A few years ago, I produced regular articles on La Liga for a website concentrating on Spanish football. I wrote this piece during a short break in Barcelona.
It just so happened that I was in Barcelona during the international break, so I thought it would be an opportunity to see how the Catalans, especially in this time of heightened talk of independence, viewed the Spanish national team. After all, sitting in a bar watching football, can’t be all bad, can it? That’s why the original title for this piece was “An Englishman in Catalunya watching Spain.” That was the theory, anyway.
So when Friday evening came around, I found a small bar in the Sants area of the city, and checked if they would put the football on at 8.00pm. “Football?” said the man behind the bar. “Si,” I said, deploying a good chunk of my Catalan vocabulary. “Espana?” I continued. Sure, they said. No problem. The bar was a bit sparsely populated, but being English, I had arrived pretty early to ensure that I’d get a good seat amongst the inevitable throng – after all their national team, packed with Blaugrana players – are European and World Champions.
The clock ticked around and I got settled in with a couple of beers, but as kick-off drew near, two things happened – or actually, didn’t happen! Firstly, no-one else turned up, leaving me, my family, and a few locals comprising the ‘support’. No problem, I thought. At least I’ll be able to watch the game and see people’s reactions, but hang on, why isn’t the game on. I attracted the attention of one of the guys behind the bar, and in my best pidgin Catalan, pointed at the TV and said “football?” with a questioning tone of voice. He nodded and then went to fetch the remote control. Twirling through twenty or so channels of music videos and Spanish soaps, revealed no football. He explained that the game must be on one of the pay-per-view channels, and as it was only a small bar they couldn’t afford to pay for it. ‘Austerity’ had hit at me.
Undeterred, I deployed one of my Catalan set phrases, “El compte, si us plau?” I said. Fortunately, the guy behind the bar didn’t say something like “Why do you want a left-handed zebra?” and duly passed me the bill. I paid and with a quick “Adeu,” I wandered off to find another bar. One of the great things about this outlying area of the Catalan capital is that there’s always another bar nearby. So I trundled down the road in the rain – which definitely was not falling on the plain at this time – and duly found another bar. In I wandered with assorted members of my family, to find it totally empty – but with a TV on – except for the lady behind the bar. She spoke little English, and as previously stated, other than ‘restaurant vocabulary’ my expertise in the local lingo is limited. Up to the bar I went and asked if she would put the football on. After a few hand signals and stammering, translations, she happily agreed.
Reaching for the remote, she went through a few stations – all looking remarkably similar to the ones at the other bar. Then, she switched to the satellite channels. Brilliant, I thought, here we go. Loads of channels zipped by, up and down, up and down. Then she stopped, put the remote down and picked up her ‘phone. She tapped out a number and then passed the ‘phone to me. “My daughter,” she said. “What!” I thought. My Catalan and Spanish must have been really awry! I looked behind pleadingly at my son, daughter and their partners. Then she added, “She speaks good English.” Phew, panic over! Bless her cotton socks, she had contacted her daughter to diagnose what this English stranger was trying to find. I explained to the daughter and then passed the ‘phone back. Mother and daughter conversed for a while as the remote again began to flick through channels.
At this time, a couple of local lads entered the bar. The lady behind the bar spoke to them and one of then took control of the remote, whilst the other flicked through his ‘phone internet connection. I watched for a while and the one with the ‘phone said that I probably had the time wrong due to the hour difference between England and Europe. As the game was well under way by now, I punched up the latest score on my ‘phone and found that Spain was leading 1-0. I showed him the ‘phone to illustrate my cosmopolitan understanding of international time zones was in tune. He returned to his ‘phone while his companero persisted with the channel surfing.
Eventually, he came back to me and showed me what he’d found. On a news site, it said that the Belorussian broadcasters had requested a fee of 1.5 million euros for the broadcast, and none of the Spanish channels would pay it, although the match could be watched over the internet. I thanked the lads for their efforts and, both defeated and daunted, I took my Larios and tonic back to the table where my family was sitting. We had a couple of drinks and lamented that this ‘wouldn’t happen in England.’
Afterwards, I was thinking through the events of the evening, and a few things came to mind. Firstly, even though I had spoken to at least a dozen people in a couple of – albeit small – bars, no-one appeared to even be aware that Spain was playing, let alone whether the game was on television. Secondly, even when they knew, there was little or no interest. Thirdly, despite concerted efforts to find the game for me, the austerity in Spain is pretty ubiquitous. I guess it would be wrong to say that this proves that no-one in Catalunya cares about the Spanish national team, but the first bar had Barca posters displayed, so it wasn’t that they were uninterested in football, but perhaps Spain just aren’t viewed as being ‘theirs’.
There’s often a regional disconnect between distinct parts of a country and national teams. Many people in the north east of England for example, feel a far greater passion for Newcastle United or Sunderland than they do for a remote and detached England team that hardly ever involves their players, or visits their neck of the woods. For a region such as Catalunya, previously – and prospectively – an independent state, with an all-conquering quasi-national team already, this must be exacerbated many fold. I have to say that there are many things about the Catalan culture that I admire, but I guess it’s a little sad that if my assumption is anything near accurate, the split between region and nation is pretty fractious. As the fairly common signs and graffiti around Barcelona say “Catalunya is not Spain!”
(This All blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘Inside Spanish Football’ website.