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Taking on poli-kicks

It was January 2014: Liverpool were back challenging for the title, where many would say they belong – but as a disgruntled United fan, I preferred not to think so – and Luis Suarez was tearing the league apart (or eating it up, if you prefer bite-related puns.) I was sat in a Starbucks in Liverpool with some friends when a figure walked in – he was hooded and appeared keen to hide his face, but it was hard not to notice who he was straight away: Luis Suarez has a pretty distinctive face.

One of my friends is a big Liverpool fan so she was keen to have a photo with him, to which he surprisingly obliged. In person, Suarez seemed shy and anxious to hide himself away from the baying pub lic who have so much to say about him, but he was also friendly when approached, perhaps in his attempt to be accepted, to be liked by the English public who were often so happy to dislike him.

Suarez isn’t innocent, though. He isn’t a footballer who was disliked by anyone other than Liverpool fans just for his extreme talent and ability to win games, but rather for the footballing persona and the incidents that have so often blighted his career – the biting, the diving, the racism allegations for which he was charged but still denies.

There are reasons for the public to dislike him, but Suarez never seemed to understand, lamenting how “too many people in England laughed about (his) attitude.” The English media may have a reputation for being unnecessarily hostile, but with Suarez it was not unfounded, and in the Spanish media he may find his treatment to be even worse.

On 26th October 2014, Suarez made his return to football, and his debut for Barcelona, in a game which is perhaps the most politically charged of all time. It is also a game on which all the eyes of the world will focus, with an estimated viewership of 400 million – El Clasico.

To some, football is seen as a trivial thing: a sport enjoyed only by troublesome working-class men, out for a day of drink and disorderly behaviour. That’s not the case, and football can play an important role in the history and politics of a country, for which you need look no further than in Spain. During the reign of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, the battle between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona was a constant presence. It wasn’t just about two teams battling out it for silverware, it was about two Spanish cities, and their people, who felt worlds apart from each other.

There is an idea in football, one that was ever dominant during Franco’s reign, that Real Madrid were “Franco’s team.” With a stadium named after a president who fought alongside Franco in the Spanish Civil War, it is hard not to see why, particularly from the perspective of Barcelona fans. Throughout their history, the fan of Barcelona, and on a wider-scale, the people of Catalonia, felt inferior to the rest of Spain. The Catalan language was banned by Franco as he attempted to increase Spanish nationalism, claiming, “If you are Spanish, speak in Spanish.” Catalan names such as Jordi were banned, and a Catalan, Joan Manuel Serrat, was not allowed to represent Spain in Eurovision for simply refusing to sign his song in Spanish instead of Catalan.

It wasn’t just about two teams battling out it for silverware, it was about two Spanish cities, and their people, who felt worlds apart from each other.

In an era of dictators, Franco’s approach was not so different to everything else going on around Europe – it was as though he wanted to cleanse Spain of other cultures. Catalan people are not ones to give up their fight, though, and despite attempts from Franco and his people to embrace the successes of FC Barcelona, it was never enough. There is a question posed to many Catalans, and it seems that the an- swer may be yes – did the people of Catalonia use FC Barcelona as their way to fight against Franco? The backbone to their political ideology?

During every FC Barcelona game in the Camp Nou, the Barcelona fans cry for independencia as soon as the game reaches 17:14. 1714 was an important year – on 11 September, the troops of the King of Spain, Phillip V, defeated Catalan troops. It marks the moment that Catalonia began to lose its separate identity from Spain, and it is only by looking at the struggle of the Catalan people that you can begin to realise the importance of their club, FC Barcelona, which to them is “més qué un club” – more than a club. Barcelona fans see Real Madrid as the antithesis of all this, the team of the government, the team who won six European cups during Franco’s reign making them the darlings of Spanish football, to which the rest of the world would look to make their own ideas about Spanish identity. El Clasico has always been a politically fuelled match, from the 11-1 win to Real Madrid in 1943, which was so highly influenced by the constant whistling from the Madrid fans, to the infamous pig’s head game in 2000, after Luis Figo switched clubs from Barcelona to Madrid. Then you have the present day, with the ‘El Clasico World Series’ in 2011 with four Clasicos in 18 days, epitomised by the battle between Guardiola and Mourinho.

However, it isn’t all true what they say about ‘Franco’s team.’ Real Madrid may be based in the city of the government, and yes, Franco was a fan of theirs, but they faced their hardships too. From 1935 to 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, Real Madrid had a president named Sanchez Guerra, a Republican who founded the Republican Liberal Right, defining himself as “centrist: equidistant from the ex- tremists of left and right.” In the summer of 1939, he was captured and handed life imprisonment by Franco’s troops.

Real Madrid may have had a president in Santiago Bernabeu who fought alongside Franco, but they also had one who fought against him. Politics is not black and white and neither is the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Barcelona fans were made to feel castigated and isolated from Spanish history, but Real Madrid are not the embodiment of Franco’s ideals.

FC Barcelona may be more than just a club, but so are Real Madrid.

Even though Franco died in 1975, bringing Spain into a new era of democracy, the politics behind El Clasico have not, and will not, go away. Catalan people still call for independence, with a vote scheduled for this November after the euphoria that surrounded the referendum on Scottish independence in September. Nonetheless, it was out ruled by the Spanish government for being ‘unconstitutional’, showing how Spain still has a long way to go.

Spain has proven that it can work together – the historic treble of the two Euro’s and the World Cup, with a team full of Catalans, is testament to that, particularly after the nastiness of the 2011 Clasicos, but in its current state all is not well in Spain. Hit by a financial crisis, the people of Catalonia finally want their freedom from Spain, but the impact this could have on Spanish football would be huge.

In a bid to prevent the people of Catalonia fighting for independence, the president of the Spanish FA, Javier Tebas, has declared that Barcelona and Espanyol would be kicked out of La Liga if Catalonia was to gain independence. It may be an empty threat, but if it were to happen, football would lose its most important rivalry.

 In a bid to prevent the people of Catalonia fighting for independence, the president of the Spanish FA, Javier Tebas, has declared that Barcelona and Espanyol would be kicked out of La Liga if Catalonia was to gain independence.

 El Clasico is bitter and nasty; it’s a fight which often gets out of hand, a game usually full of fouls and red cards, of arguments between the players and the fans. But it is also a fight between two of the best teams in the world, two teams who pos- sess the greatest players in world football – Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, James, Iniesta, Bale, Benzema, and now Luis Suarez, that most fascinating of players, has opened up a new chapter in this most brilliant of fixtures.

It would be a crime against football to lose El Clasico.


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