Spain win highlights Catalan divide

Over a million people took to the streets of Barcelona at the weekend. A million. Television estimated the figure even higher at 1.4 million as it beamed globally images of the main streets of the Catalan capital, full of people waving their red and yellow flags, singing songs and smiling for the cameras.

The recently departed Barcelona president Joan Laporta was even among the crowds, yet had you worn a Spain shirt to join the mass, your life would have been made very uncomfortable.

Catalans were not on the street to celebrate Spain winning the World Cup for the first time, but to protest against restrictions put on Catalonia’s new autonomy charter by Madrid. Some Catalans want full independence from Spain, others more autonomy. There are many shades of grey in between.

The protest took place the night before the World Cup final. Spain’s victory also brought people onto the streets to celebrate, but nowhere near as many as a day earlier. It also depended on which Barcelona neighbourhood you were in. It’s not divided on religious lines like Belfast, Beirut or Baghdad, but some areas are almost 100% “Spanish” and others almost 100% “Catalan.”

Many people are happy to be both, but areas with a high Spanish population saw parties every bit as passionate as in Madrid, Valencia or Seville. And remember that outside of the Spanish capital, Real Madrid’s second strongest paid up supporter base lies in Barcelona’s suburbs.

Spanish celebrations... in Madrid

There is a strong economic argument for the Catalans, with wealthy Catalonia subsidising poorer areas in southern Spain – much like wealthier European countries supported Spain as it boomed for two decades until 2008.

So what has this got to with football?

The two are intrinsically mixed, though to what degree depends on whom you ask. After finishing his second term in office, Laporta now has political ambitions. A staunch Catalanista, he said last year that he saw the Spanish national side no differently from the English or French national side, that he felt no emotion if they won or lost. Extremists go further and actively celebrate Spain losing, but they are in the minority.

Barça are often seen as the standard bearer for Catalonia, yet if Catalonia gained full independence or a relationship with Spain similar to Scotland and England, international laws mean that Barca would have to play in a Catalan league. Catalans point to AS Monaco playing in France’s Ligue 1, but authorities have made clear that this is the exception.

That would mean saying goodbye to El Clasico and the Primera Liga losing its status as the first or second best domestic league in the world. Catalans had better not look at the example of Yugoslavia, which once had a league containing half a dozen giants, but where Red Star Belgrade now play against village sides as the different Balkan countries have their own leagues.

In Catalonia, the league would be made up of Barca, average crowd 79,000; Espanyol 31,000; Gimnastic Tarragona 6,000; Girona 4,000; Lleida 3,000; Barca B 1,500 and many lesser teams from Palamos to Terrassa - you get the picture.

Ultra nationalists feel that Catalonia takes in Valencia, parts of southern France and the Balearic islands. The feeling is seldom reciprocated.

Catalonia wants to be recognised as a nation, in the same way as Scotland or Wales. Such is the wealth of football talent, their national side would still be one of the best in the world.

From a population of seven million (of whom around two million are not from Catalonia or are second or third generation Spaniards working in Catalonia - part of Franco’s push to dilute Catalanism by shifting population), Catalonia could field stars of magnitude from Valdes, Puyol and Pique at the back, through Xavi, Busquets and Fabregas in midfield, to Bojan up front.

There’s plenty of back-up from emerging Barça stars and established Primera Liga regulars like Espanyol’s Joan Verdu and Moises Hurtado. Their current coach is Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who inspired Barca’s current style of football, which in turn inspired Spain to become world champions by beating Netherlands.

Catalonia would have a great side, but the domestic league would be weaker than Holland’s.

Another player who once would have made the team was Dani Jarque – the one Andres Iniesta referred to with a message “Dani Jarque always with us” when he scored in Soweto.

A message to Dani

Jarque was Espanyol’s captain until he died in horrific circumstances nearly a year ago. Espanyol were on a pre-season tour of Italy and Jarque was on the phone to his girlfriend, who was seven months pregnant, from a hotel room near Florence. Jarque then suffered a heart attack and died. His desperate girlfriend raised the alarm, but club doctors and Italian paramedics were unable to revive him.

Iniesta – not himself Catalan, coming from Albacete, between Madrid and Valencia but further south – played in the same Spain Under 19 team as Jarque and they won the European championships together. They were close friends and while Barça marked his death fittingly, wearing armbands as a mark of respect in one game and sending their top brass to Espanyol’s stadium, it was Iniesta who was closest to Jarque.

Jarque was a Catalan from Sant Boi on the outskirts of Barcelona, whose population grew from 10,000 in 1940 to its current 80,000 because of immigration from other parts of Spain. There were huge celebrations there last night, with fans singing Viva España.

Confused? You wouldn’t be the first.

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