Editor’s Note: This article forms part of a series of content being produced for Al Jazeera in association with the launch of its new football podcast, Game of Our Lives.
Usually, when FC Barcelona go three-nil up at home, tens of thousands of football fans rise to their feet in the Nou Camp, cheering their beloved Catalan team.
On the night of October 1, 2017, however, not a single supporter stood to celebrate a third Barca goal against Las Palmas in the famous 99,354-capacity stadium.
Why? Because not a single supporter was there.
FC Barcelona, in response, elected to shut their stadium to the public in condemnation over the alleged use of brutality by national security forces against citizens.
League authorities had rejected an earlier request by the club to have the game postponed.
“It was so strange that [Barcelona] were playing a game while just some miles away outside the stadium people were suffering,” Victor Bolea, a Barcelona fan since birth, in 1994, told Al Jazeera.
“The situation was terrible on October 1 … even if the stadium would have been open, I don’t think many supporters would have gone that day,” Bolea, who voted in favour of independence, said.
FC Barcelona’s decision to close its doors on that Sunday evening, however, was only the most recent evidence that football and politics are closely linked in Spain.
Politics has shaped the identity of a number of Spanish football clubs, including Real Madrid, Barcelona’s main rivals.
Originally founded in 1902 as Madrid Football Club, Real Madrid came into being in 1920 when Spain’s then-King Alfonso XIII granted the team the right to use the term “real” – meaning royal – in its title and a royal crown in its emblem.
Almost a century on, the club’s historical link to the royal family continues to shape how it is perceived, particularly among rival Barca fans, according to Jimmy Burns, journalist and author of La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football.
“FC Barcelona and a lot of its supporters live in Catalonia, a region in which many people regard themselves as politically and culturally different from the rest of Spain … they see Real Madrid as the team representing the rest of Spain,” Burns told Al Jazeera.
Additionally, just hours after the final whistle at the Nou Camp on October 1, thousands of Real Madrid supporters appeared to denounce the latest Catalan referendum by waving Spanish flags during a home fixture against Espanyol.
Some Real Madrid supporters, however, deny the club is wrapped up in political symbolism in Spain.
“Real Madrid fans don’t want the club to be involved in politics,” Luis Camps, a Madridista for more than two decades, told Al Jazeera.
“The club is a powerful company with many connections … but these connections aren’t used to turn Real Madrid into a [political] symbol.”
‘More than a club’
Whereas Real Madrid has historically been associated with the monarchy and linked, anecdotally, to Spanish General Francisco Franco – such as during his rumoured involvement in steering Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano to the club in 1953 – Barca is widely seen as a vehicle for promoting regional identity.
Many FC Barcelona supporters unveil Catalan flags and pro-secession banners during games at the Nou Camp.
A number also opt to sing for “Independence” after the first 17 minutes and 14 seconds of each fixture, in a nod to the end of the Siege of Barcelona in 1714 during the War of the Spanish Secession.
“[The club] is one of the biggest platforms to tell the world what’s happening in Catalonia and what people want to do in the region … [it] helps the Catalan independence movement,” Bolea said.
“Fans who come every week to the stadium are, in general, for Catalan independence … [it] represents more than a club for us.”
Though FC Barcelona has stayed clear of openly backing a Catalonian secession from Spain, the club has said it will “continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people”, taking on an apparently more direct institutional involvement in politics when compared with rival club Real Madrid.
Gerard Pique, a current FC Barcelona player, has gone further and offered public support for Catalan independence. The defender, who was born in Barcelona, has said he will stand down from playing for Spain over the issue if it is deemed to be a problem by the national coach.
Following FC Barcelona’s match with Las Palmas, Pique told reporters: “You vote ‘yes’, ‘no’, or leave it blank, but you vote. In the Franco era, we couldn’t defend our ideas. I am, and I feel Catalan, and I am very proud of the people, of their behaviour.”
Bilbao and the Basque Country
Aside from the rivalry between Barca and Real, widely known as “El Clasico”, politics also mixes with football in other parts of Spain.
Athletic Bilbao, the dominant club in Spain’s Basque Country, have a policy of only fielding players either born or trained as a youth player in the region.
“The idea of that has been to try and give a cultural, and political, identity to the team,” Burns said.
Their rivalry with Real Madrid has been dubbed “El Otro Clasico” – the Other Derby – and represents the collision of Basque nationalism with centralised Spanish identity. Fans of Athletic Bilbao regularly wave the red, green and white Basque flag in the terraces of their stadium, San Mames.
As Catalonia, Basque Country has its own culture, history and language. It has been the site of tumultuous, and often violent, secessionist politics. ETA, the main armed wing of the Basque liberation movement, formally renounced violence in 2017, but Basque independence remains a political aim of secessionist groups active in the region.
Other clubs in the Basque Country, such as Bilbao’s biggest local rivals Real Sociedad, have opted not to maintain a policy of signing only Basque footballers.
This has added to the sense that Bilbao’s stance is increasingly out of place, both within the Basque Country and Spain as a whole, according to Burns.
“This [policy] has had a slightly disturbing, racist connotation to it, which in the modern world and a democracy is unacceptable,” Burns said.
“[But] certainly in recent years the policy has been made more flexible and you now have the first generation of Basques which include immigrants in the team … and gradually it is being loosened out.”
One of Athletic Bilbao’s current stars is Inaki Williams, who was born in Bilbao to Ghanaian and Liberian parents. His prominent role in the team is a sign of the way the club’s perception of Basque identity is evolving and becoming more inclusive in the 21st century.
Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona and Real Madrid are three of the four most successful clubs since the founding of Spain’s top football league in 1928. Together, they have won 65 league titles.
Their appeal to their fans, however, lies as much in their respective regional identities (in the case of Athletic and Barcelona) and storied history (in the case of Real Madrid) as in their present-day accomplishments on the field.
Even as La Liga becomes one of the most lucrative football leagues in the world, and attracts enormous global TV audiences, its inextricable local politics look likely to remain.