Harare, Zimbabwe (News of the South)-“We have no other option but to vote,” Josep Guardiola, Barcelona football club’s former captain and coach, now manager of Manchester City, told a Catalan political rally of 40,000 people in June.


FC Barcelona, arguably the world’s most popular sports club and Catalonia’s largest institution, is backing Sunday’s unofficial referendum on Catalan independence. The club says it is neutral on whether Catalans should choose independence. But like Mr Guardiola, it has been vocal about one thing: Catalans should have a right to vote, whereas the Madrid government dismisses the referendum as illegal.


If Catalonia ever becomes independent, then “Barça”, as the club is known, will have played a part. Founded in 1899, Barça has long been the chief symbol of Catalanism: the idea that Catalonia has an identity distinct from Spain. The author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán called Barça “the unarmed army of Catalonia”. Starting in 1919, the club repeatedly supported Catalonia’s claims for a “statute of autonomy”.


In the 1920s, locals waved the club’s blue-and-red flag in nationalist protests against Spain’s dictator General Primo de Rivera. From the late 1960s, as the fascist General Francisco Franco’s rule waned, the banned Catalan flag and language first began to resurface in the club’s Nou Camp stadium. And Barça’s Catalanism has flourished in the more federal post-Franco Spain of the past 40 years.


Most club directors have historically been drawn from Barcelona’s ethnically Catalan bourgeoisie. They usually speak Catalan in board meetings, though the lingua franca of the multinational changing-room is Spanish. This Catalanist tradition underlies the club’s motto, Més que un club, “more than a club”. In fact, Barça has become such a powerful nationalist symbol that many Catalans support it as a kind of emotional surrogate for the state they do not have.


That helps explain the outsized passion the club mobilises. Barça plays in the second city of a midsized European country, and had only ever been champions of Europe once before hitting a purple patch from 2006, yet for decades it has regularly filled Europe’s largest stadium. (The Nou Camp now seats 99,354.) Forbes magazine and Hookit, a company that tracks sponsorship value in digital and social media, calculated last year that Barça had 145m social media followers, the most of any sports club on earth, and more than all teams in the NFL gridiron league of American football combined.


The club’s nationalist dimension has also helped turn Barça’s games against Real Madrid into global football’s most high-profile rivalry. Under Franco, many Barça fans regarded Real Madrid as emissaries of Madrilene central authority. Some hotheads still do. Many Catalans express their nationalism in the Nou Camp on Sundays precisely because they cannot express it through a nation-state. That does not mean that most want a nation-state.


Historically, polls in Catalonia rarely show majority support for independence. For some locals, cheering on Barça seems to be release enough. But lately, the club has helped give prominence to the referendum — both at home and worldwide. In recent weeks, fans in the Nou Camp have chanted, “Let us vote”, and some have sung songs or waved banners for independence. Almost any political statement the club makes — for instance, its rapid condemnation of the arrest of Catalan government officials organising the referendum — leads local TV news.


When the club’s defender Gerard Piqué backs the referendum, or Mr Guardiola urges the international community to support it, people in China who had never heard of Catalonia take notice. Before Barça’s match against Las Palmas on referendum day, the home team will warm up in shirts in the colours of Catalonia’s “Senyera” flag. All this matters because Catalan separatists need not simply to win the referendum.


They also need a high turnout to get Madrid and the world to take their demands seriously, which is why Madrid is doing everything it can to thwart the vote. And if one day Catalonia does gain independence, Barça fans are confident that their club will be allowed to keep playing in the Spanish league. After all, without Barça, not only would the league be left bereft, but so would Real Madrid.-FT


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