Celtic’s love affair with Barca endures

The images of a heaving Celtic Park on Wednesday night as coach Neil Lennon, players and 60,000 fans celebrated the famous Champions League over Barcelona on the club’s 125th anniversary night will long be remembered, but one of the week’s most striking photos was that of Barca stars Xavi Hernández, Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta posing with Celtic’s 125-year anniversary kit.

Celtic’s love affair with Barca endures

This photo symbolised the close bonds between the two clubs, which have developed over eight meetings in the last decade and was further strengthened this week. A city-centre ‘Fanzone’ was organised for supporters to mingle pre-game and enjoy music from Scottish trad band The Amadans and Catalan folk-pop outfit Els Amics de les Arts, while a Barca executive delegation attended a mass to commemorate Celtic’s anniversary on Tuesday afternoon. Blaugrana fans also played their part in the game’s emotional atmosphere, with many joining in the singing of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ inside the stadium.

On Thursday, Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell thanked the Catalan visitors for helping make the week so memorable.

“We are delighted that FC Barcelona have become our true friends,” Lawwell said. “We are very grateful that Barca directors and players have been part of our 125th anniversary celebrations. It was very poignant that two football clubs with such a similar ethos came together to mark these events. It is something which will live long in the memory.”

Such talk of a “similar ethos” is especially meaningful at present, with Scottish and Catalan independence hot topics in both countries. These political issues were even formally discussed during an academic conference at Glasgow University on Wednesday, which included a talk by Barca vice-president Carles Vilarrubí on the club’s historical and cultural links with Catalonia, and a debate chaired by Madrid-born author Jimmy Burns, author of ‘Barca: A People’s Passion’.

“The sessions were well attended with full houses,” Burns told the Irish Examiner. “A lot of the people there were local students and some were Celtic fans. The people organising the event on the Barca side are very into Catalan identity and nationalism. If you are a Celtic fan the identity stuff depends where you stand on Scottish independence.”

Burns pointed out that while “there is a lot of mutual respect due to their shared history of struggle”, the two clubs have grown within quite different environments. Barca have seen Madrid as the source of its problems, while Celtic’s oppressors were found closer to home and the club has historically looked across the sea for a positive sense of identity. Its founder — Ballymote-born Marist Brother Walfrid — was fondly remembered this week, while Lawwell has talked before about leaving the Scottish league behind.

Barcelona have been, outwardly at least, more keen to embrace the idea of Catalan independence, which has surged recently, helped by the economic crisis sweeping Spain.

Former coach Josep Guardiola is a confirmed supporter of a new Catalan state, and the Camp Nou crowd has loudly chanted their support for independence during recent games.

While Barca fans might enjoy leaving Spain behind, independence would raise some tricky issues. Barca president Sandro Rosell has argued that his club, which needs the TV money generated by the intense rivalry with Real Madrid, will remain in La Liga come what may. This decision may not be his to make, according to Burns, who feels blinkered politicians in both Madrid and Barcelona are losing control of the situation.

“It’s difficult to know what’d happen to Barca were Catalonia to become independent,” he says. “They’d be in deep water financially if they were forced to leave the Spanish league and play in a Catalan league against clubs from the Costa Brava. I suspect the powers that be would organise things to ensure the rivalry with Madrid continues.”

The likelihood of Catalan independence should become clearer after elections on November 25, while the Scottish independence referendum will not take place until autumn 2014. These votes were surely discussed this week while club directors met at mass or for dinner, but fans at the game (or the city centre céili) were more likely to be speaking the international language of football.

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