Fuel for the Burning Fire: How the Rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid Fans the Flames of Catalan Independence


I wrote this two years ago for my Senior Independent Project. A lot has changed, a lot has stayed the same. As the topic of Catalan independence continues to dominate the headlines, I think it’s appropriate to publish this project, a project that I spent months toiling over, and that still holds relevance to this day.



In Barcelona, there are street signs guiding drivers to the Balearic Islands, to France, and even to Algeria (a continent away), but no street signs to Madrid, the nation’s capital. In Madrid, however, there are street signs guiding drivers to Barcelona. Why is this? To the average tourist, Madrid is a bustling metropolis on the banks of the Manzanares River, but to people in Barcelona — the Catalans — Madrid is an iniquitous inferno on the banks of the Styx River. (Madrid Se Mueve Para Madrid, 2015).

The hostility that Catalans feel toward the Castilians–who live in Madrid–is evident in various aspects of daily life, but is most evident in sport – and in particular, in the rivalry between soccer powerhouses FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Supporters of Real Madrid Club de Fútbol (Madridistas), which is based in the nation’s capital and seat of power, view supporters of Fútbol Club Barcelona (Culés) as anti-Spanish, and are vigorously opposed to the idea of Catalan secession (“El Clasico – the Origins,” 2013). In contrast, FC Barcelona supporters fervently support secession. While Castilian and Catalan politicians debate the issue of Catalan secession on a daily basis, this heated political issue is manifest in the rivalry between the two soccer powerhouses, and the climax of this burning factionalism is most evident during an event known as “El Clásico,” when twice a year the two soccer superclubs do battle on the soccer pitch. At each Clásico, spectators witness a passion forged by centuries of rising nationalistic identities, a civil war, and the growing, present-day rift that exists in its wake. To put the FC Barcelona/Real Madrid rivalry in context, imagine a heated American sports rivalry combined with an intense political dispute. Consider, for example, if the Washington Redskins were based in an actual Native American reservation and sought independence from a government whose capital was the home of its bitter sports rival — the Dallas Cowboys – and then add a thousand years of history and an ongoing fight for independence to that scenario. That thought experiment gives one a sense of the intensity of the Barça-Madrid divide.

In this paper, I argue that the soccer rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona transcends sports and that the region of Catalonia utilizes their team FC Barcelona as a vehicle of cultural expression, reflecting and exacerbating the historical and ongoing millennium-long tension between the regions of Catalonia and Castile. As Madrid-based sports writer Lorenzo Lara told me, “This rivalry has been fueled by sports, politics, culture, and economics.” [1]It is only on the soccer pitch that the historic nationality of Catalonia can and does flex its muscle, fanning the flames and fueling the fire burning within its fans for Catalan separatism and independence. First, I will identify the historical roots of this rivalry by briefly summarizing the history of the Catalan struggle for independence over the past millennium, with an emphasis on the Franco regime’s repression of Catalan culture, language, and identity during and after the Spanish Civil War. Next, I will examine how Franco’s war on Catalan culture was made manifest in his regime’s repression of FC Barcelona. I will then explore how FC Barcelona has responded to this history and has risen up in the wake of the Franco regime’s oppression – against the “regime’s team” Real Madrid – by establishing a distinctive method for developing homegrown players and a distinctively successful Catalan style of play. I will then examine how these strategies have played out in El Clásico throughout the years and are evident in the FC Barcelona team of today. Finally, I conclude by examining the 2015 elections on the issue of Catalan independence and the continuing role that today’s FC Barcelona team plays in the ongoing struggle for independence, as well as by considering what independence would ultimately mean for FC Barcelona and for the historic FC Barcelona/Real Madrid rivalry.

The History of the Struggle for Catalan Independence

While FC Barcelona was founded in 1899, Catalonia’s struggle to become an autonomous nation-state began many centuries earlier. Prior to the Roman Empire, what we now call Catalonia was populated by the Iberians, and after the Roman conquest of this region, Catalonia became part of Hispania, in the westernmost part of the Roman Empire. (Morey, 1900, p. 111). After Rome fell, the Germanic tribe known as the Visigoths took hold of Catalonia and incorporated it into the kingdom of Tolosa, now known as Toulouse, France. About 500 years later, the Eastern counties of Septimania and the Marca Hispanica became independent from France, uniting as vassals of Barcelona. In 1137, Barcelona and Aragon formed the United Crown of Aragon, with Catalonia becoming Aragon’s main naval base. During this period of its early history, Catalonia enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. According to writer and creator of catalanpolitics.com Janne Riitakorpi, “There’s this strong feeling of our own history in Catalonia. [Catalonia] used to be pretty much independent in the Middle Ages. The current Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, is the 130th in this history, with the institution alongside the Parliament of Catalonia dating back to the 11th century.”[2] In summary, the first part of the first millennium was comparatively favorable for Catalan autonomy and independence.

