Barcelona vs. Real Madrid: More Than a Game

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Jasper Juiner / AFP / Getty

Barcelona will donate proceeds from its match to a Catalan charity.

"More than a club." Fans got a reminder of just how seriously the Barcelona soccer team takes its slogan this week, when club president Joan Laporta agreed to dedicate part of ticket sales from its upcoming match on December 23 against archrival Real Madrid to the Federació Llull, a cultural organization that has been encouraging the spread of the Catalan language since 1990. "It is our responsibility to support and participate in these kinds of activities," said Laporta at the signing, "We do it for our sense of national dignity ... for our culture, because the Catalan language is a sign of identity for a club like the Barça."

A sports team that sponsors language study? In Catalonia, the semi-autonomous region that makes up the northeastern corner of Spain, the coalition hasn't taken anyone by surprise. Barça has been a symbol of Catalan nationalism since its founding in the late 19th century. Under the Franco dictatorship, which suppressed the Catalan language as part of its campaign to create an authoritarian centralized state, the team provided an outlet for the expression of local identity, a place where Catalan flags could be waved and Catalan cheers shouted. And now, at a time when Catalonia has achieved an unprecedented degree of autonomy, thanks to new statues negotiated with the Zapatero government, the Barça continues to symbolize the region's aspirations. "All societies need spaces where they can express their identity," says anthropologist Jordi Josep Salvador, who specializes in the political meanings of soccer in Spain. "That's what Barça is. Its symbols have merged with the symbols of Catalan identity."

That merger has only intensified under the presidency of Laporta, a confirmed nationalist who requires all foreign players signed to the team to learn Catalan, and who has fashioned himself as an international ambassador of sorts. He even popped up, for example, at this year's Frankfurt book fair to promise that his team "would continue to be an instrument for Catalan culture." But his activism, coupled with Catalonia's demands for increased autonomy, has provoked conflicts with political conservatives who view the team's cultural involvement as one more portent of Spain's disintegration. Tuesday's declaration was no exception. "Barcelona is a bilingual city, and the team should reflect that," says a spokesperson for the Catalan branch of the Popular Party, which has protested the decision." Laporta is trying to bring Catalonia into conflict with Spain."

It's true that Sunday's sold-out match at Camp Nou, like all games between the two teams, will be heavy with symbolic meaning. Barça and Real Madrid are long-time rivals, and not just because they are the two most successful teams in Spanish soccer history (and currently sit in first and second place in the standings). If Barça was a symbol of dissent to the Franco dictatorship, Real Madrid was the regime's — and the General√≠simo's — favored team. (Santiago Bernabeu, the former club president for whom the Galácticos' stadium is named, even fought with Franco's army during the Nationalist invasion of Catalonia). "For Catalans, who see themselves as a nation that has lost so much politically, economically, and socially" says Salvador, "a win against Real Madrid is especially pleasurable."

Win, lose or tie, the Barça-Madrid match is perhaps not the most telling example of Catalan nationalism's strange intermingling of sports and politics. For that, look to a quieter game scheduled a week later. Although international sporting organizations such as UEFA and the IOC have long rejected Catalonia's efforts to field its own sides, the region continues to mount unofficial efforts. And on December 29th, a Catalan selection will take to the San Mamé s stadium in Bilbao for a friendly match against — who else? — Euskadi, the Basques' national soccer team. It won't get the international attention of the Barça-Madrid game, but that match better than any other, expresses the aspirations of the Catalanists.