Could Catalan independence destroy La Liga – and Barcelona?

Independence is a popular cause in Catalunya.

Independence is a popular cause in Catalunya.

For Real Madrid, a league without Barcelona would be akin to the position in which Celtic find themselves in Scotland. Florentino Perez famously once said that “if Barcelona didn’t exist, (Real Madrid) would have to invent them.”  Should independence movements progress in Catalunya however, it may just be a situation that Perez’s club need to address.

Across the province, there is heated debate at the moment regarding whether a referendum on independence should go ahead on 9th November. Barcelona has, over its history, often been regarded as a touchstone for Catalan independence, be it openly supporting it, or as more latterly offering more obtuse support. An example is their second strip used this season, which represents the Senyera, the flag of Catalunya.

Almost exactly a year ago, I was in the Barcelona, and even at that time, walking along the Diagonal thoroughfare to watch the Blaugrana play, leaflets promoting independence were being thrust into hands. It’s a journey I’ve made a couple of dozen times or so over the years. Even running back to the turn of the century to be in the Camp Nou was to see numerous Catalan independence flags with the blue triangle and white star on the leading edge of the Senyara. It’s a trend that I’ve noticed increasingly as time has gone on, and last year was probably its zenith.  A year down the road, it’s not difficult to appreciate how the intensity will have been ratcheted up. With the date now so close however, the ramifications for the club – and indeed La Liga as a whole – of any move to independence for Catalunya are becoming clear.

The president of the Liga de Fútbol Profesional, Javier Tebas, has made it clear any competition would be much weaker without Barcelona, plus of course, cross city club Espanyol. “If Catalonia became independent, taking into consideration the Sports Law that would be enforced by the rest of Spain, Barcelona wouldn’t be allowed to play,” Tebas reported at a recent event in Barcelona. “There would have to be a change in the law made in the Spanish parliament. Clearly if it happened, then it would be detrimental for Spanish football to lose Barça who are an historic club. I can’t imagine the LFP without Barça. In the same way as I can’t imagine Catalonia without Spain, I can’t see La Liga without Barça. Also if it did happen what would you call the league: the Spanish League or the Iberian League?”

Javier Tebas, "can't see La Liga without Barca."

Javier Tebas, “can’t see La Liga without Barca.”

For Barcelona of course, the situation would also be difficult. Part of its identity is as the flagship for the Catalans, and once any perceived battle is won, where would the club define itself. Any Catalan league would be of only minor quality aside from the two clubs from the city. The consequence would surely mean a loss of prestige, revenue and of course, as a corollary, quality players would inevitably leave.

It’s a situation that offers a dichotomy of interests.  The current board of the club are taking a fairly backseat approach to the matter, clearly acutely aware of the potential fallout. “It is a sensitive subject and the club won’t get involved but the president is considering making a statement in the coming days,” said a Barça spokesman. Others meanwhile, such as former club president Joan Laporta are encouraging the club to be more vocal in their support of the referendum movement. It’s a position many fans find themselves in tune with, which adds pressure on the club to declare its interests.

Even some players are supporting the movement. Xavi and Gerard Piqué, have allowed it to become clear that they are in support of the referendum. “We have all the right in the world to vote,” Xavi said. “We need to vote, we need the people to show their opinions and I am in favour of the referendum obviously.” Spain international team mate Pique lines up alongside the midfield maestro in the debate.   “I am Catalan and I wanted to take part in the rally,” Piqué said. “I went with friends to have a good time with the other 1.8 million that were there. There is no need to doubt me. I have played for the national team for 11 years and it is something different to be in favour of a referendum which is democratic. People should have the right to vote and this has nothing to do with the other.”

The history of Real Madrid and Barcelona is long and deeply entwined. It’s been hardened by the Spanish Civil War and a feeling of frustration, sometimes latent, other times fiercely burning among the Catalans. There’s an old saying though that goes along the lines of being careful about what you wish for in case it comes true.  For La Liga, and its two biggest clubs, if the Catalans do achieve the independence that many of their people crave, the future may well be less than bright.

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