The second half of the millennium would see Catalonia’s general state of affairs — and its struggle to maintain independence — transition for the worse. The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon to Isabella I of Castile in 1469 brought about unification of the regions controlled by Aragon and Castile and heralded a transition in the seat of political power away from Aragon and towards Castile. The unification of these two regions meant that Ferdinand and Isabella – as well as their heir and grandson, Charles I — would rule Castile and Aragon simultaneously. Unfortunately for Catalonia, the unified Crown began to encroach in various ways upon Catalonia’s rights to exercise autonomy during the Thirty Years’ War, and in response, Catalans rebelled from 1640-52.

The conflict leading up to the War of Spanish Succession began when childless Charles II – then ruler of the unified region of Castile and Aragon — died without an heir, and chose the French House of Bourbon’s Phillip V as his successor, while Catalonia — like every other region of Aragon — supported Phillip V’s rival Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. The ensuing conflict would split Spain in half, and the year 1714 would mark the last year in which Catalans enjoyed true independence from Castile. When Barcelona ultimately fell to Phillip V on September 11, 1714, there were severe repercussions for Catalonia. Phillip V, feeling betrayed by Catalonia and angered by what he saw as Catalonia’s seditious support for his rival Charles VI, issued the “Nueva Planta” decrees that incorporated Aragonese territories, including Catalonia, as provinces under the direct control of the Crown of Castile, terminating Catalonia’s separate institutions, laws and rights, and dealing a devastating blow for Catalan autonomy.

The repercussions of Phillip V’s clampdown on Catalonia were widespread and long-lasting. In my interview with Catalan journalist Adrià Alsina, Alsina explained that:

[Phillip V instigated] a symbolic crackdown as much of a social and economic crackdown [in Catalonia]. Catalans were treated as foreigners in the kingdom of Castile. Catalans would not have access to high offices or appointments to the public service. . . The people of Catalonia would have a great sense of defeat that would last for generations, and you can even argue it is still there today.[3]

In short, from the early eighteenth century and continuing until modern times, Catalonia suffered from the severe blows to its autonomy and independence dealt by Phillip V.

The nineteenth century ushered in a renewed hope and sense of Catalan identity and heightened efforts to make Catalonia an independent nation. After French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte defeated Spanish forces in the Peninsular War, he sought to spur Catalan nationalism and induce Catalonia to split from Spain (and ultimately to unite with France). In an attempt to engender the Catalans’ demand for autonomy, Napoleon allowed an independent Catalan republic and encouraged the public use of the Catalan language. Under Napoleon’s regime, the Catalan newspaper Diari del Govern de Catalunya y Barcelona was published, helping to revitalize the Catalan language and fomenting nationalistic awareness among Catalans.

Shortly before France’s occupation of Spain ended, a group of delegates from various regions in Spain convened to produce the Constitution of 1812. The new constitution served to further exacerbate tension between Catalonia and Castile, as the document failed to recognize Catalonia’s historical independence and regional privileges and instead promulgated a singular law for the unified Spain, as well as a centralized administration and taxation system.

A key priority of Castile’s political agenda in the nineteenth century was a unified Spain. In the words of a leading liberal politician of the time, Antonio Alcalá Galiano, “One of the principal objectives which we must set ourselves is to make of the Spanish nation one nation, which it is not today and has never yet been.” However, the political turbulence of the nineteenth century undermined Castile’s attempts to forge “one nation,” as the first three-quarters of that century saw two civil wars, several military coups, and ultimately a failed republic. The later portion of the century saw a return of Castilian dominance, which — coupled with Catalonia’s renaixença (meaning cultural renaissance in Catalan) that was occurring during that period — only served to heighten the Catalan populace’s hunger for an independent state.

