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Where to now? Political identity in modern football

“Barça is a global club. But the world is a big place, and right now we are occupying very little space” spoke Barcelona President Josep Bartomeu at a press conference on Times Square in New York. For the former Nike chairperson turned Barcelona front man, this was a historic moment in capital. Under his guidance and leadership, the Catalonian giants would be placed on a global stage, no longer confined to the boundaries of their Catalan homeland, as he hoped to turn the club into the first football team in the world to generate a £1Billion turnover.

The Empire State Building was painted red and blue as Ronaldinho greeted local kids at a secondary school in the Bronx. This was not just a statement from Barcelona, but a fork laid, as the famed political arena of the Camp Nou braced for the world stage.

Flash forward to 2018 and Barcelona is a club on the brink. On paper things could not be stronger, as they sit ten points clear of second placed Atletico Madrid, and hold an away goal advantage over Chelsea in the Champions League, yet what is presented is merely a polished overview. As Barcelona reach for the global stage once more, the concrete of the foundations cracks and divides heading into the next phase of the global project.

Historically, Barcelona has always been a safe haven for the Catalonian independence movement. During the Spanish Civil War the President of Barca and deputy leader of the independence movement, Josep Sunyol, was executed under General Franco. Under Franco the Catalonian language was banned, with the Camp Nou becoming a safe haven for the people for cultural practice. FC Barcelona was and still is the lynchpin of the Catalonian cause.

In 2017, as riots took the streets with the Independence referendum in Catalonia, the club once more reached out under the yellow and red dreams of self determination. Barca player and World Cup winner Gerard Pique, devout Catalonia supporter, tearfully threatened to quit the national team because of the conditions the referendum was held in. Last week Manchester City manager and former Barcelona head coach Pep Guardiola was threatened with fines from the FA for use of political symbols in relation to a Catalonian pin.

With these prevailing sense of nationalism and color comes the price. What has been described as the ‘Madridification’ of Barcelona with a rush of blood and transfer fees, commercial ventures and product placement. During a league game against Las Palmas in October 2017, which was played behind closed doors against the troubles outside, the club once more committed to Catalonian independence as stated over the club’s PR system. Coming in tow was the worry: for every call and color cast, what would come of the markets? Would potential investors see the club as a focal point of insurrection, and thus deter investment?

This is not confined to Barcelona. Across European football the crossroads of politics and sport have interjected, and the foundations are unsteady.

In the English Premiership, home to the £5.1Billion TV deal, clubs such as Liverpool are faced with an equal dilemma. The five time European Champions have been forever nestled in the socialist ethos of the city of Liverpool;

“The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life”

These words of famed Liverpool manager Bill Shankly echo still; lifelong supporter of the unions in a city entrenched in the labour cause. In the 1990’s, Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler showed his support for the dockers of Liverpool before a UEFA Cup tie against SK Brann. Before a league tie between Liverpool and Southampton in 2017, a banner of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn floated across the Kop, in a show of support ahead of the General Election.

Against the left has been the movement of financial market and consumerism which has engulfed Barcelona. For Liverpool, this has been more direct under the guise of owners FSG, who proclaimed their ambition to “turn fans into customers” on their website. Fans of the Reds have publicly expressed their dismay at this turn for the club. In February 2016 10,000 Liverpool fans walked out in disgust over the increase in price of tickets during a league tie against Sunderland. For a club so deep-rooted in the working class cause, the alleys of profit are too dark for the socialistic light of Liverpool.

In Scotland a similar debate is undercurrent in the green and white colors of Celtic. A famed political institution, built on the aspirations of the Irish diaspora, Celtic fans and club alike have always been intertwined with the Irish nationalistic sentiment, and the greater republican ethos. Coming with this has been the united cause for an independent Scotland, intertwined with the calls for the self determination to the people of Palestine. During a Champions League tie against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the Green Brigade greeted the opposition with a wall of Palestinian flags. The gesture was met with fines from UEFA, with the Green Brigade countering this motion with a movement of their own, calling:

In response to this petty and politically partisan act by European football’s governing body, we are determined to make a positive contribution to the game and today launch a campaign to #matchthefineforpalestine. We aim to raise £75,000 which will be split equally between Medical Aid Palestine (MAP) and the Lajee Centre, a Palestinian cultural centre in Aida Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. From our members’ experiences as volunteers in Palestine we know the huge importance of both organisations’ work and have developed close contacts with them.”

Similarly, before a Champions League tie against Linfield in July 2017, the Green Brigade greeted their Northern Irish counterparts with a ‘freedom fighter’ banner for the home leg at Parkhead.

Club and identity at Celtic go hand in hand. But for these defiant movements there has been the calls of investment. Spend big to win big. To compete with the best on the European stage, Celtic need to spend big and keep their best, yet to do this the club would have to side step into the world markets. While the Irish audience has propped up and supported the club since 1888, to truly step into the public sphere Celtic have to target the global audience and marketplace, which both Liverpool and Barcelona prod and poke while clutching their ideological scarves.

Overall, nothing is broken. Both Barcelona and Liverpool are eased into the quarterfinals of the Champions League, while Celtic target both a double & a treble domestically. Like the invention of the 4-4-2 and the 4-3-3, football is a forever changing process. What remains are the colors, the passion… somethings can never be eroded.