From Gaudi to Cruyff: FC Barcelona, Catalanism and the pursuit of the modernist ideal.
“Tant se val d'on venim
si del sud o del nord
ara estem d'acord, ara estem d'acord,
una bandera ens agermana.”
“It matters not where we hail from
Whether it's the south or the north
Now we all agree, we all agree,
One flag unites us in brotherhood.”
El Cant del Barca, the FC Barcelona anthem
Mainstream opinion holds that politics and football should always be kept apart. A fundamental that runs from the World Cup downwards is that participants can meet as equals on the field of play without political affairs tainting the simple beauty of sporting competition. The world of art has no such qualms, and indeed the ability to comment on social affairs is often seen as intrinsic to the discipline. To quote Berthold Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” What happens, then, when the line between art and sport is blurred?
If there is one place where art and football meet, it is Barcelona. While FC Barcelona are a global brand, but their heritage and their ideology set them apart from almost any other club on earth. Indeed, it would sound ridiculous to refer to any other club as having ideology, or for any other club to make their motto “Mes que un Club”- More Than A Club - and still maintain a straight face. That Barca get away with it, moreover that they are celebrated for it, speaks loudly to their roots and their club culture. Where other sporting organisation seek to keep politics and sport apart, Barca embrace theirs. They are as central a Catalan culture as the Sagrada Familia or the monks atop Montserrat.
To understand how FC Barcelona came to embody Catalan nationalism, one must first understand what makes Catalan nationalism unique, and to do that, one must first discuss the history of Catalonia. The Pasios Catalansencompass the northeast corner of Spain, from Valencia through Barcelona and up to Perpignan in France. Despite a culture and language that dates back centuries, Catalonia has never been an independent state. The grounds for such a strong nationalism - and the unique nature of it - lie in a mid-19th century movement known as the Renaixença, or Catalan Renaissance.
As with so many seismic cultural movements, the roots of the Renaixençawere economic. Catalonia, particularly its hub in Barcelona, was transformed by the Industrial Revolution and the huge upheaval in lifestyle that went with it. At the same time, the government in Madrid was attempting to centralise and regularise Spain in the model of Revolutionary France. The elite of Barcelona, buoyed by new wealth and harassed by the centre of political power, began to culturally explore the idea of Catalonia as separate from the rest of Spain, prioritising the Catalan language and foregrounding literature and theatre in that language. This romantic nationalism was not unique - it was also seen, for example, in the Gaelic Revival - what followed certainly was.
While the Renaixençacould predominantly be seen as a bourgeois phenomenon, the subsequent Modernismecultural movement was far more egalitarian. Along with the industrialisation in Barcelona had come waves of immigrants from all over Spain. These people spoke Castilian Spanish rather than Catalan and were overwhelmingly proletarian. Thus the new artistic style was created with them in mind, most notably through huge architectural projects for mass consumption such as the Parc Güell in Barcelona and the North train station in Valencia.
These came from a background that fused traditional Catalan styles with Moorish and Gothic styles seen in other parts of Spain, as well as an appreciation for geometry and the balance between nature and industry. The Renaixençahad been about the past, but the Catalan Modernists built an idea of the modern that was urban and bohemian, in which where you were now was more important than where you were from. One did not have to be Catalan, rather Catalanism was an idea that anyone could buy into. It was into this milieu that Football Club Barcelona was born.
Fittingly, FC Barcelona was not founded by a Catalan. Hans Gamper, a Swiss accountant, placed a notice in a newspaper searching for like-minded enthusiasts and was met by a range of locals, British and fellow Swiss who formed the club in November 1899. Taking their blue and red colours from FC Basel, Gamper’s footballing alma mater, they began to compete regularly, winning moderately in their first decade of existence.
It was in the immediate pre-war period that they began to take on aspects of the identity that they still hold to this day. The badge, adopted in 1910 and still in place to this day, featured the Catalan red and yellow senyeraflag alongside the club colours and the cross of St George, representing not only the patron saint of Catalonia but also of England, from whence many of the early players originated. They prioritised the use of Catalan above Spanish. When the Spanish Royal March was jeered by the home ground at a game in 1925, the authorities shut the stadium for half a year and forced Gamper to resign as club president.
The Spanish Civil War, fought between 1936-1939, would ravage the club. Barcelona as a city was at the forefront of the fight against Franco and for the preservation of democracy. Club president Josep Sunyol, was murdered by Falangist fascists in 1936 because of his Catalan nationalist activism, while half of the team claimed asylum abroad while on a tour in 1937. The club offices were destroyed in an air raid, not to mention the thousands of supporters killed in the fighting as Barcelona fell.
When Franco’s forces took control of the city, the backlash against symbols of Catalanism was swift. The senyeraflag was banned, the Catalan language outlawed. Barca were forced to alter their name to the more Castilian Club de Futbol Barcelonaand to remove the Catalan colours from the badge. As the years of fascism wore on, the club became an outlet for nationalists and progressives everywhere. The stadium became one of the few places where the Catalan language could be freely spoken, the Barca colours taking the place of the red and yellow flag of Catalonia.
Barca’s Catalan nationalist credentials were well established, but, like their forebears in the Renaixençaand Modernisme, there would be a second act. As the dark days of dictatorship wore on, the status of the club as an outsider grew and grew, exacerbated in no small part by the actions of their greatest rivals. It seems impossible to talk for this long about Barca without mentioning Real Madrid, but now they must take centre stage.
They had for a long time been seen as the favourites of Franco: their president, Santiago Bernabeu, has fought for the fascist army. Real dominated Spanish and indeed European football, picking up all of the first five European Cups. Thus the tension between the establishment and the centre, represented by Real, and the regions and the outsiders, inhabited by Barca, grew into one of the great rivalries of modern sport.
Real were all powerful for most of the 1950s and 60s, but that would all change in 1973 with the arrival of Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff. It is no understatement to say that Cruyff is to football in Barcelona what Gaudi was to architecture. He signed for Barca while reigning European Footballer of the Year, turning down Madrid in the process, stating that he could never play for a club so closely associated with fascism. He delivered the league championship for the first time since 1960, including a 5-0 victory over Real in their own stadium.
What made Cruyff so special was not so much his prowess on the field - though he was one of the greatest players of all time - but instead his philosophy and personality. He was an iconoclast, utterly uncaring about the views of others and supremely confident in his own abilities. He had built a style of play at Ajax Amsterdam, Total Football, which deconstructed the positions of players on the field and rebuilt them, which manipulated space and angles rather than individual players and which emphasised utilitarianism above individuals. Cruyff was not dubbed “Pythagoras in Boots” for nothing.
When Cruyff became coach in 1988, he embarked on an unprecedented period of success, picking up four consecutive Spanish league titles and the club’s first European Cup, won in 1992. On top of this, he created the Barca style, based on Total Football and known as tiki-taka, and implemented it from the first team downwards, all the way to La Masia, the club’s famed academy. The success that FC Barcelona has enjoyed since 2006 - four European Cups, seven Spanish titles - has been built on a predominantly Catalan side, trained in the ways of Cruyff at La Masia, supplemented by the best talent that money can buy. One can watch Barcelona and know that it is them without seeing the shirts, to “play like Barcelona” a byword for an attacking, possession-based, quick passing style.
The fusion of the Catalan and the cosmopolitan at FC Barcelona stands in the grand tradition of Catalanism since its inception in the late 19th century. The synthesis of politics and tradition, of panache and ingenuity, of mass appeal and cult aesthetic are as true to Gaudi as they are to Cruyff. FC Barcelona see themselves as representing Catalonia on the field and off it, their style a terroir that marks out their place of origin.
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