Words: Paul Gibbins
Images: Jack Prince

A neat little flick from Deulofeu and the ball was in the back of Malaga’s net. It had only taken two minutes, but with that goal, the atmosphere in Barcelona’s Camp Nou had changed immeasurably.

It was October 21st 2017, and before Barcelona lined up against Malaga that evening, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had announced that Catalan autonomy was set to be suspended. Before kick-off, a prepared statement from the club rang out around the stadium while defiant locals waved their Estelada flags and chanted their support for independence or, at the very least, democracy.

Just before the goal, a small section of the crowd behind Barcelona’s goal treated us to a rendition of Lluís Llach’s 'L’estaca', a Catalan song of unity and resistance to Franco’s fascist regime which has now been taken on as an anthem of the pro-independence camp in Catalonia. L’estaca tells the story of a grandparent and grandson attempting to free themselves from a stake which they are tied to. The chorus roughly translates to the grandparent instructing his grandson “if you pull hard here, and I pull hard there, I’m sure it will fall, fall, fall, and we will be free”. Aside from the call to unite and to resist oppression, the song’s inter-generational demand for patience is easy to relate to Catalonia’s fight for independence, especially given its many recent false dawns.

Si tu l’estires fort per aquí…”

The early excitement of the referendum on October 1st was quickly marred by viral videos allegedly showing brutal police violence across the region. Despite reports of violence and the police confiscating votes, a vote of 90% in favour of independence was counted from the ballot boxes that were able to be salvaged…

…I jo l’estiro fort per allà…”

October 3rd saw a general strike held across Catalonia by labour unions and pro-independence groups. Following furious condemnation from Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, as well as Spanish King Felipe VI, former Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont (currently in the midst of a complex, self-imposed exile) declared independence for the region, only to revoke it eight seconds later to give Madrid the opportunity to discuss the issue with the Catalonian government…

…Segur que tomba, tomba, tomba…’

In response the Spanish government, empowered by vocal backing from the likes of President Trump and Chancellor Merkel, decided to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy, forcing thousands from both sides onto the streets of the city in over the course of weeks in either protest or solidarity…

…i ens podrem alliberar.”

All of which leads us nicely to where we were that day, two minutes into the match with Barcelona a goal to the good. Suddenly, politics was the last thing on everybody’s minds, and we remembered there was a football match going on. One with Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Luis Suárez, no less.

Politics and football have always been linked. From Celtic and Rangers, St Pauli to Zvonimir Boban accidentally kick-starting a revolution with a flying knee to a policeman. However, football has also existed as an escape and a source of morale to the people of countries under oppressive regimes, at war or otherwise in need of distraction. When Iraq won the 2007 Asia Cup, despite clashing ethnic factions in the country and being at war with the USA, their midfielder Ahmad Mnajed claimed that were he not playing in the tournament he would be helping fight against the US forces in Fallujah. Similarly, the heroic exploits of Syria in this year’s World Cup Qualifying certainly caught the attention and sympathy of plenty from all over the world.

While Barca are generally seen as a political club and an important representation for the people of the city, they are of course not the only club in Barcelona. When La Liga first formed, the city was represented by three teams; FC Barcelona, Racing Club De Espanyol, and Club Esportiu Europa. It’s fair to say the three have enjoyed varying levels of success; FC Barcelona went on to become one of the most prestigious teams in world football, Espanyol became La Liga mainstays, and CE Europa still play their matches in a 7000 capacity stadium hidden away among high-rises in Gràcia: one that you could easily miss if you weren’t looking for it. 

“Look at this,” an Espanyol fan tells me as he flashes his set of keys. He picks out a metal ring with a pin attached to it, which turns out is stolen from a fire extinguisher. “Quite a few of us have these on our keys, we only use the ring though, we don’t want to kill anybody”. Espanyol are playing Real Betis later on and in the meantime Betis fans have swarmed a branch of 100 Montaditos in the shopping centre outside the ground, chanting and singing songs about their local rivals Sevilla as they swill jarras of beer bought for less than 2 euros. In the midst of the green-and-white sea is a lone Espanyol fan, decked out in his team’s colours, being held in a friendly captivity.

“They’re probably friends,” he tells me, “there are lots of Betis fans from Barcelona because a lot of Andalusian families came up here to work under Franco”. But that doesn’t mean that Espanyol are expecting a friendly atmosphere today, “if you’re wearing a football shirt then they won’t bother you,” one fan explains as he beckons us away from the crowd, “but if their hoods see me dressed like this then there could be trouble”, he says as he tugs at his Fred Perry polo. He explains that he can’t fight at the moment because he’s hurt his shoulder, so he’s hoping it’ll stay calm.