Spain’s tumultuous nineteenth century concluded with El Desastre del 98 (The Disaster of 1898), in which the nation suffered a humiliating military defeat at the hands of the United States, which forced Spain to cede their territories of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. El Desastre triggered an outpouring of debates within Spain seeking to find the root of its political defeat (Balcells, 1965, p. 110). In these political debates, Castile took a symbolic and patriotic approach, focusing on the “regeneration” of Spain, while Catalonia focused on the issue from an economic standpoint. The Madrid government had failed to protect Catalan investments and Catalonia’s top export market when it lost Cuba, leaving Catalan mills with only one outlet left: the rest of Spain. However, since the rest of Spain was toiling in poverty, Catalan industry descended into depression. This financial downturn helped persuade the Catalan industrialists to adopt a more nationalistic mentality and to encourage Catalan voices in Madrid to defend the region’s interests (Hoyle & Harrison, 2000, p. 42). This newfound attitude, deemed Catalanismo, ultimately furthered Catalonia’s efforts to detach from Spain with the formation of several new political parties and the creation of the Mancomunitat, a confederation of four Catalan administrative bodies that reunited the Catalan provinces under a voluntary and semi-autonomous confederation.

Catalan politics in the early 20th century saw the law-abiding Lliga Regionalista Party clash with the anarchic Jóvenes Bárbaros (Young Barbarians) Party for the support of Barcelona’s working class. These tensions reached a feverish pitch during the “Tragic Week” of July 1909. A peaceful anti-war strike quickly degenerated into a brutal revolt, causing the army to quash the uprising in a violent operation that led to 2,500 arrests and 150 civilian casualties. The Jóvenes Bárbaros soon disbanded, leaving the Lliga Regionalista as the main vehicle for Catalan aspirations.

Madrid’s government rewarded the Lliga Regionalista for working within the legal system within the Mancomunitat (or confederation arrangement) that provided limited autonomy for Catalonia. The Mancomunitat provided support for Catalan museums and libraries, and also supported public works and schools, while falling short of granting Catalonia full autonomy (Harris, 2014). The Mancomunitat temporarily satisfied Catalonia’s quench for a greater say in its own political affairs, but Catalan nationalists continued to press for full autonomy. Dissatisfied with the Lliga Regionalista’s conciliatory approach, public opinion in Catalonia began to center on separation, through violence if necessary. In September 1923, responding to the ensuing regional factionalism and violence, the military stepped in to impose peace and order, spearheaded by Catalonia’s Captain General, dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. De Rivera disbanded and outlawed the Mancomunitat in 1925. Shortly after his dictatorship fell in 1930, Catalonia received its first Statute of Autonomy, a strong, yet not absolute, grant of self-government during the Second Spanish Republic. However, Catalonia was to see its autonomy disappear within four years. Five months after the left-wing Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) won a plurality of seats in the February 1936 elections, a group of officers unsuccessfully sought to overthrow the government in a coup, and the Spanish Civil War ensued.

During the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia was a stronghold of Republican, anti-Franco, forces. As George Orwell wrote in his Homage to Catalonia, parts of Catalonia remained autonomous, and controlled by leftists, anarchist and socialist trade unions. When the coup occurred in 1936, Franco’s Nationalist forces were defeated in Catalonia, leading to three years of strife between the Catalans and Franco’s Nationalist forces. During this period, anarchism and socialism were an integral part of social and economic life in Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia, and fighting with Franco’s Nationalist forces continued throughout the war. In July 1938, Republican forces, having been all but defeated by Franco’s Nationalist forces, made a last-ditch effort by attacking Franco’s Nationalists across the Ebro River. While the surprise attack gave them an initial victory, the Republicans were eventually destroyed, with massive casualties that some estimate as high as 75,000 lives (Beevor, 2006, p. 358).

The Republicans’ defeat was followed by Franco’s brutal bombing of Barcelona in January 1939 and rampant killings by Franco’s forces. On January 26, 1939, Barcelona ultimately fell to the Nationalists. An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Catalan refugees entered France to avoid the wrath of Franco’s victorious forces — and the repression of Catalan culture that was to follow. After the Nationalists’ decisive victory in 1939, an autocratic dictatorship was put in place under the leadership of General Francisco Franco.

Franco’s War on Catalonia — Both On and Off the Soccer Pitch

When Francisco Franco assumed power of Spain in 1939, his regime ushered in a brutal and repressive era for Catalonia, as the ultra-nationalist new president sought to eradicate Catalan culture by any means necessary. “El Caudillo” (or The Strongman), as Franco was called, banned any kind of public activities associated with Catalan nationalism, republicanism, anarchism, socialism or democracy, including the publication of books on those topics or simple discussion of them in open meetings (Eaude, 2008, p. 217). Franco further banned the use of the Catalan language in government-run institutions and in public events. (One Catalan government worker whom I interviewed, who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job in the Spanish government, described in vivid detail how Franco’s prohibition on the use of the Catalan language affected his family, observing: “My mother was slapped by a policeman for speaking Catalan.”)[4] In short, Franco’s mission to eradicate the Catalan culture, language, and identity had severe, debilitating effects on the Catalan people.

