Orlando Gili

'Barça is More Than a Club'

As Catalonia moves toward independence, we chronicled the intersection of soccer and politics in Barcelona in words and photos.

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Dec 29 2017, 4:00pm

Orlando Gili

Alex and Sílvia are good friends. Born in the same year, they have known each other for more than two decades: they went together to the same school in a small town near Barcelona, and they went on to be university classmates in the Catalan capital afterwards.

Alex and Sílvia also share a big passion: they are die-hard FC Barcelona fans.

On the outside they seem really alike, but nothing could be further from the truth. Alex and Sílvia are really different…especially in everything related to politics.

"Estelada" flags, symbols of the independence movement, are usual in balconies in Barcelona.

On Sílvia’s balcony there is a huge Catalan flag with a white star on a blue triangle: it is the "estelada," a symbol which identifies the independence movement in Catalonia.

In the election held on December 21 in this region of Northeastern Spain, Sílvia voted for the center-right secessionist party Junts per Catalunya. In the vote, pro-independence parties won by a narrow margin over unionists.

On Alex’s balcony, however, there are no flags at all. In the elections, he decided to vote for Catalunya en Comú, a left-wing party which preferred to focus their campaign on social issues rather than positioning on independence.

"Caganers"—literally meaning "guy taking a shit"— are an an awkward traditional Catalan figure used in Christimas nativity scenes, wearing Barça jerseys.


Alex and Sílvia’s political ideology, as usual in Catalonia, has an echo in sports. Alex belongs to a sector of blaugrana fans whose motto is ‘only Barça.’ For them, the club is nothing more than a football team that carries no political significance. When he goes to Camp Nou, Alex’s chants simply cheer the players. Nothing else.

“I go to Camp Nou to enjoy football. That’s it,” says Alex. “In my opinion, when you go to the stadium you have to leave politics at home.”

FC Barcelona flags —as well as official shorts from different seasons—at the Peña Barcelonista Sant Antoni, a fanclub located in central Barcelona.

Sílvia, however, believes that Barça is bigger than sports.

“Narcís de Carreres, a former president, described it very well: Barça is more than a club,” Sílvia says, referring to the famous blaugrana motto "més que un club."

Every time Sílvia goes to the stadium, she wears yellow clothes, a reference to jailed pro-independence politicians and activists. She also shouts in favor of independence every game at the 17:14 minute: 1714 was the year Barcelona fell into the hands of Bourbon troops during the War of Spanish Succession.

“Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, a famous Catalan writer, described Barça as the unarmed army of Catalonia,” Sílvia adds. “I believe that this sentence defines the club really well.”

Barça fans watch the Clásico between Madrid and Barcelona at the at the Peña Barcelonista Sant Antoni.

Alex and Sílvia exemplify two visions of a club which has as many faces and interpretations as fans.

Marc Duch is president of Manifest Blaugrana, an association of members whose objective is to build a more democratic and transparent FC Barcelona.

“What is Barça, you say?,” asks Duch. “I would say it depends on the time: for me, it has been a hobby, an untamable passion, an example to imitate, an absolute shame…and much more.”

“This game is just life for me,” says Ángel, a die-hard Barça fan. “We wait for Barça-Madrid all year long: winning at the Bernabéu stadium is the best thing that can happen. The country’s current situation increases this rivalry, which is goes way further than just sport: it comes from many years ago, and now it’s even tougher. Without a Catalan team, the Spanish league would go down the drain.”


“Barça is an institution with the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s why we should demand it to have a proactive role in the social and human improvement of the country,” Duch adds. “That is where, at least partially, the motto ‘more than a club’ comes from.”

"FC Barcelona is the representation of a country, of a feeling.”

Marc Cornet takes this idea even further. On October 1, the Catalan regional government tried to organize a referendum on independence: the Spanish government considered it illegal and sent the police to repress it…violently. After the referendum, Cornet thought it was absolutely necessary for Barça to get more involved in social matters, and that is why, with other club members, he founded the Barça Republic Defense Committee—CDR, in Catalan.