Our guide is a member of an Espanyol ultras faction, who claim to be non-political. “There are ultras that sit behind one goal and are fascists and Nazis,” he explains, “on our side, we don’t care what you believe; as long as you support Espanyol then you are welcome.”

He leads us over to the bar where his fellow ultras meet pre-match. Here he explains a few misconceptions about Espanyol’s history with the help of some friends as they pass around plastic beer glasses and tinfoil-wrapped jamon bocadillos. Earlier in the day, there had been a Spanish Nationalist march in the city, and I’d seen a number of Espanyol flags in the midst of the crowds. I ask one fan for his views on independence and am surprised to hear that he is actually very much in favour of it. “It’s a myth that all Espanyol fans are anti-independence,” he tells me, “Espanyol was originally a Catalan team, while Barcelona had foreign players. We used the name Espanyol because we had players from Andalusia as well as Catalonia”. One of the other ultras cuts in to tell us, “Barca always try to be the team of the Catalan people, but when Espanyol was formed Barcelona didn’t accept Catalan players!” to a cheer, and he responds, “now Barcelona will mix politics with football in order to clean their image up, but we’ve asked our fans not to bring Catalan or Spanish flags with them today”.

Any discussion of politics in Spain invariably leads to a discussion of Franco. In fact, any discussion about almost any subject is quite often turned into a discussion about Franco. The former dictator’s shadow still looms over areas of the country, but perhaps especially Catalonia, Spain’s rebel state. “Franco spent a lot of money on Spanish football,” a fan explains, “he wanted the league and the national team to be strong so that people would forget the problems his government were causing”.

It’s absolutely true that Franco used football as a tool for political leverage. In the 1960 European Championships, the Spanish national team refused to travel to face the Soviet Union in the quarterfinals, with Franco fearing a demoralising defeat against the nation who had supported communist rebels during the civil war. Four years later, Franco’s Spain would go on to defeat the Soviet Union in the final of the European Championships in Madrid. In the years between these two matches, Franco would antagonise the Soviets by naturalising defectors such as Ferenc Puskás and László Kubala; he also adopted Real Madrid, encouraging them to succeed as a means to get attention from European neighbours and the USA, meanwhile at home, Franco’s regime was being accused of corruption at every turn. “When life is difficult, you always find an escape from it. For me, that’s football” says one fan, before another slaps me on the back, chiming in with “no matter what problems you have in your life, you can always find comfort in futbol y cerveza!”

As the fans led us up to the stadium, they explained that they were protesting ticket prices for today’s match, so they wouldn’t enter the stadium until the 12th minute. “When we enter, we enter like Vikings!” one tells me. Their section of the stadium is, as you’d expect, packed every week. They are lead in call-and-response chants by megafans with megaphones, stepping across rows and barking orders and, on-demand, the fans throw confetti made from shredded newspapers across the stands. There are hundreds of flags, ranging in size from the modest to the enormous, proclaiming their love for Espanyol, former players such as Raúl Tamudo or the late Dani Jarque and—for no obvious reason—Andy Capp. For 90 minutes at least, there was unity in the city, and hundreds of voices screaming, shouting and singing together. After all, it’s tough to ponder independence when you’re awaiting orders to hoist your scarves above your head in unison, and tough to feel divided when Catalan striker Gerard Moreno has just scored the winner for your team…

The train route from Barcelona to Reus saw us trundle along the Costa Brava, passing everything from verdant vineyards to power stations and factories huffing white smoke into the azure October skies. At one stop, a teenager decked out in a full football club tracksuit climbed on board with his bike. His name was David Llanguas; a tall, rangy winger from the Under 18s team of local club Vila-seca. David is a Barcelona fan first and foremost, but also has a soft spot for Everton. “I’ve been an Everton fan for the last three years, since Martinez was the manager,” he explains to the disbelief of my scouse companion, “at the time Deulofeu was playing for them too, but Barkley is my favourite player”.

When it comes to independence, David is torn. “I’m Catalan,” he tells me, “Catalan first and Catalan forever. I believe in independence, but I don’t think it would be a good thing for the football teams in the region. Barcelona and Espanyol have too much money compared to other teams, a Catalan league wouldn’t make sense,” he continues, “also I think Barcelona absolutely need to be playing in a league with Real, Atletico and other teams of that stature. El Clásico is a match that the entire world watches, we can’t lose that. In some cases,” he concludes, “I guess it’s best if politics and football don’t mix”.