President Francisco Franco did everything in his power to weaken the Catalan culture, language, and identity in everyday life, including by waging war against one of the greatest embodiments of Catalan pride and nationalism: their Football Club (FC) Barcelona. The Franco regime waged this war against FC Barcelona by shoring up support for the rival “regime team” Real Madrid and also, according to some sources, by sabotaging FC Barcelona. The efforts to which Franco went to build up Real Madrid and to sabotage and defeat FC Barcelona provide further evidence of the crucial role that FC Barcelona played in embodying Catalan identity and catalyzing Catalan’s struggle for independence, which Franco sought vehemently to stamp out.

Even before the embryonic stages of Franco’s tyranny, FC Barcelona was seen as a beacon of Catalan identity, while Real Madrid’s geographic proximity to the capital made it “Spain’s team.” As Franco’s forces waged war against the Republicans, who used Barcelona as a powerful base, and after his troops won the Spanish Civil War, Franco attempted to destroy Catalan culture by sabotaging FC Barcelona. During the 1936 coup d’état, Franco’s forces detained and murdered Catalan nationalist and FC Barcelona president Josep Sunyol. (McMullen, 2012). Seven years later, during an important matchup between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, Franco regime police threatened Barcelona players,[5] with the Director of State Security visiting the Barça dressing room and delivering to the team a foreboding letter stating: “Do not forget that some of you are only playing because of the generosity of the regime that has forgiven you for your lack of patriotism.” (Burns, 1999, p. 129) When the FC Barcelona players entered Madrid’s stadium, they were treated, as writer Anirudh Menon puts it, “like Carthaginian slaves in an ancient Roman gladiatorial arena –with the blood-curdling screams and whistles of over 20,000 frenetically whipped up Madridistas baying for Catalan blood” (Menon, 2014). The Barcelona players, fearing for their lives and their families, stood witness as Real Madrid blasted eleven goals past their goalkeeper, Luis Miró, who was too afraid of the bloodthirsty spectators behind his goal (and of the objects being hurled at him and the threat of a pitch invasion) to stand anywhere close to his penalty box. After Madrid’s 11-1 victory, then-Barça president Enrique Piñeyro Queralt, an ardent Franco supporter appointed to the post by Franco to de-politicize the club, became so disillusioned with the Franco regime’s influence that he resigned after the game (Eurosport, 2011). Noted sports journalist Juan Antonio Samaranch – who was a card-carrying member of Franco’s Fascist party — wrote an article for La Prensa lambasting the injustice of the result, after which his press credentials were permanently confiscated, ending his career as a journalist. This contentious semifinal would heighten tensions between the two clubs, but Franco regime’s efforts to thwart FC Barcelona would reach new heights ten summers later.

In the summer of 1953, to hinder Barça’s development and to strengthen Madrid, Franco allegedly went so far as to intervene to prevent FC Barcelona from acquiring a player who would go on to be regarded as one of the most gifted soccer players of all time, Alfredo Di Stéfano. FC Barcelona had developed an interest in Di Stéfano when he was playing for his Colombian club Millonarios, and worked hard to secure the transfer of Di Stéfano to FC Barcelona (“Di Stéfano, Un Robo,” 2013). But Real Madrid was also interested in Di Stéfano, and attempted to interfere with FC Barcelona’s plans to acquire him. Although the full truth of the matter may never be known, FC Barcelona supporters claim that its team’s plans to acquire Di Stéfano were scuttled by the direct intervention of President Franco, who successfully convinced lawmakers to enact legal barriers interfering with Barcelona’s ability to acquire De Stéfano and enabling Real Madrid ultimately to acquire him instead. Indeed, FC Barcelona’s official website calls Real Madrid’s ultimate acquisition of Di Stéfano the result of “a strange federative manoeuvre with Francoist backing” (FC Barcelona, 2014). Franco’s myriad efforts to weaken FC Barcelona served as testament to the important role that FC Barcelona played in Catalan autonomy and independence, which Franco was adamant to repress.

