Could Barcelona Really End Up Leaving La Liga?

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportOctober 9, 2017

Irene Guszman, 15, wearing a Spanish flag on her shoulders and Mariona Esteve, 14, with an 'estelada' or independence flag, walk along the street to take part on a demonstration in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday Oct.3, 2017. Thousands of people demonstrated against the confiscation of ballot boxes and charges on unarmed civilians during Sunday's referendum on Catalonia's secession from Spain that was previously declared illegal by Spain's Constitutional Court. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

Josep Maria Minguella is the agent who helped broker the deals that brought Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi to Barcelona. He once ran for president of the club. His house looks down on the Camp Nou stadium.

He's rarely missed a home game in over half a century. He's seen a lot in his lifetime, as the club navigated their way through General Franco's fascist dictatorship, the kidnapping of star striker Quini in 1981 and the tossing of a pig's head at Luis Figo during a Clasico in 2002.

None of those events, though, are as seismic as the current situation the club find themselves in. Their future in La Liga hangs in the balance.

As Catalan politicians threaten secession—or trundle towards an official referendum on independence—Barca are faced with a conundrum. What would the club do if Catalonia separated from Spain? Would they be tossed out of the Spanish league, as the president of La Liga, Javier Tebas, has warned, per El Confidencial? Would they look to play in another league?

"This is a situation that is out of the ordinary," Minguella said. "In the almost 70 years that I've been a socio (member) of Barcelona, I've never witnessed a situation like this being tabled. It's never happened. Even during the Spanish Civil War, the league was suspended for three years, from 1936 to 1939, and it resumed when the war finished. They played again with no problem. This is the first time [a situation where Barcelona could leave the league] is being discussed."

Events of the last couple of weeks in Catalonia have shown how divisive an issue Catalan separatism has become, right across Spain, and how it is impossible for football to escape the debate and its ramifications. It was striking to watch regional television news reports, as police reinforcements set off for Catalonia from towns and cities around the country to block October 1's unsanctioned referendum on independence.

Family, friends and neighbours lined the streets and cheered them off, brandishing Spanish flags, as if they were troops going off to war. "A por ellos, oe!" they sang, exhorting them to "go get 'em!" echoing the chant you hear bellowed around Spanish football stadiums every weekend.

When Barcelona played Las Palmas on the day of the referendum, Las Palmas' players stitched Spanish flags onto their jerseys in a show of solidarity for Spanish nationalism.

After the game, images of the tears of Barcelona's Gerard Pique while being interviewed on television flew around the world. He was in despair at the police brutality (warning: video may contain graphic footage) that had been unleashed on Catalan voters during the day, which included the sight of women being dragged by the hair from polling stations.

Felipe Dana/Associated Press

The Spanish state's repression of the referendum has hardened Catalan separatist sentiment. I live in Barcelona. You can feel it when you talk to people here who wouldn't normally be extremist or "independentista."

They're being pushed into a corner. Catalan's regional government is making political hay, meanwhile, and shaping up to unilaterally declare independence (a move that has been blocked by Spain's constitutional court). It could set in motion a date when Barca would have to decide where they play their league football.

Victor Font, a potential presidential candidate at FC Barcelona in the near future, stresses it remains a hypothetical issue, saying, "We don't have a crystal ball." Self-interest will dictate the club's actions. "The most logical thing would be for them to remain in La Liga despite the threats by La Liga and many other people who say it wouldn't be possible," he says.

"It's basic business sense. About 70 per cent of the value of La Liga is Barca-Real Madrid. You take out one of the two, you take out El Clasico from the championship and you're reducing a lot of La Liga's value.

"The first entity interested in Barca playing in La Liga is La Liga itself. That's why they threaten [to expel Barca], making FC Barcelona or Catalans think Barca would be made to play in a regional league without any major teams, [hoping] it would increase the fear of such a scenario and thus prevent it."

Tebas, La Liga's president, would be a pivotal figure in negotiations. His political allegiances must be taken into account.

