Football and Politics Do Mix… in Spain, At Least

Spain has a magnificently rich modern history – one of dictatorship, extreme swings to either end of the political spectrum and division. A country whose climate differs from one end of the country the another much like it’s political opinion. From the warm southern areas of Andalusia, to the tepid temperatures of the Asturias in the north the opinions toward the government seem to reflect the climate. A unique country, especially in Europe, Spain is Estado de las Autonomías or a State of Autonomies – a decentralised state, whose different regions have separate governments. It is the only country in Western Europe that boasts separate governments. 17 separate governments in fact. All of which cover the political landscape. Being split into many separate entities means that not every ‘state’ is in support of the government.

Sevilla vs. Real Betis

Sevilla vs. Real Betis

As far back as the birth of football in Espana during the late 1800’s up until the present day, football has served as a political sound board to the masses. Foot-ball became a release for working class, given to them by English imports bought to the shores of Spain by sea, steel and coal. With haste the middle class adopted football as a form of entertainment. During this time the chasm between the two classes were huge and as such, the earliest rivalries were formed. This fairly simplistic rivalry gave birth to one of the biggest Clasico in Spain – Real Betis vs. Sevilla. Betis representing their working class roots, whom broke away from the early Seville Foot-Ball Club. Sevilla, the middle classes.

But at this point, the complexity of Spanish football becomes much deeper. Fast-forward 30 years to the birth of professional and the powerhouses of the league made their home at the very north. Athletic Club Bilbao and the Basque region dominated the early proceedings of an infantile Primera Liga, winning the first four Championships. 10 years earlier Spain had gone on to win silver in the 1920 Olympic Games, somewhat contentiously, with a squad dominated by Basques. The men from the North had previously been excluded by the fledgling RFEF. During the tournament the Basques voted against Spaniards from any other region being in the squad. Nearly 100 years on Basque influence on the squad remains, and pragmatism from the autonomy towards the government also lives on.

Carles Puyol Parades an Ikurrina next to Senyera

Carles Puyol Parades an Ikurrina next to Senyera

The relationship between the Basque Country and Catalonia has a heart-warming, child-like feel to it. Two separate autonomies who have a common cause, and have not been afraid to demonstrate their opinions towards the state as recently as 2015. During the Super Copa de Espana and Copa Del Rey finals Athletic Club and Barcelona fans used football as a soundboard to declare their want for Indepencia!. Barça have also been at the forefront of Spanish politics since its inception. During the fall of the Monarchy to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in 1936 the Camp de les Corts, where Barcelona played their early matches, became a stronghold of the opposition and also became a hotbed for Catalan resistance. Culés, the name to which Barcelona fans refer to themselves as, used sport as a way to escape from the political oppression and voice their discontent. Much more than that stadiums like La Camp de les Corts, San Mames & Anoeta became a place where locals could speak their mother tongue. There are over 100 variations of Spanish, with over a quarter of those being recognised as official languages – all of which were banned under the dictatorship of Franco.

Alfredo Di Stefano, 1960.

Alfredo Di Stefano, 1960.

Although the fall over Franco happened over four decades ago, Real Madrid are still seen as the common enemy. Of course, the history of the Clasico doesn’t need repeating, but the Madrid vs. Barcelona rivalry runs to a much deeper level that football. It is Catalonia vs. Castilla, Oppression vs. Freedom, Poor vs. Rich. During the dictatorship, Spain became a centralised state that was ran out of Madrid, as such it has been seen as the enemy ever since. Spaniards were also forced to speak Castilian, the regional dialect of Madrid. Whilst Real have been on the thick end of all manner of abuse since the early 1940’s, it has not been without reason. In the early 1960’s and 70’s it was illegal for any club to register a player unless they were of direct Spanish heritage (think Athletic Club’s Basque only policy) – Madrid were found to have doctored the papers of well over 50 players during this time. Legend also goes that Real Madrid and dictatorship also worked together to secure the signature of Alfredo Di Stefano from the clutches of Barcelona. Since then Real have gone on to become the most successful club in the world, which adds is another factor in why so many clubs love getting one over on them.

Iribar (Bilbao) & Kortabarria parade to Ikurrina in 1976 after the fall of Franco.

Iribar (Bilbao) & Kortabarria parade to Ikurrina in 1976 after the fall of Franco.

With the fall of Franco, an explosion of emotion erupted from Basque region. One of the most iconic pictures in football comes from this region as the Ikurrina – the Basque Flag – was paraded in public for the first time since 1936. The region and surrounding areas of Navarre and Cantabria were bombarded by the regime during the Franco-era. Their resistance to the dictatorship became so strong that they were bombed and then starved to death. San Sebastian and Bilbao, homes of Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, in particular have been metropolitan cities whose freedom for thinking and expression has lead to them being world famous, but not always in the right way and the actions of ETA would demonstrate. Their fierce resistance and committal to upholding their regional identity is to be revered.

In recent times regions such as Galicia have become more vocal with their opposition, especially in the early 2000’s when Deportivo La Coruna were dominating Spain and Europe. Galicia sits on the border of Portugal and is traditionally a region that has based its fortunes on the seas, with shipbuilding and fishing the staple industries. The division between Super Depor and Celta was put on hold to protest about the right-wing government during an oil crisis which saw the inhabitants of La Coruna suffer. Whilst parts of Spain are traditionally more hostile, others are not, which is why the Spanish football team roams the country playing at a host of stadiums. Madrid, Valencia and Seville are places where the Spanish team frequent most regularly due to the unwavering support of the fans who have been described as “mindless flag wavers”. It is no coincidence that these cities were the most well off under Franco. Recently the national team have ventured as far north as Oviedo and Gijon, but have not played in either of San Mames or Camp Nou since 1963 and 1980 respectively.

Spain is a magnificent patchwork quilt of different cultures, traditions and history. Regions dominated by influences from the Romans, Ottoman Empire and Great Britain. A country of different beliefs that differ so much from place to place, town to town that is impossible to reign with a ‘cafe con leche por todos‘ mantra, no one region will be totally satisfied. Independence chants and demonstrations in Catalonia become stronger every year, as in the Basque country too. Whilst so much political tension exists in the country, political opinions will continue to be demonstrated on the biggest stage that the common person has – football.

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Barca and Bilbao don kits to represent their flags as fans call for the independence of Catalonia.

Ben Jarman

Hi I'm Ben. I enjoy writing about football and you can find me on twitter @sonikkicks where I tweet all the latest news and views. Come tweet to me!

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