Franco’s forceful efforts to tip the scales of the rivalry in favor of Madrid were successful, at least for a period of time. With the addition of Di Stéfano, Real Madrid entered a period of dominance. Real Madrid’s first Clásico with Di Stéfano was a 5-0 rout over Barcelona, with Di Stéfano scoring four goals (Rodríguez, 2014). From there, Los Blancos, as the Real Madrid team is called, went on to win 32 domestic titles, 18 international trophies, and 10 Champions League titles (Waugh, 2014).

FC Barcelona in the Wake of the Franco Regime

The enmity between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid emanates not just from their fan bases’ opposing political stances but also from their distinctive team cultures. For the most part, Real Madrid dominated the early years of the teams’ great rivalry, until Dutch forward Johan Cruyff flew into Spain in the spring of 1973, just two months after Francisco Franco stepped down from his position as President (Cernensek, 2010). Cruyff’s arrival triggered Barcelona’s success, first on the pitch, helping Barcelona win their first league title in 14 years and along the way defeating Madrid 5-0, and then in the resurgence of Catalan pride. The years 1974 and 1975 saw Cruyff win his second and third Ballon D’Or, the award given to the best footballer in Europe (“Total Football: Johan Cruyff,” 2014). Yet, apart from achieving unprecedented success for FC Barcelona on the pitch, Cruyff helped resurrect Catalonia’s cultural pride to pre-Franco heights, at a time when Catalans were still reeling from Franco’s attempts to eradicate their way of life. Cruyff, as one New York Times journalist put it, did “more for the spirit of the Catalan people in 90 minutes [regulation soccer time] than do many politicians in years of struggle” (Schlewitz, 2015). Indeed, Cruyff was such a staunch supporter of the Catalan people that he even gave his son the distinctly Catalan name “Jordi.” Cruyff also gave Barcelona a distinct playing style and footballing culture that they have enjoyed ever since. “Cruyff created a style of attack and contributed to the defense through ‘total football’,” explained a Catalan working in Spain’s public sector who, for fear of being discharged from his office, asked to remain anonymous.[6] Cruyff would return to FC Barcelona in 1988 as a manager, and under his tutelage, the Barça “Dream Team” won twelve trophies, including their first ever European Cup (Murray, 2015). In short, Cruyff – as a player and as a manager – helped bring about a resurgence of Catalan pride, both on and off the soccer pitch.

For years during and after the Franco regime, FC Barcelona suffered from the disadvantage of being out-financed by Real Madrid — the Franco regime’s team — which garnered the support and the financial benefits given by the Franco regime, including enjoying the ability to purchase many superstar players. Partly in response to being out-financed by its rival Real Madrid, with the guidance and inspiration of Johan Cruyff, FC Barcelona developed a “farmhouse” system or academy,[7] through which it was able to methodically (and economically) train its homegrown players in a uniquely Barça brand of play, instructing them to play in an unwavering 4-3-3 formation and teaching them a distinct modus operandi called “tiki-taka” (Hayward, 2015). While Real Madrid enjoyed the benefit of being able to purchase world-renowned superstars through its cartera (or wallet), FC Barcelona began to develop its cantera or farmhouse system as a means of building up players from the start and educating them in its distinctive, possession-based “tiki-taka” style of play, renowned for its elegant positioning and precise passing. As commentator and analyst of BEINSPORTS (broadcast channel for Spanish football) Kevin Egan explains, “The style of football is different, as is their political views and stance on Spain.”[8] Barcelona’s style of play did not rely upon the presence of expensive superstars, but instead was a more democratic and egalitarian model that relied upon training each player to perform their best at their position and upon sharing the contributions to the team’s success among all players. Both the farmhouse system and its distinctive tiki-taka style of play can be seen as expressions of FC Barcelona’s, and Catalonia’s, independence from the coiffeurs of Madrid.

In contrast, Real Madrid does not have a similarly effective academy system for developing and training homegrown players, nor a distinctive style of play. Instead, Real Madrid has tended to rely on its wallet to purchase players.[9] Indeed, Real Madrid’s president Florentino Pérez has gained a reputation for the Galácticos, or superstars, that he has purchased. Pérez was responsible for the two most expensive purchases in association football history by signing Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale for a combined €194 million (Rose, 2015). Further, Real Madrid’s youth training academy is nowhere near as successful in developing players as FC Barcelona’s is. Not a single product from Madrid’s youth academy (known as La Fábrica) started in the last major competition between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (El Clásico), compared to the five graduates of FC Barcelona’s youth academy who started in the most recent Clásico (McCauley, 2015).