He was a youth member of Fuerza Nueva, Spain's "fascista" version of the British National Party. He has an entrenched position, maintaining Barca would not be allowed to play in La Liga if Catalonia secedes, for example, and refusing to allow Barca to postpone the league tie against Las Palmas unless it forfeited the game (and incurred an additional three-point penalty).

His stance reflects the hardline position of Mariano Rajoy, Spain's prime minister, who refuses to negotiate with Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia's pro-independence leader.

Font believes, however, that if it came to it, a realpolitik approach would kick in: "Nobody knows what will happen, but once a new reality was accepted—which would take some time—Tebas would have to be pragmatic. He would have to adjust. It's like a divorce. The person who doesn't want to break up the marriage maybe threatens: 'Oh, you'll be alone. It's going to be very difficult. You won't have enough income to reach the end of the month.' But once there is a point of no return, people negotiate."

Josep Maria Bartomeu is having to lead Barca through choppy waters.
Josep Maria Bartomeu is having to lead Barca through choppy waters.Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

If Catalan independence came to pass, Barca would act according to the interests of their members, which numbered over 143,000 in 2016, per Diario Sport.

As president, Josep Maria Bartomeu and his board represent them. Officially, the club have adopted a neutral stance on independence, but Bartomeu said at the beginning of October that the club's board have to consider where Barcelona would play if they were obliged to leave La Liga, per The Independent's Jack Austin.

His reign has been pockmarked by indecisiveness—over summer transfers, over Messi's contract renewal saga and over whether to forfeit the match against Las Palmas. Two of his directors, Carles Vilarrubi and Jordi Mones, resigned because of his decision to proceed with the match behind closed doors.

"What you've seen during this complex political process during the last few years is that the current board has been dubious and has not reacted so firmly and so quickly in some cases because of pressure, in some cases because of internal debates. There is an overdose of conservatism, of being extremely cautious," says Font.

"On the day of the referendum, for example, when thousands of people were being beaten on the streets—and in my opinion it was clear that the game should not have been played—the end result was a typical Bartomeu board decision, which was neither one thing nor the other. It was somewhere in the middle."

If Barcelona did leave La Liga, there are several possible destinations. They could play in a regional Catalan league, along with the likes of Espanyol and Girona, in the same way that, say, Bosnia established its own domestic league after the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

This would cripple the club's finances. Who would pay to see Barcelona play at the Camp Nou against Badalona and Lleida every other weekend instead of clashing against the likes of Atletico Madrid and Valencia?

It wouldn't be in UEFA's interests either for the Barca brand to wither. "UEFA will also be interested to find a solution," says Minguella. "It wouldn't want Barca to lose its power and earning potential. It would want it to continue being one of the grand clubs."

There are precedents where Barca could play in other national leagues. Swansea City, a Welsh club, play in the English Premier League, and Monaco, a principality, play in France's football league.

Catalonia's tentacles spread into southern France. The dominant rugby league team in the city of Perpignan, for example, is the Catalans Dragons, whose fans sing "Els Segadors," the Catalan national anthem, before games. Wouldn't it make sense for Barca to play in the nearby French Ligue 1?

Raymond Domenech—who led France to the World Cup final in 2006 and has interesting family ties to Catalonia—dismisses the notion. "It would be totally crazy," he says. "It would be impossible. They couldn't enter Ligue 1. They are a completely Spanish club."

Domenech's father was 19 years old when he fled his hometown, Rubi—which is 15 kilometres from Barcelona—in 1936, just as Spain became engulfed in civil war; he came from a Republican family, which fought on the opposite side to Franco's nationalist army. He left on foot, bound for France, where he settled and raised his family in Lyon.

Francisco Seco/Associated Press

Despite Domenech's father's past and his connections to Catalonia—he still has family in the region—he is reluctant like other French nationals and the country's football authorities to get embroiled in the Catalan question, even though it is a neighbour. It is a feeling of not wanting to bother in a country's internal affairs that is reflected across Europe.

"The French Football Federation doesn't think about it," he says. "It's not a problem for us in France. Catalonia has to find a solution with Spain. And afterwards Barca can make a decision about its future."

Where that future lies is uncertain.

       

All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz

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