was to keep up with Real Madrid’s youth movement–Marco Asensio sends his regards. By separating the two clubs and relegating them to the rare Champions League matchup, independence could severely harm Barcelona’s standing in world soccer. That is, unless one of two moves happens immediately after.
While Catalonia could theoretically construct a soccer league with Barcelona and inter-city rivals Espanyol as its headliners, no one particularly wants one of the biggest clubs in the world in a regional league with no international appeal. And here is where France can step in. Since the murmurs of Catalan independence turned into the roar that they are now, the option of having Barcelona join Ligue 1 has been floated around by soccer experts.
There’s both a historical and a soccer reason why this would work well. The southwest part of France has regions that were once part of historical Catalonia. The close proximity to France would make it, at most, an inconvenient road trip for away fans wanting to travel to the Camp Nou for fixtures–a Madrid to Barcelona drive takes about 6 hours, while Paris to Barcelona would be a 10 hour excursion. As for the action on the field, adding Barcelona to the mix would give PSG and Monaco, the current overlords of France, a worthy competitor, if not a monolith to chase. Plus, the Neymar-to-PSG saga probably added some animosity to Paris-Barcelona relations; while it’s unlikely that Neymar and Messi would still be on the teams at the time of independence, there is a history of hatred being written between the two clubs as we speak. Will it ever reach El Clasicó levels? Probably not, but it’s a start.
Of course, if we really want to think outside the box, the rumor making the rounds following Sunday’s contested referendum is infinitely more exciting: what if Barcelona goes to England’s Premier League? It’s a far-fetched idea that still caught on with a certain subdivision of the soccer internet after Sunday. While it would be bizarre to see a team with no physical or historical connection to the British Isles join the Premier League, let’s live in the fantasy world that is today’s soccer landscape for a moment. There’s enough money in the Prem to entice Barcelona, and an even bigger TV deal would follow the inclusion of such a massive club. Plus, the Premier League would not only be strengthening its own slate of teams; it would be weakening its biggest rival in the race for global supremacy.
On the field, well, the Premier League is already the most competitive top league in the world; adding in Barcelona would just trickle down money to every other club, and let them compete at an even higher level. Not only that, but we’d also add 38 Barcelona matches to an already insane amount of good Premier League fixtures. Two Barca matches against each of the current top 6 (Manchesters United and City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Totteham) would make for a dozen international events every season. Plus, maybe a Premier League team would actually win the Champions League more than once in a blue moon.
There is one more option, and it’s the most likely to happen if independence does come to pass: Barcelona and La Liga could opt to stay together in what has been a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s not entirely out of the question; for example, Monaco is an independent principality, but they still take part in Ligue 1. This would allow the team to keep its money-printing Clasicós intact, and it would also allow them to stay stable during what would be an incredibly tumultuous time in the region’s history. But how will the club’s Catalan fans, so devoted to the idea of the club as symbol, react to that same club metaphorically turning its back on the region? What would happen when Real Madrid–and its Spanish fans–travel into so-called “enemy territory” for the first Clasicó post-independence?
These are questions that will weigh heavily on the decision that Barcelona might have to confront head on in the near future. In the meantime, the club has aligned itself with its Catalan roots; as part of the region-wide strike on Tuesday, the club shut down in protest of the repression exhibited on Sunday. However, that’s more of a symbolic gesture than anything; the soccer team is currently on an international break, after all. The real moment of truth will come if or when independence comes to pass. When everything changes, does a multi-billion dollar business side with the status quo, or do they perform the task that would be expected of them by changing the entire landscape of European soccer? We’re closer than ever to finding that out.