Unlike Barcelona, Madrid have not stuck with a certain style of play throughout the years, with the only constant expectation being victories somehow brought about by captivating football played by its highly-compensated superstars. As Phil Kitromilides, Real Madrid TV’s senior presenter, explains: “Like Barcelona, Real Madrid has to win every game. That is the minimum of what is expected by the fans. . . . Rather than an actual philosophy, Real Madrid has always been expected to delight and entertain through their play.”[10] Real Madrid has been consistently lambasted for its lack of distinct footballing culture. As one of my anonymous sources explains, “Madrid has not constructed any model or style of play. In both his terms, [Real Madrid President] Pérez has only been dedicated to spending and buying big-name players.”[11]

The relationship between Catalan’s struggle for independence and its football club is also exemplified in the career of Josep (Pep) Guardiola. At the age of thirteen, Pep enrolled in Barcelona’s youth academy, just four years after its creation, and emerged as both youth team and first team captain, under Johan Cruyff’s management. Guardiola was a powerful advocate of tiki-taka, Barcelona’s distinctive style of play, and like Cruyff, he would go on to play for Barça and then to manage the team to unprecedented success with youth academy trained players from 2008-2012, when he became the most successful coach in FC Barcelona’s history. (Balague, 2013, p. 150) Barça was “more than a club”[12] for Guardiola throughout his long and successful career and soccer was more than a game — it was politics and warring cultures and Guardiola was (and still is) an outspoken advocate for Catalan independence. According to European football journalist Graham Hunter, “although young when Franco died, Guardiola grew up in a time when Spain had a dictator who had banned the Catalan language. That does influence the intensity, the importance, the cultural significance, and the enmity of a Clásico.[13] Indeed, in recent years, Guardiola has become an even more powerful advocate for Catalan independence, and has gone on to become a high-profile participant in the separatist “Junts pel Si” coalition to stand for Catalan independence in 2015, discussed below.

On June 6, 2015, when Barcelona took Berlin’s Olympiastadion for the biggest game in club football — the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League Final, the world got a powerful reminder from Barcelona fans (the Culés) that they had no intention of setting aside the political and cultural significance of the game. While watching their team win what would bring them a record second “treble” – or third tournament trophy — thousands of Culés held up esteladas, or Catalan flags, in a defiant statement in favor of secession. (Maroto, 2015) This pro-Catalan pro-independence display broke UEFA’s rule 16.2, which prohibits “the use of words or objects to transmit and message which does not fit in with sport, such as political, religion, or offensive or provocative words,” and earned the team of 30,000 euro fine (Corpas, 2015). While UEFA might prefer football games to be played in a political vacuum — where external factors like political independence cannot tarnish the purity of football games — Barcelona’s Culés will not yield in this cultural battle (and neither will Real Madrid’s Madridistas). Indeed, FC Barcelona supporters have adopted a custom to remind the world of their ongoing quest for Catalan independence, which they display at every home game. During the 17th minute of every game at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, Culés loudly chant for “Independencia! Independencia! Independencia!,” timed to refer to the year 1714, the last year Catalonia held complete autonomy and independence from Castile (Walter, 2015).

In the words of Phil Schoen, announcer for broadcasting channel BEINSPORTS, with reference to the FC Barcelona/Real Madrid rivalry and its reflection of the Catalan/Castilian rivalry:

Since the 1950’s, both teams have ratcheted up the rivalry even more by signing up the world’s best players, which has propelled the two teams into a perennial race for both the Spanish and European championship. The two great sides have arguably developed into the world’s two best teams. Add in the ever-present political struggle between Barcelona’s Catalonia and the royalty-backed Real Madrid and you have a one-of-a-kind rivalry.[14]

The climax of the burning rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona is most evident during the biannual event known as “El Clásico,” when twice a year the two superclubs do direct battle on the soccer pitch. While their rivalry simmers throughout the season as their standings in La Liga are determined by weekly league play against other teams, during El Clásico, the two rivals compete head-to-head, and soccer fans are able to witness a passion forged by a millennium of rising nationalistic identities, a civil war, and the growing, present-day rift that exists in its wake. During each Clásico, the soccer world is able to witness not only a brilliant soccer matchup, but also a representation of a millennium of political and cultural strife. While every Clásico is sure to garner millions of viewers from around the world (last March’s game attracted around 400 million viewers), several important developments have occurred in Barcelona’s home of Catalonia, and its relationship with Madrid’s home of Castile, to make recent matches even more significant (Morris, 2015). In the last Clásico in Madrid, Real Madrid reportedly tried to prevent Culés from bringing esteladas (Catalan flags) into their Santiago Bernabéu stadium, with Madrid-based newspaper Marca reporting that the club does not want the stadium “used for political means.” Now more than ever, the battles between the Catalan and Castilian football giants embody their political disputes. As Real Madrid TV’s senior presenter Phil Kitromilides explained, “The fans though are pretty vocal. There are plenty of chants for ‘Independence’ from the Barça fans, while Madrid fans are singing ‘Viva España’. Plus the flags, lots and lots of flags, both of Catalonia and Spain.”[15]

