FC Barcelona was founded in the dying months of the 19th century, when a Swiss man put out an advertisement in a newspaper asking if anyone wanted to join a football club. Since then, the club has enjoyed almost uninterrupted success in Spain and abroad. They won the first league championship in 1929, and have served as a cultural symbol since their inception.
But on Tuesday, Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, went on Spanish radio program Al Primer Toque and claimed that if Catalonia seceded from Spain, Catalan teams would be barred from the Spanish football pyramid. Tebas is threatening an upheaval on the basis of a technicality, as two Catalan teams play in the first division and four more play in the second. He is claiming to have relinquished all authorship of the potential move, but this is a soccer decision, not something left completely up to larger forces.
Next week, the Catalan government will decide whether or not to go all in on a referendum on independence from Spain, scheduled to take place on November 9. The Spanish government in Madrid has moved to prevent a vote, but sentiment is rising in the autonomous region, with a recent poll showing 47% supported independence while 28% were against it. Prominent Barcelona stars like Gerard Pique and Xavi have marched in Catalan independence events and have made clear, along with Cesc Fabregas, that despite winning World Cups for Spain, they are Catalans first.
Their split allegiances speak to the fractious landscape of Spanish regionalism. Spain is made up of 17 autonomous communities, who have a higher degree of independence than states do in America. Most autonomous communities have their own national teams, who play friendlies most years outside of FIFA regulations. Despite their non-official status, they're not gimmicks. The Catalan National Team has been around longer than the World Cup-winning Spanish side, and they've defeated Argentina and Colombia in recent friendlies. Stars like Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla play for Asturias and Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente represent the Basque Country. Playing for Spain will remain a no-brainer because Spain gets to play in FIFA/UEFA tournaments, but regional teams are no sideshow.
Regionalist sentiments in Spanish soccer even spill over into the club side of things. When Barcelona hosted Athletic Bilbao, famous for their Basques Only policy, both squads wore their nationalist kits. However, Barcelona has been slippery about their position on separatism, despite all the signs pointing towards support. The board played it close to the vest and released no statement on the matter through Catalonia Day until they were pressured by the public into speaking on the upcoming referendum. In a short statement, they reaffirmed ex-president Sandro Rosell's position and referenced his 2013 general address to the club, where he said "We defend the 'Right to Decide'…we are a Catalanista club." I spoke with multiple Barcelona press officials and they refused to comment for this story. It's clear that the club wants to see what happens in the upcoming political showdown before throwing its weight around.
And that showdown is growing increasingly contentious. Spain wants to hold onto Catalonia since it accounts for a fifth of the country's economic activity and has fared better through the recession than the rest of the Iberian peninsula. But Catalonia wants to break away from the central government in Madrid because of cultural-linguistic barriers and the economic discrepancy between what Catalonia pays vs. what it gets back in return.
In Professor Michael Keating's 2001 paper Rethinking the Region: Culture, Institutions and Economic Development in Catalonia and Galicia, he emphasized that structural political differences probably outweighed cultural factors when it comes to independence. The recession and Spain's +20 percent unemployment rate only exacerbate tensions on both sides. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is squaring off with Catalan president Artur Mas and the standoff is already causing ripples in the European economy. Tebas vs. the Barcelona teams seems like a proxy war for the larger struggle, but it's an imprecise and messy equivalency.
Soccer federations like Spain's RFEF are in the business of exclusivity for money's sake. Earlier this year, they threatened to negate Eibar's promotion to La Liga if they didn't raise €1.7 million and double the size of their stadium. They succeeded, but RFEF's late-stage meddling was eerily reminiscent of 2005, when Eibar were close to promotion but narrowly missed the cut in what many in the area think of as a conspiracy driven by marketing. Eibar didn't fit the Spanish FA's definition of a first division club because they weren't big enough, even though they played all the way to the top of the heap without incurring debt. Both Eibar affairs show where the RFEF's priorities lie.
Barcelona suffers from the opposite problem. They are too profitable. Despite the recent successes of Atletico, Sevilla, and Valencia, La Liga is still a bipole league. Spain's debt crisis is played out in miniature in it's football pyramid. Barcelona made €41 million in net profit last season while La Liga clubs are running at a net €500 million deficit. Most clubs, even current champions Atletico, are in precarious financial situations, but Barcelona and Real can trade on their global brands and ensure a consistent revenue stream. Tebas and the Spanish government are seeking to rectify La Liga's lack of parity by introducing the bones of a revenue sharing scheme. Currently, the big two make much more than anyone else from La Liga's TV deals, but new regulations would shrink the gap by limiting the maximum revenue Real and Barca can take.
Until now, Tebas hasn't had a lot of leverage. Barcelona is too big and flush with cash to be bullied around. La Liga needs them to retain its status as the top league in the world. But Tebas and the RFEF are hoping that the specter of exclusion on a technicality would spook Barcelona just enough to come back to negotiations ready to compromise on their TV cash. Spanish football probably wouldn't kick Catalan teams out, despite what the rules say now.