Earlier this season, Barcelona wore a red and yellow striped shirt, the colours of Catalonia. It was the first time the club had ever done this and was to mark the 300th anniversary of the region losing its independent status.
Among young Catalans, there is a growing feeling that the region should go it alone once more. The timing couldn’t really be worse as Spain has suffered more than most through the economic cycle. Yet while the people clamour for a vote on independence, only half of Catalans want to sever ties with Spain.
If you’ve read any books about the history of Spanish football (Jimmy Burns and Sid Lowe are making a nice living out of writing them), you will be aware of the place Barcelona football club has in the politics of the nation – mes que un club. The masters of the Nou Camp are still the flag-bearers of Catalonia, so if independence comes, it raises questions about the long-term status of the club.
Only this past week, Barcelona has come out in support of Catalonia having a vote on whether it should break away from Spain. The president of La Liga, Javier Tebas, has also gone public in saying that Catalan teams, should the region become a nation, will be excluded from Spanish football competitions.
It’s been 74 years since Catalonia last had a football league of its own, but it has many clubs. But if Catalonia does breakaway, will this mean that Barcelona and Espanyol will have to leave La Liga? Surely it does.
And if that happens, where will Catalonia stand in the footballing world? Firstly, it will mean another country for UEFA. From an international perspective, a ranking from FIFA will have to be built. We may not be talking about Gibraltar or the Baltic states, but a reputation will need to be established. Presumably, Catalonia the country will rely largely on Barcelona, which means they could be half decent. If you’re Catalan, you’re Catalan.
But as for Barcelona, they will suffer from Catalonia’s undoubtedly low UEFA co-efficient and may have to fight their way through a Champions League play-off or two. Domestically, they will forever be a shoe-in for the Catalan title. But they will have to do it without their all-star foreigners, in all probability. Why would Neymar, for example, want to play in a league that may have the status of something equating to the English third tier?
So who would Barcelona be up against? Espanyol, obviously. From the Segunda Division, there is Girona, Sabadell and Llagostera. Lower down, in Segunda Division B, there’s Olot, Lleida, Sant Andreu, L’Hospitalet, Reus, Cornella, Badalona and Gimnastic Tarragona. And even deeper into the Spanish football pyramid, you have: Peralada, Rubi, Asco, Pobla Mafumet, Europa, Montenesa, Cerdanyola del Valles, Vlassar de Mar and Santfeliuenc.
How much competition will this lot offer the Barcelona leviathan? Not much.
Likewise, life will get easier for Barca’s great rivals, Real Madrid. While the two clubs are bitter rivals, like Celtic and Rangers, Milan and Inter, City and United, they need each other. And the smaller clubs in La Liga need Real and Barca to turn up every year to swell their gate and coffers.
But this is just a side issue for the whole independence story. Europe has changed dramatically over the past three decades. In 1968, for instance, there were something like 32 countries trying to qualify for the “Nations Cup” closing stages. For 2016, 56 nations are playing in the qualifiers, including Gibraltar.
But if Catalonia breaks away, will Spain start to fragment? There’s the Basques and Galicians to consider. In June this year, 100,000 people formed a “human chain” to demand Basque independence and there is a Galician Nationalism movement that is calling for recognition of their region as a nation. It’s all very complicated.
While Catalonia’s independence will change the face of southern Europe, the impact may also change the shape of European football. Barca v Gimnastic anyone?