“This game is much more than just sports,” says Cristian. “It’s a representation of the Catalonia versus Spain clash.”

“Our club has always been a symbol of anti-authoritarian resistance,” Cornet explains. “During the twenties, dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera closed our stadium because some fans whistled while the Spanish anthem was played; in 1936, our president Josep Sunyol was killed for being a Republican Catalanist; after the Civil War, the fascists took out the Catalan flag from our crest.”

“We don’t ask Barça to be openly independentist,” Cornet adds. “But we want it to be always on the side of civil rights, and that’s why we founded the CDR: we don’t want any other October the 1st, ever.”

“For us die-hard fans, Barça is our life,” says Jordi, who has followed the blaugrana team for decades. “Beating Madrid is important, but all games are important. Being a Barça fan means being part of something bigger, of some kind of huge family.”


The partisan positions of Duch and Cornet are pretty common among the Catalan culers—that is, Barça fans—but they’re not the only positions. Recently, the fanclub of Elda, near Alicante in Eastern Spain, publicly announced their decoupling from Barça as a reaction to the club’s decisions on October 1 to play their La Liga game behind closed doors as a means to protest against police violence.

An Elda fanclub spokesperson declared to local media that their members had “unanimously” decided to end their relationship with Barça “due to the implication of the club and its leaders in the events that took place in Catalonia.”

“Barça-Madrid is the best game of the season,” says Víctor, barman at the Penya Barcelonista Sant Antoni. “But that’s it. It’s just a football game, nothing more.”

Other public figures such as the former Spanish international Julio Alberto Moreno, who played in FC Barcelona in the eighties, have also shown their disapproval of the club’s management: “The board has been chosen to rule a football club, not a political party,” Moreno said to the Spanish TV channel Antena 3.

“The independence process has destroyed much of the confidence between different social sectors and has caused a clear crack within Catalan society," says Berta Barbet, a political scientist at the University of Barcelona.

“It has also caused a political deadlock in the whole of Spain and has affected many important institutions in Catalonia—including Barça, of course,” Barbet adds.

“Beating Madrid is beating the number 1 enemy,” says David. “Unfortunately, there’s more than football in this game.”

“Still, Barça can still be a key factor in order to fix this division: given its relevance, it could become a positive reference and generate a feeling of union between people who support independence and people who don't,” Barbet suggests.

Jordi Fexas, geographist, historian and writer of several books on the independence movement, disagrees with Barbet’s diagnosis: “The independence process had no negative effects until the Spanish government intervened,” he says.

“Barça is a key part of my life,” says Marta. “It’s not just football. FC Barcelona is the representation of a country, of a feeling.”


“It’s the Spanish State who created the concept of ‘social crack,’” Fexas adds. Independence activists might be naive sometimes, but they have never been violent. It was the State who tried to build the idea of latent violence in order to justify their intervention. Given this repressive context, Barça might act as a soft power to mediate.”

Alex and Sílvia, like most Catalans, are deeply invested in the political events surrounding the Catalan independence movement. The independence debate has been at the center of Spanish politics for almost a decade. Many people are getting exhausted by it.

“The Clásico against Madrid is emotional. It’s really difficult to explain,” says Juan. “There’s a huge rivalry, and winning it is great, because everybody has some friends who are Madrid fans and whom you can laugh at when you beat them. I know the game may also have a political sense for some people, but for me it’s just sport: my family are from Galicia and Andalusia, and I have many friends in Madrid, so for me it’s just football.”

Barça’s convincing victory over Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabéu was seen by many fans as a pause, a little measure of happiness in tense times. For some hours, all culers agreed on celebrating Suárez, Messi, and Vidal’s goals at the eternal rival’s stadium.

“The Barça anthem says it all: ‘una bandera ens agermana,’—‘a flag unites us all’”—says Sílvia. “That is precisely what Barça is able to do: unite.”

Alex sums it up quickly: “In the end, everything is quite simple: we might think differently in political terms, but our love for Barça is the same,"

Barça fans celebrate a goal against Madrid at the Penya Barcelonista Sant Antoni.