Spain is in the midst of a tense political stand-off that could potentially alter the complexion of the country as the government of Catalunya defiantly prepares itself for a vote on independence.
The Spanish state has warned that the prospective vote contravenes the constitution and that it is actually illegal, but that has not diminished the appetites of those within the region who are seeking change. In recent years, in particular, Barcelona fans have not been shy about showing where their allegiance lies, frequently flying Catalan flags at games and many figures within the club – including players past and present – are firmly in the pro-independence camp.
With a referendum on the divisive matter becoming increasingly possible – a date has been set for Sunday, October 1 – questions have been raised regarding the position of Barcelona and how the club could be affected by independence. As with any step into new territory, we do not know for certain how Catalan independence will affect Barcelona, but there are a number of potential knock-on effects that have prompted intriguing discussions in football circles.
Expulsion from La Liga?
For example, one such notional outcome is that Barcelona would no longer be allowed to compete in La Liga, the competition it helped to found back in 1929. La Liga president Javier Tebas has been quick to pour cold water over the idea that Barca would simply retain its place in Spain’s flagship competition in the event of Catalan independence. Indeed, Barcelona would not be the only club affected by such a decision, with the likes of Girona and Espanyol among the Catalan football teams competing nationally.
“In sport, it isn’t a la carte and things must be clearly stated,” Tebas told Marca. “It isn’t easy to have an agreement and study Spanish legislation but if they (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.”
Tebas contends that exclusion from La Liga would undoubtedly see Barcelona slip from the top table of European football, citing the lucrative television rights deal as one area that would be different. Naturally, as the head of La Liga, Tebas is defending the integrity of the competition he leads, so his comments on the matter are inherently tinged with bias, but it remains to be seen whether his words have true weight.
However, considering the financial repercussions associated with the enforced removal of Catalan clubs from La Liga – it would mean an end to the traditional Clasico against Real Madrid – It is entirely conceivable that a compromise could be reached that benefits all parties involved.
What other leagues could Barca play in?
The immediate alternative to La Liga would theoretically see the restoration of a Catalan league involving the likes of Barcelona, Espanyol, Girona and others. There are already a number of Catalan leagues under the umbrella of Spanish football that are administered by the FCF (Catalan Football Federation).
However, since this would be a new competition in the eyes of UEFA, it would mean an all new country coefficient, which would subsequently affect qualification for tournaments such as the Champions League and Europa League. Instead of having an automatic place, for example, teams would be forced to navigate the qualifying rounds.
If that prospect is not enticing enough, former Prime Minister of France, Manuel Valls, suggested back in 2015 that Barcelona could play their football in Ligue 1 should Catalunya succeed in gaining independence from Spain. Valls, who was born in Barcelona, told Journal du Dimanche: “Monaco play in Ligue 1, so why not Barcelona?”
Given that a number of clubs across Europe already do not play in their native leagues – Welsh club Swansea City in the Premier League, for example – such an outcome certainly has precedent, but it would inevitably be subject to a long bureaucratic process requiring a litany of proverbial green lights.
Of course, even if authorities such as FIFA, UEFA and the LFP approved such a move, that does not necessarily mean that it would be a cordial diplomatic transition. Clubs, supporters and communities would have every right to oppose.
On Friday it was even suggested that Barcelona could end up in the Premier League, which would be an incredible coup for the English top flight, already the richest and most popular league competition in football.
Could Lionel Messi leave?
As the clashes over the forthcoming Catalan independence vote intensified last week, a report emerged in Don Balon suggesting that Lionel Messi could leave the club in the wake of a Yes vote. However, there is currently no reason to believe that the Argentine would dart for an exit simply because of the composition of the political landscape.
Nevertheless, if one takes into consideration Tebas’ aforementioned argument that Barca would cease to be one of the top clubs in Europe, the case for a Messi exit becomes stronger. The club would, in theory, struggle to attract the best players in the world if they were not virtually guaranteed elite-level football and the associated prestige, not to mention financial might.
The club itself is clearly sympathetic to the Catalan independence movement and recently spoke out against the treatment of those who are agitating for a vote, stressing that it “will continue to support the will of the majority of the Catalan people”.
The statement, which was issued on September 20, read: “In the wake of the events that have transpired in recent days and, especially, today, with regard to the current political situation in Catalunya, FC Barcelona, in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defence of the nation, to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to self-determination, condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights.
“Therefore, FC Barcelona publicly expresses its support for all people, entities, and institutions that work to guarantee these rights. FC Barcelona, in holding the utmost respect for its diverse body of members, will continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people, and will do so in a civil, peaceful, and exemplary way.”
A host of individuals associated with Barcelona, past and present, have also indicated their support for Catalan independence, but no one has been more vocal than Pep Guardiola. Speaking at a rally in June, the Manchester City manager, who previously played for and managed Barcelona, called on “the international community” to support the movement.
“We have tried on 18 occasions to reach an agreement on a referendum and the answer has always been no,” Guardiola said. “We have no other option but to vote. We call on the international community to support us and on democrats the world over to help us to defend the rights that are threatened in Catalunya, such as the right of freedom of expression and the right to vote.”
Current Barca player Gerard Pique is another individual who is fiercely proud of his Catalan identity, regularly posting Twitter updates in Catalan and occasionally showing his support for the region. Indeed, the defender’s position on the matter has even led to calls for him not to be selected for Spain’s national team, with ex-Barca and Real Madrid striker Alfonso Perez among those to express the view.
WILL INDEPENDENCE AFFECT THE SPAIN NATIONAL TEAM?
Should Catalunya secede from Spain to become an independent, autonomous state, then that would theoretically have a huge impact on the Spain national team, since national team eligibility is governed chiefly by nationality.
Once the dust settled, issues such as citizenship would have to be legislated for and we simply do not know how such a scenario would play out. If Catalan citizens were also deemed to be Spanish nationals, then Spain could select players from the region. If there was no extension of Spanish nationality, it would mean that Catalan players would not be allowed to play for La Roja, but it may not be so clear-cut.
Interestingly, a Catalunya national team already exists, with native players such as Pique, Guardiola, Xavi, Carles Puyol and Cesc Fabregas lining up for the region in friendly games over the years. It is not affiliated with UEFA or FIFA though, meaning that it cannot compete in competitions such as the European Championship or the World Cup. However, that could change in the event of independence.
There are a number of examples of ‘new’ countries forming national teams and going on to compete in UEFA and FIFA competitions, with Kosovo and Gibraltar being two of the most recent examples. It is not always straightforward, though, and requires a vote, which could easily be opposed by Spain, who notably attempted to prevent Gibraltar from becoming a member of UEFA.