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Opinion | The Catalonian Referendum and Barcelona’s Future

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last several weeks, you’re likely aware of controversial political, social, and nationalistic issues invading the world of sports. I’m not here to discuss peaceful protests, flags, or anthems; save that for your Facebook feeds or the comment sections of CNN or Fox News.

Last Sunday, October 1, an unauthorized election in the Catalonia region of Spain threw a nation into turmoil. With a vote to secede from Spain and declare independence on the table, high tensions turned ugly as the National Police Corps intervened. Reports of rubber bullets being fired into crowds, civilians being hit in the head with riot batons, and the theft of ballot boxes by police soon escalated.

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Nearly 900 civilians and over 400 police were injured. World leaders were quick to condemn the violence, while Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy stated simply, “We did what we had to do.”

Here in the United States, several people I’ve met in my journeys have spoken lightly about secession over the most trivial of matters. Nothing will ever come of empty words muttered over your drink of choice at the local pub. It’s a pain to listen to drunks yammer on, and if you’re not going to follow through with it, don’t even waste your breath bringing it up.

The Catalan people, however, put their money where their mouth is. Their parliament actually discussed and approved a referendum, and over two million people turned out to vote. For those unfamiliar with the region, Catalonia has a GDP of $255 billion. That’s larger than 24 of our States – more than Oregon, but less than Connecticut. Compared to its fellow autonomous Spanish communities, Catalonia ranks second in population and fourth in GDP per capita.

If you’re asking yourself how this applies to sports, I’m getting there. Three Catalonian teams play in La Liga: Girona FC, Espanyol, and FC Barcelona.

With over ninety percent of votes in favor of independence, rumors and uncertainty surround Barça. Josep Bartomeu, President of FC Barcelona, told reporters on Monday that if Catalonia becomes independent from Spain, the club would have to decide whether or not to remain in La Liga. Further proving that reality is indeed stranger than fiction, Catalan sports minister Gerard Figueras said that Catalonian teams, if they left La Liga, could potentially join Serie A, Ligue 1, or even the English Premier League.

La Liga, in an even stranger twist of fate, has managed to look even worse throughout this ordeal. Expecting unrest and safety concerns in the region, Barcelona appealed to La Liga to postpone the match. In a move without any sort of tact, common sense, or even common decency, La Liga rejected the request, forcing Barcelona to put on the match or face sanctions. Strangely, they did postpone the Barcelona B vs Gimnàstic of Tarragona match. In turn, Barcelona went on with their match but did so behind closed doors for the first time in club history. Not a single fan was permitted to enter Camp Nou.

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Photo credit – New York Times

Now that you’re up to speed, I’m going to begin by personally condemning the actions of La Liga. Long before the match was scheduled to start, reports had already come pouring in regarding the protests and the police presence. We already had pictures of crowds suppressed and of officers with handfuls of ballots being taken away. Due to this handy invention called the Internet, the world was already aware of what disaster had begun to unfold in Barcelona. And still, you had the audacity to refuse a simple request of postponement. The following day would have worked out just fine, and you wouldn’t have been putting at risk a single player, fan, or security/police/stadium employee.

Simply put, La Liga’s actions Sunday proved they care little to nothing for the players that earn them more than 3 billion Euros in annual revenue. This is not a new problem, nor is it exclusive to La Liga – the English FA also faces long-standing criticism over matters of scheduling, among others. President Javier Tebas should resign in disgrace, as should any and all members of the board of directors that did not vehemently oppose such a heartless sentence.

As a potential forfeit of six league points could have had an impact on next year’s Champions League had Barcelona refused to play, UEFA needs to come out and set a precedent. Under no circumstance should any club be forced to play under similarly dangerous conditions, and without a ruling from a larger and more powerful body, UEFA would be telling every league in Europe that there is no accountability and no concern for the safety of fans and players. You know the old adage – give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile. At some point, you have to recognize that certain things are simply more important than this game that we all love.

La Liga may come off as money-hungry villains in this instance, but that doesn’t make Bartomeu look any less like a clown as he continues to draw criticism from fans and players. Reportedly the main reason why Lionel Messi has refused to sign a contract (the rumor being that he will sign once Bartomeu is ousted by a vote of no-confidence), there really is no feasible way for Barcelona to split from La Liga. Joining the Primera Catalana (if it were to split from La Liga) would make about as much sense as Chelsea joining the Vanarama National League, or the Atlanta Braves suiting up against Redan High School. The league is far too small, and even in an independent region, it would not have the ability to sustain a club the size of FC Barcelona at its current state.

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Photo credit – FC Barcelona

Similarly, Barcelona has no business joining another nation’s league. Much as Barcelona fans would love to jeer and heckle Neymar, you’ll never see PSG against Barcelona outside of a Champions League fixture. Geographically, Ligue 1 would make the most sense if they were to join another league, but Barça belongs in Ligue 1 as much as Swansea City belongs in the English Premier League. Go join your fellow Welshmen.

In America, it’s a regular occurrence for professional teams to travel 2000 miles to play against an opponent. Our population centers and major media markets are too spread out, leading to leagues being broken up into conferences. In soccer, this isn’t the case.  A relatively long road trip in this year’s Premier League, Brighton to Manchester is “only” 258 miles. I qualify the parenthesis with this comparison: Atlanta to Charlotte, NC, divisional opponents in both the NFL and NBA, is 245 miles.

Barcelona certainly has the financial means to make these trips, but imagine a Spanish club participating in the Premier League, FA Cup, and League Cup. In weeks with two road trips, what do you do? Will you travel for one match, fly home, then fly out again for the next match? Do you hope and pray someone has practice facilities they’ll share with you so your players don’t get jetlagged? What part of that seems feasible to Gerard Figueras?

It’s painfully obvious that things are going to continue to worsen before they get any better. In the coming weeks, expect to hear more offhanded threats from Bartomeu, more grievances from former players, and more fans worrying about the future of the club and their league status if Bartomeu gets his way. Now more than ever, expect talk of a vote of no-confidence to take serious hold.

Most important and most difficult, however, is the road ahead for the Catalan people. I brainstormed, researched, and wrote this piece on Tuesday afternoon and evening. By Wednesday afternoon, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont formally announced that Catalonia will break from Spain and declare independence within the next few days, rejecting the wishes of King Felipe VI.

I speculated several what-ifs. Will the Spanish government accept the results of the referendum? If not, will this turn into an armed conflict or Civil War? If Catalonia is granted independence, what happens next? How long will it take to establish a sovereign state, and what of its recognition by the rest of the world? These questions were only speculative a few hours ago. At this point, speculation has become uncertain reality, and over the coming weeks and months, answers will slowly make themselves known.

When you put it all in perspective, whether you call it soccer or football, some things are just more important.

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