Soccer Gets Even More Political in Spain

In normal circumstances, it would be a routine soccer match for Spain.

But the standoff between Catalonia and the government in Madrid has turned the national team's World Cup qualifier against Albania on Friday evening into a stage for the divisions now dramatically splitting Spain.

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique emerged as the lightning rod following his support this week for the Catalan independence referendum and a picture of him voting. Among his critics was former national teammate Alvaro Arbeloa, who said his actions had shown disrespect. 

But the main vitriol came from fans, with many expected to increase their vocal opposition to any Catalan player supporting a breakaway state when the teams line up in the coastal city of Alicante. When The Spanish team arrived at the stadium for practice on Thursday, players entered through an emergency exit to avoid the crowd as people gathered to jeer Pique.

“Nobody likes to be booed and insulted, but I believe it’s a challenge for me,” Pique said at a press conference earlier. #piquefueradelaseleccion — “Pique out of the national team” – was subsequently trending on Twitter in Spain.

Alvaro Morata and Gerard Pique train together in Las Rozas, Spain.

The Spanish national team has been interwoven, often a source of peacemaking for traditional rivalries between Real Madrid and Barcelona as players united to take on foreign teams. When Spain won the World Cup in 2010, its squad included five Real Madrid players and seven Barcelona players.

The head of the government’s sports agency, Jose Ramon Lete, condemned the insults against Pique during a practice session this week. Nothing justifies the attacks against players, and even less so when they have the national shirt, he said.

Barcelona, though, retains its distinct Catalan identity and is an indelible part of the region’s politics. Its motto daubed across its stadium seats is “Mes que un club,” Catalan for “more than a club.” 

It seeks to project the image of Catalonia to the world, according to its website. Pep Guardiola, a player and coach at the club who is now at Manchester City, once ran as a candidate for a pro-independence party. On 17 minutes and 14 seconds at Barcelona games, a faction of the home crowd chants for independence to symbolize the fall of the city in 1714.

By contrast, Real Madrid was the team of the monarchy before the Spanish Civil War. Its supporters included General Franco and Madrid’s stadium was built under his dictatorship in the 1940s.

“There’s this discourse in Spain of sport and politics that shouldn’t mix, but they have actually always mixed, and most clearly with Barcelona,” said Sid Lowe, Madrid-based author of “Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona Vs Real Madrid” published in 2014. “The club has always had a kind of identification with Catalan society and politics. So it’s impossible to completely keep out of the process.”

As police stormed makeshift polling stations on Sunday in Catalonia’s unofficial referendum, Barcelona asked the Spanish league to postpone its scheduled game. After the request was rejected, it protested by playing behind closed doors in front of empty seats at the 100,000-capacity Camp Nou.

Madrid and other cities around Spain are full of balconies and buildings with Spanish flags, as national pride surges amid the crisis. The Catalan separatists are considering whether to make a unilateral declaration of independence or try to seek a negotiated settlement with Spain.

“That’s the situation we are in,” Pique told a press conference before the game against Albania. “I don’t think it loses anything by sitting down and talking.”

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