Join Football Burp’s Spanish football correspondent Thomas Macaulay as he takes a look back through time in order to discern why FC Barcelona consider themselves “més que un club” (“more than a club”)…
25th July, 1713 – Felipe V’s Bourbon Army surrounds the city of Barcelona. The War of the Spanish Succession has entered its final phase. On September 11th, 1714, after more than a year under siege, the Catalan opposition are defeated.
The Bourbon dynasty secures the throne of Spain. Catalunya’s government, its constitution, its rights and its language are all abolished, its national identity shattered.
The fans of FC Barcelona have long memories. After 17 minutes and 14 seconds of every half played at the Camp Nou, the chant of “Independencia!” rings out among los culés, commemorating the loss of independence that followed the city’s surrender on that September 11th, 300 years ago.
FC Barcelona is one of the richest, most successful and glamorous sports teams in the world. But the importance of the club goes beyond football. It is seen as a symbol of Catalunya, of democracy and of resistance.
Catalunya’s degree of autonomy fluctuated through the centuries that followed the loss of independence in 1714. In 1931, a new constitution established under the Second Spanish Republic guaranteed Catalunya the right to self-governance. Finally, it seemed, Catalunya could express its independence.
But the hopes were short-lived – in 1939, General Francisco Franco came to power after Nationalist forces defeated the Republican opposition in the Spanish Civil War.
His reign brought decades of suppression for the independence movement and Catalan culture. Every public expression of regional nationalism was outlawed, including both the language and the flag of Catalunya.
Franco forced FC Barcelona to change its club name from the Catalan to the Spanish language version, Club de Futbol Barcelona, and to remove two of the four stripes from the club crest that had formed the Catalan flag.
It was said that the Camp Nou was the one public place in Spain where Catalans could speak their language freely. From these developments derived Barça’s famous motto: “més que un club”.
In 1936, just days into the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, FC Barcelona’s club President Josep Sunyol was arrested and executed by Nationalist troops loyal to Franco.
Three years later, Barcelona stood as the final major stronghold for the Republican opposition. Its fall on January 26th 1939 marked the end of the Spanish resistance to Franco’s fascist forces.
Within the first week of Barcelona’s occupation, 10,000 people were executed in the city. Catalunya’s suffering during the Civil War scars the region to this day and the Catalan opposition to the Franco regime remained fervent throughout his reign. Football was not exempt from the conflict.
Barcelona and Real Madrid have won a combined 54 Spanish league titles, with matches between the two labelled El Clásico, the crown jewel of La Liga.
But their rivalry embodies more than just trophies. Claims that Franco favoured Barcelona’s arch-rivals Real Madrid through financial manoeuvrings and influencing referees were widespread.
In 1943, Barcelona were drawn against Madrid in the semi-finals of Spain’s premier domestic cup competition, then known as La Copa del Generalísimo – The General’s Cup.
The Catalan side took a 3-0 lead into the second leg. On the day of the return leg, reports claim, an unexpected guest visited the team’s changing room: Spain’s director of state security. He reminded the players that “you are only playing because of the generosity of the regime that has forgiven you for your lack of patriotism.”
The match referee is alleged to have received a similar warning. Barcelona went on to lose the match 11-1, and Real became known as ‘Franco’s team’. The murmurings of injustice rose to screams in 1953, with the controversial transfer of the legendary Argentinian striker Alfredo Di Stéfano.
Di Stéfano’s contract situation was complicated. His rights were shared between his current club, Millonarios of Columbia, and his previous team, Argentina’s River Plate. Madrid negotiated with the former, Barça the latter.
Di Stéfano initially signed for Barcelona, where he lived for three months and played three friendly matches. But the Spanish Federation did not recognize the transfer, ostensibly because permission for the transfer had not been granted by both Milonarios and River Plate as required.
Franco had banned the signing of foreign players in La Liga, but he was willing to make an exception for Di Stéfano. He suggested that the Argentinian play for both his suitors, on alternating seasons. When Barcelona refused, Di Stéfano signed solely for Madrid.
The rancour remains to this day among Barça fans, adamant that Madrid, with the aid of the Franco regime, had stolen from them a prolonged period of unprecedented success.
The reality of Franco’s influence on Spanish football is more complicated than the legends suggest. During the first fifteen years of Franco’s reign, Madrid failed to win a single league title, while Barcelona won five.
In some respects, his regime actually assisted FC Barcelona. Without the aid of his government, the rapid nationalization and signing of future star player László Kubala may not have been possible.
Neither would the granting of permission to sell off the old Les Corts ground despite it being designated green belt land. In 1974, Franco received the FC Barcelona’s 75th Anniversary Gold Medal in honour of his support. The club has since sought to rescind the controversial award, claiming it was bestowed upon him under unscrupulous circumstances.
Although Franco’s influence on Spanish football may have been exaggerated, the dictator and Real Madrid undoubtedly enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship.
Franco’s centralization of power in the capital brought wealth and influence to the city’s biggest club. Real Madrid’s international success and global glamour made the club a crucial ambassador for Spain, at a time in which the country was ostracized from the international community.
Franco’s dictatorship basked in their reflected glory, desperate for some of the rays to rub off on them.
Building up Barça helped Franco too. The club’s success brought happiness to the region, and thus, it has been argued, helped content and subdue the separatist movement. Furthermore, it created a rivalry to promote Spanish football and an opposition for his supporters to direct their vitriol against.
As Real’s chairman Florentino Pérez once said, “If Barcelona didn’t exist, we would have to invent them.” Franco was not in fact a fan of football. But he did recognise the impact of the sport on the mood of the nation.
The rivalry between the two teams has remained bitter since Franco’s death in 1975. When Luís Figo was sold by Barcelona to Madrid for a then world-record fee of €60 million in 2002, the former fan-favourite was transformed overnight into an avaricious traitor.
In the following season’s El Clásico at the Camp Nou, Figo was pelted with detritus from the fans above as he stepped up to take a corner. The most memorable of the missiles launched towards him was a severed pig’s head.
Barcelona struggled for success during the 1960s. When Johann Cruyff signed for the club in 1973, he won instant adoration from Los Culés by declaring that he chose the Catalan club over Real as he could never play for a club associated with Franco.
When his son was born the next year, he named him Jordi, after the patron saint of Catalunya. The name was illegal in Spain, but Jordi’s birth was registered in Holland.
In Cruyff’s first season at the club, Barcelona won La Liga for the first time since 1960. His legend was secured. Cruyff went on to both play for and coach the Catalan national team.
Cruyff’s legacy at FC Barcelona lived beyond his successes as both a player and later coach at the club. The ‘tiki-taka’ style of play that Barça have become famous for evolved from the total football introduced to the team by Cruyff and his former coach Rinus Michels.
Barcelona’s exalted La Masia youth academy was developed from Cruyff’s proposal to former club president Josep Lluis Nunez in 1979. Barça have retained a strong connection with Dutch football through the appointments of Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard as coaches and the signing of 19 players from the Netherlands to date, including Ronald Koeman, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars.
With its popularity growing and its revenue alongside it, FC Barcelona’s recent success shows little sign of stalling. The main threat to the club’s future fortunes may be the growing possibility of an independent Catalan state.
The prospect of a Catalan league and national team independent of Spain is a real one. For Barcelona, football really is more than just a game.