Reus is anything but a football city; most locals pride themselves on their hockey team. Among travelling Brits, it’s probably known as nothing more than a Ryanair detour on their way to Primavera Festival, but it’s most famous for its packed, sun-drenched plazas, with punters squeezing elbow-to-elbow among modernist buildings inspired by the city’s most famous son, Antoni Gaudí.

We, however, eschewed all of this architectural beauty in favour of a grimy, corrugated-iron shed with a varnished wooden bar. A place that serves cañas of Estrella Damm for a euro into plastic Estrella Damm-branded cups, onto plastic Estrella Damm-branded tables with plastic Estrella Damm-branded napkin holders, and football scarves and shirts draped across beams above your head. This is the home of the Redblacks, a supporters club who have set themselves the task of establishing an atmosphere and a fan culture at the Estadi Municipal. The Redblacks describe themselves as a non-political supporters club to distinguish themselves from ultras. “We are anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic,” explains Redblack member Victor, “but other than that you can believe whatever you like as long as you support Reus”.

Nowhere is the freedom of opinion shown more starkly than between Redblacks members Kiko and Felip with their diametrically opposing views on Catalan independence. “The league bans us from having independence flags in the stadium, but we have them anyway,” laughs Kiko as he unzips his CF Reus jacket to reveal an Estelada flag printed onto his jumper. “Independence is in my heart,” he explains, “for me it isn’t an economic issue, it’s about freedom. It’s the only thing more important than football, but at a football match you can make your point and have your say while the world watches”. With that, Kiko hurried me to speak to Felip so that he could watch the highlights of Catalonia’s own Girona FC’s symbolic victory over Real Madrid from the previous night.

“In Catalonia, sports and politics are mixed whether you like it or not,” begins Felip, “politicians in both Madrid and Barcelona have created this divide, this hate between us all”. Despite being against independence, Felip believes that Spain would suffer most from an independent Catalonia, and for this reason the Spanish government would be wise to listen to the concerns of the Catalan people, “there has already been far too much repression,” he says. “It would be a real shame to see the Catalan teams leave the Spanish league,” he tells me, “But there are Welsh teams in the English league, so I guess they would end up staying there. I don’t think a separate Catalan league would benefit anybody”.

Victor informed me that in 2010, eight of CF Reus’s starting XI were Catalan. These days the squad is more mixed but retains a strong Catalan influence. One such player is Alberto ‘Tito’ Ortiz, born in the nearby village of Santa Coloma de Gramenet. “In our team, we have players from all over Spain who love it here,” he tells me, “but when we play Spanish teams, suddenly we’re all Putos Catalanes”. Tito prefaced our interview by explaining that as a footballer he needs to be careful with what he says on the thorny issue of independence and the impact it could have, but if the tough-tackling defensive midfielder was holding back, it was hard to tell…

“On October 1st [it seemed like] the Guardia Civil came just to hit people,” he claims, “and I think lots of Spanish people were jealous of the praise that the Mossos d’Esquadra received for their handling of the terrorist attacks in Barcelona this summer. As far as I’m concerned Catalonia is a nation as of [the declaration] yesterday, but I think most of the professional teams will stay in the Spanish leagues. There have been discussions at Catalan clubs, and maybe this would be for the best”.

Reus’s Estadi Municipal is small, and tonight there aren’t many fans here. The Redblacks have conquered their stand and are making literally all the noise, other than bad-tempered howls of derision at refereeing decisions or mild trembles of excitement when their wingers approach the final third. Despite the home advantage, and despite taking the lead twice, by the end of the match Reus are desperately clinging on for a point and are defending with their lives. When the whistle blows there’s palpable relief all around. For the Redblacks it’s back to the bar, where they’re free to talk about anything other than the football match that they were unable to take their eyes off for the last 90 minutes.

Catalonia’s independence might come someday, and it has the potential to shake Spain and Spanish football to the core. In the meantime, fans will be split on the issue and split on whether football stadia are the best place to discuss it. But outside problems often pale into insignificance when you’re wrapped up in the euphoria of a winning goal, or the despair of conceding in the last minute. Today Reus and the Redblacks were able to enjoy the liberation of the final whistle after feeling pinned back for the second half, grateful that their struggle had not been for nothing.

Tomba, Tomba, Tomba.

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