Thursday, July 8, 2010

Football and politics

During yesterday's World Cup semifinal between Spain and Germany the announcers alluded to the politics behind the bitter rivalry between famed Spanish club teams FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Spain's roster is packed with players from both clubs, including yesterday's hero Carles Puyol who captains Barcelona. Intrigued I did some research and found that the roots of the rivalry go all the way back to the Spanish-American War. From Jon Marum:

FC Barcelona were founded in 1899 by Swiss businessman Joan Gamper just a year after a humiliating defeat for the Spanish army in the Spanish-American war of 1898. With a sense of disillusionment in the declining Spanish Empire, local pride grew provoking a stronger sense of Catalan nationalism. In FC Barcelona, the Catalan people had the perfect vehicle to express their local identity.

These sentiments of nationalism within Catalonia have not only survived to the present day, indeed time has only served to increase them. The oppressive nature of the Francoist regime toward Catalonia and her people forged a siege mentality within the club and region towards the controlling centrist powers in Madrid. The fact that Franco’s team was Real Madrid only served to intensify the rivalry between the two clubs.

The theory is, therefore, that Barça are the club of democracy and freedom fighting against the fascism and oppression of Real Madrid. As always, the reality is not as clear cut.

Barça fans animosity towards Real Madrid properly started in 1936 when club President Josep Sunyol was murdered by Francoist troops. Every year his death is remembered by FC Barcelona delegates with a not-so-subtle subtext of anti-Francoism and anti-Real Madrid. The fact that his assassination had more to do with his affiliation to the Catalan Independence Party than to Barça is overlooked by fans who see him as an embodiment of their cause.

Interesting! Another example of how sports, European football in this case, is a reflection of history and culture. The final between Netherlands and Spain has plenty of possible subtexts as well. Catholics vs. Protestants? Or even Catholics vs. Calvinists? After all, Holland once had Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper for a prime minister. Of course, even the fact that the Dutch players wear orange is a potent historical reminder. History buffs may remember that the Protestant prince William of Orange led the revolt against Catholic Spain that gave the Netherlands their independence and sparked the Eighty Years War. Sunday's contest will be resolved in less time than that. I'll be rooting for The Oranje, but if I were a betting man I'd put my money on the Spanish. They play an elegant, team-oriented style of football that's a pleasure to watch. In their case the ugly side of Spanish politics and regional rivalry hasn't spilled over onto the pitch.

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