DAVID SHONFIELD: Derby night divides Catalonia

Barcelona and Lionel Messi are again the centre of admiration in the football world and rightly so.

Player of the Year awards are overvalued, but the way the Barcelona attack has reinvented itself three times over the course of a decade is unique in modern football, and Messi has been at the heart of it, changing his role each time and each time emerging as the catalyst.

Forget Maradona and Pele. 

You have to go right back to the 1950s, to Real Madrid and Alfredo Di Stefano, to find something similar.

Di Stefano was even more adaptable than Messi — he could have had a successful career in almost any position. But club football was far less competitive back then.

Where the rest of the world parts company with the Barcelonistas, however, is over their claim to be uniquely special: Mes que un club — More than a club — as their motto has it.

In fairness, this is partly about history.

The city of Barcelona played a central role in the Spanish Civil War, and was a thorn in the side of the Franco regime.

Barcelona was a storm centre of rebellion as long ago as 1919, when a general strike won the eight-hour day, and its people are aware of their heritage much like the people of Liverpool, Glasgow and Turin (and indeed Cork).

The club was shut down for six months during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, when the government attempted to destroy the Catalan separatist movement. 

There are faint echoes of that even today, even though Catalonia enjoys a great deal of autonomy, with the government in Madrid determined to deny the Catalans a referendum to decide their future.

The constitutional crisis has deepened since the elections in the autumn, when pro-independence parties won a majority of seats — though not of votes — in a record turn-out.

Tensions have increased, and last week it looked as if divisions among the pro-independence forces would force a new election.

Then on Sunday night, a new ‘unity’ president of the Catalan parliament was installed, which was hailed immediately by a Tweet from the football club: “May success accompany you in this historic and exciting stage initiated today by our country, Catalonia”.

It hasn’t gone down well in Madrid.

There is no doubt the club has played a role in the separatist movement. 

Popular figures such as Pep Guardiola have nailed their colours to the independence mast. Supporters groups have mobilised on the streets. 

And the club has rejoiced in its nationalist role, contrasting itself with local rivals Espanyol, whose name and emblem proclaim a loyalty to Madrid and to the monarchy, and which was traditionally associated with Franco’s dictatorship.

In fact, though Barcelona fans don’t like to admit it, their own club also benefited from patronage under the fascist regime, and several of their directors were associated with Franco, even though he naturally favoured Real Madrid.

By coincidence — or maybe not — the latest political crisis has coincided with heightened conflict between the two clubs, both on and off the pitch. 

Ten days ago they played out a tetchy 0-0 draw (5-3 on bookings), after which Espanyol fans were accused of racism against Neymar (those monkey noises which still besmirch La Liga) and abusive chants about their rivals (“Barcelona puta!”).

Last Wednesday they met in a cup tie at Camp Nou. 

It was the night of Los Reyes Magos (Epiphany) when good children receive their Christmas presents, but peace on earth was the last thing on anyone’s mind, with nine yellow cards and two reds.

Tomorrow night is the second leg — Barcelona are 4-1 up — with Luis Suarez banned for comments and the football authorities launching an investigation over the racism allegations.

Players from both clubs have belatedly tried to calm things down. Among them Andres Iniesta, who has an unique status among the Espanyol fans for honouring the memory of his friend Dani Jarque, the former Espanyol captain.

That sort of diplomacy has been in short supply. Perhaps it helps Iniesta is not a Catalan, but a man from La Mancha. 

He is also a Barcelona great. 

Sadly never footballer of the year.


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