How Spain’s Crisis over Catalonian Independence Plays Out on the Soccer Field

As riot police clashed with huge crowds in Barcelona during last weekend’s banned Catalonian independence referendum, the city’s soccer team played a game in front of 98,000 empty seats after closing its Camp Nou stadium amid safety fears.

Hours later, Real Madrid kicked off another game to the cheers of supporters waving Spanish flags and placards declaring “Todos somos España” (We are all Spain) and “Viva España!” (Long live Spain!).

This collision of identity politics and sport — an echo of President Donald Trump’s culture war against kneeling in the NFL — illustrates the importance of soccer in the psyche of the Iberian peninsula.

It is also a looming problem for La Liga, Spain’s top tier and one of the most watched, most lucrative and most influential sporting competitions in the world.

FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, each worth more than the New England Patriots or New York Yankees according to Forbes, are its lynchpins. Together, the clubs have over 100 million fans on Facebook.

But while the former backs Catalonia’s right to a binding vote on independence, the latter is synonymous with unified Spanish centralism. If Catalonia declares independence, as its separatist leader pledged earlier this week, how will the clubs deal with the constitutional crisis? Will “Barça” as FC Barcelona is commonly known, quit the league altogether?

La Liga’s president, Javier Tebas, warned in Septembert that “Barça,” as FC Barcelona is commonly known, and other Calatan clubs would be forced to quit the league by law in the event of secession.

“In sport, it isn’t a la carte and things must be clearly stated,” he told reporters. “It isn’t easy to have an agreement and study Spanish legislation but if they [the Catalan clubs] do get that, then they will not be able to play in Spain’s La Liga, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Others believe there is too much at stake.

“The relationship between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona is one of symbiotic antipathy,” explained Phil Ball, author of ‘Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football.’ “They’re deadly enemies, but they feed off each other. If one of them went, the other would die.”

With a combined value of $1.4 billion, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid profit from their rivalry, and fans relish the chance to face each other regularly in a fixture known as “El Clásico.”

But it’s never just about soccer when it comes to Spain’s top clubs.

Image: Real Madrid Fans

Real Madrid fans display Spanish national flags in support of a united Spain against the Catalonian referendum for independence during a La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Espanyol at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on Sunday.