At the weekend Barcelona will entertain Atletico Bilbao at the Camp Nou. Nothing so unusual about that however. The clash has been an enduring La Liga fixture for over a century. This particular match up however looks likely to have more than a nodding acquaintance with the heightened political tensions across Spain concerning independence, particularly for the Basque Country and Catalunya.
Historically, Barcelona Football Club has been a touchstone for Catalan nationality, perhaps never more so than in the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera a decade earlier. With calls for independence now on the rise again, many are once more looking to the club to show its support. The modern Barcelona however is less likely to make the sort of overt statements that it did in the past however, and deems it appropriate to react with gestures rather than declarations. The weekend’s game against the Basques offers an ideal opportunity, especially as today marks the Diada, the Catalan national day.
When the teams run out onto the Camp Nou pitch for the match, it looks likely that the traditional Blaugrana of the home team will have been espoused for the second strip of yellow and red stripes – except however those will not be the true colours. The Catalan flag, the Senyera, is traditionally four vertical blood-red bands on a gold field. A symbolic small representation of this is carried on the back of Barca’s traditional blue and maroon shirts. At the weekend however, the whole shirt will be the Senyera.
Athletic are apparently aware of the plan, and as their red and white striped shirts would logically cause a clash, they too will change strips. In an echo of – or was it a lead to – Barcelona’s plan, they will don green shirts, white shorts and red socks. The three colours combine to make up the Ikurriña, the Basque flag, with the colours traditionally representing the green fields, the white houses and the red blood of the Basque people.
Some may think that these sorts of things are small gestures, but Spain has particular history that marks it out as an often uneasy. and sometimes volatile combination of peoples. In such an environment the football clubs are often seen as the acceptable face of nationalist expression, and are aware of the commitment needed to support the aspirations of not only its members and supporters, but also its region as a whole. Athletic have a tradition of only Basque players representing the club for example.
Politics is often seen as elbowing its way into sport. Olympic boycotts and power-broking are unwelcome visitors to the sporting arena. In Spain however it is almost impossible to tease apart the two and how they impact on each other. When Barcelona play Athletic Bilbao at the weekend, there will be one more example of this.