The Catalan Independence Movement Today and the Future of the FC Barcelona/Real Madrid Rivalry 

Catalonia has enjoyed relatively greater success since the turn of the millennium in its quest to secure autonomy and independence. In 2006, the Statute of Autonomy was approved by Catalan citizens in a referendum, which supported greater – but not complete – autonomy for the region. Yet, Catalans were still unsatisfied and fought to secure complete independence, and tend to be mistrustful of the efforts of the central government on this score. According to Catalan journalist Miquel Ros, referencing the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, “Spain granted a degree of self-government, but it has never fully accepted that Catalonia is a distinct entity, and there are few guarantees that this self-rule will always be observed. Spanish governments have always had a tendency to try to recentralize by stealth, if not formally, for example, by controlling tax revenue, which makes any idea of self-rule illusory.”[16]

In the years since the 2006 Statute of Autonomy was approved, the call for Catalan independence has reached a fever pitch. September 2015 saw 1.4 million people flock to the streets of Barcelona in celebration of the National Day of Catalonia, and saw Catalan nationalist parties win an absolute majority in the 135-seat regional assembly in a de facto referendum on secession from Spain (Tomlinson, 2015). Twelve days before the November 2015 Clásico, the Catalan Parliament adopted the Declaration of the Initiation of the Process of Independence of Catalonia, considered to be the first step towards independence by its writers, and proclaimed as the start of a participative citizens’ process to lay the foundation for the future of a Catalan constitution (AFP, 2015). Deemed a “roadmap to independence,” the proposal hopes to secure Catalonia complete autonomy within 18 months. Back in Madrid, Spain’s Constitutional Court purported to suspend the secession plan to study its legality (Reuters, 2015). Nonetheless, the court ruling may be meaningless, as Barcelona’s lawmakers, ever-defiant, included a clause in their declaration of independence that specifically orders the regional Catalan government to ignore rulings by Spain’s highest court. You could certainly say they don’t see ojo a ojo — or ull per ull (depending on which part of Spain you hail from). The difference in attitudes towards independence was summed up by Alsina, who said: “If Catalans are seeing this as a divorce, many Spaniards tend to view this as a hand that wants to separate from the rest of the body.”[17]

The December 2015 general election saw Spain’s two main parties — the incumbent, right-wing Partido Popular and the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) — challenged for the first time in the nation’s democratic history by newcomers like liberal Podemos (We Can) and center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) (Garcia-Abadillo, 2015). Right-wing Partido Popular won with a narrow plurality of 123 seats, while its coalition center-right partner Ciudadanos won 40 seats. The coalition fell short of the minimum to claim a majority in Spain’s Cortes Generales, or Parliament, and it needs to unite with another party to gain the thirteen additional seats in needs to obtain a majority. On the other side of the aisle, Catalan separatist parties failed to gain a significant amount of seats in government, and the leading separatist party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidacy) decided on January 9 to replace the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Artur Mas, with Girona Mayor Carles Puigdemont. After being appointed President, Puigdemont immediately vowed to continue pressing for Catalan independence, meaning that Catalan secession will continue to not only remain on the top of the political agenda, but also remain a divisive obstacle derailing a fractured government that is already paralyzed by a stalemate.


