The Spanish government has done everything in its power to stop Catalan’s bid for independence. So far the government in Madrid has already threatened that an independent Catalonia would be excluded from both the EU, and the Euro. Some papers have even suggested that Catalonia’s regional leaders could be arrested if the regional party Catalanistas wins the election on September 27.
None of these threats have so far swayed voters in Catalonia, as recent polls still have the Catalanistas party in a narrow lead. Now, however, Madrid has decided to bring bigger guns to the battle against Catalan independence as the Royal Spanish Football Federation has released a statement that in the case of Catalonia’s independence, Catalan clubs would no longer be allowed to participate in the Primera División (La Liga). This would mean the end of the Clásico, and would most likely lead to the decline of one of the best-ranked club teams in the world.
Barça functionaries have in the past been extremely outspoken in favour of Catalonian independence. Barça icons like Carles Puyol, Xavi, and former coach Pep Guardiola have all been advocates of independence as well, and Guardiola’s recent participation in a pro-Catalonian independence march in Munich has provoked harsh criticism with the Madrid-based media.
Barça functionaries have countered this latest threat by the Spanish football federation with a suggestion to create a new Iberian Super League, which would include Portuguese teams as well, but UEFA has been strictly opposed to the creation of any super leagues in the past; for example UEFA has recently been opposed to the creation of a post-Soviet Unified League.
The matter of fact Catalonia’s exit from Spain would result in Barça’s exit from La Liga, and could potentially lead to further fragmentation of Spain, and as a result of Spanish football. This would be the first time a European football powerhouse would fragment since the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991.
In fact the fall of the Soviet Union could be an important historical benchmark for football functionaries in Spain. The fragmentation of the Soviet Vysshaia Liga began in 1990 when Georgian clubs decided that they would leave the competition, and while there was an initial honeymoon period in which Dinamo Tbilisi—which was briefly renamed to Iberia Tbilisi—according to the Georgian journalist Mamuka Kvaratskhelia when 100,000 people managed to cram themselves into the 74,354 capacity Boris Paichadze Stadium for Dinamo’s first home game in the independent Georgian Umaglesi Liga.
Today, however, most games are played in front of just a few thousand people because the Georgian Umaglesi Liga, in comparison to the Soviet Vysshaia Liga, provides neither the narrative nor the competitive edge to make the games a hot ticket for Georgians. The same can be said for other clubs in the region; in neighbouring Armenia for example Ararat Yerevan was considered one of the best-visited clubs in the Soviet Union. Much like Barcelona today big clubs from smaller Soviet Republics like Dinamo Tbilisi or Ararat Yerevan were even considered national symbols. Once independence was achieved, however, these clubs lost the cultural support they once received, and the lack of national competition in the newly created national leagues meant that games also lost their sporting value. As a result most of the best players ended up leaving the clubs to play in bigger leagues elsewhere.
The example of Ararat Yerevan, and Dinamo Tbilisi could be especially telling for those Barcelona fans that support Catalan independence, as the club would surely suffer immensely if it had to withdraw from La Liga. But Real Madrid fans should also be worried, as major clubs in Russia also suffered huge financial lose when their rivals exited the league. The fragmentation of the Soviet Vysshaia Liga therefore could serve as a big warning for football officials in Spain, as well as Barcelona that support Catalonia’s independence.
About the author – Manuel Veth