One important question remains for those who seek Catalan independence, and especially for the FC Barcelona fans — what happens if Catalonia attains the autonomy it so fervently wish for? When the political fight ends, will the great football rivalry end as well? That could be the case. Should Catalonia be granted complete independencia, Barcelona would not be allowed to compete in La Liga, Spain’s first division, according to Javier Tebas, president of La Liga de Fútbol Profesional (Spain’s governing football body) — and ardent Madridista.[18]  As the historic battle between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid has been for the La Liga title – and as El Clásicos take place in the La Liga schedule — those games and that source of the rivalry would likely be eliminated if Catalonia secured independence from Spain and if FC Barcelona were consequently required to leave La Liga. La Liga President Tebas vociferously opposes Catalan independence and notes its potential damage on Spanish football, lamenting that “[w]e would lose everything [if Barcelona left La Liga]” (“La Liga Nothing Without,” 2015). So where would FC Barcelona play if Catalonia were granted the independence they so ardently seek? If Barcelona do end up leaving La Liga, they might be able to join France’s Ligue 1, according to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, himself an ardent FC Barcelona supporter.[19] There is precedent for non-national teams joining a national league: Monaco has joined France’s Ligue 1 and independent nation Andorra is even a member of Spain’s La Liga.[20] Alternatively, Barça could forge and take part in a new Catalonia league. “If Barça don’t stay in La Liga, they could head up a Catalan first division, but there has also been some discussion that Barcelona could be invited to France’s Ligue 1,” Schoen said.[21] While that could be a better challenge for Barça, and would not herald a complete end to the rivalry with Real Madrid, it would severely limit it.

Even though Catalan independence might mean the end of the world-famous FC Barcelona/Real Madrid rivalry within Spain’s premier division La Liga, the rival teams would still be able to face each other in European competitions. And Barcelona’s exit from La Liga would be a small price to pay for the benefit of securing meaningful independence for Catalonia, whose people have struggled for centuries to achieve this right of self-determination. If such independence is achieved, FC Barcelona – and their fans – can take comfort in the fact that the team has long played a central role in helping to bring about this most important “goal” of them all. From the Spanish Civil War to today’s battles for Catalan secession, football has consistently played an important role in Spanish politics and culture. Football is indeed, as commentator Kevin Egan puts it, “fuel for the burning fire.”[22]

[1] See Appendix A.

[2] See Appendix B.

[3] See Appendix C.

[4] See Appendix D.

[5] The Franco regime’s threatening of FC Barcelona players occurred during a crucial semi-final leg of what is known as the Copa Del Rey, or “King’s Cup. In a characteristic act of self-aggrandizement, General Franco changed the name of the Copa Del Rey to the Copa Del Generalísimo during his reign.

[6] See Appendix D again.

[7] The academy system that teaches the Barça style of play is known as La Masia (The Farmhouse). La Masia gets its name from the fact that FC Barcelona youth player trainees are housed at a Phillip V-era farmhouse, which was also the brainchild of Johan Cruyff.


[8] See Appendix E

[9] It should be noted that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid do not always stick to these stereotypes. In fact, throughout their history, these patterns have crossed and switched frequently. At nearly one million euros, Barcelona broke the world record transfer fee for Cruyff, and then broke the record again in 1982 with the purchase of Diego Maradona, and again in 1996 for Ronaldo. Of the five highest-priced transfers of football history, three are Real Madrid players, while the other two play for Barcelona. One of those highest-priced acquisitions for FC Barcelona is Luis Suárez, while the other is Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (known simply as Neymar). Exactly sixty years after the notorious Di Stéfano transfer, it seems Barcelona may have matched the corrupt proceedings that surrounded that transfer, minus the government intervention. Like Di Stéfano, after a lengthy transfer saga with Barcelona, Madrid, and other clubs, Neymar signed with Barcelona, at a fee of “reportedly” €57 million. However, those responsible for this transfer — Barcelona’s president Josep Bartomeu and ex-president Sandro Rosell — are on trial for tax evasion as a result of this transfer, as investigators claim they paid at least €83 million, and have been accused or bribing Neymar’s father to facilitate the trade.

[10] See Appendix F.

[11] See Appendix D.

[12] FC Barcelona’s slogan “Més Que Un Club,” which translates as “More Than a Club,” signifies the important cultural and political role that the team has played in the struggle to preserve and advance the Catalan identity, language, and culture.

[13] See Appendix G.

[14] See Appendix H.

[15] See Appendix F.

[16] See Appendix H.

[17] See Appendix C again.

[18] Tebas has openly admitted that he has “supported Madrid since [he] was a boy” and “celebrated Madrid wins with friends in a bar.” (Goal España, 2015)

[19] “I’m a huge football fan, a Barça fan,” Valls has said to French magazine Journal du Dimanche. “They’re in my blood.” (Sunderland, 2015).

[20] If FC Barcelona were to join France’s Ligue 1, the club would have to pay the €50 million payment that Monaco paid in 2014 to stay in Ligue 1. (Sunderland, 2015).

[21] See Appendix H.

[22] See Appendix E.

Photo: David Ramos/Getty

By: Zach Lowy