Supporting independence movement through sports

LONDON — At Temple Pier in central London, English-accented Spanish and Catalan cheers echo down the Thames every Saturday night. The cheers in question emanate from Bar&Co, where the Penya Blaugrana London, a group of supporters group for the football — known as soccer in the United States — team F.C. Barcelona, gathers to watch matches.

Commonly known as Barça, the team hails from the capital of Catalonia and is one of the most famous soccer clubs in the world. It has inspired similar penyas, or fan groups, in cities around the globe.

In London, the penya reflects the city: It is a combination of immigrants, particularly from Catalonia and British Londoners who fell in love with the team and the culture.

Culturally, then, sport and society are inseparable. But a closer look at the penya’s mission statement reveals subtle ties to politics, too. They set out to promote the team’s values, to include solidarity, democracy and Catalanity (catalanisme), or Catalan national identity. That last one seems unusual to newcomers, but this is commonplace among Barça fans, whose team is historically associated with catalanisme under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship and with the continued Catalan independence movement.

On Catalonia’s national day, Sept. 11, 2012, Londoners rallied in Piccadilly Circus in support of Catalan independence. The crowd included many Barça jerseys, which are often worn as a sign of catalanisme — even abroad. Many Catalans desire independence purely for linguistic and social homogeneity, but the recent surge in separatist sentiment has been spurred in part by the Spanish economic crisis. Similar, if much less dire, economic circumstances in the United Kingdom have influenced renewed calls for Scottish independence, and the two causes have often been allies.

Jerseys as cultural or political expression are a common phenomenon in football, particularly in the United Kingdom, where it is customary to declare allegiance with the hometown team — even in London where the hometown team changes every few blocks because of such distinct and dense neighborhoods — to such an extent that wars have nearly been waged over the subject.

In London, these Iberian disputes may have a slightly muted history, but these issues come into the limelight often in England’s great capital city of immigrants. Solidarity from afar enhances identity in diaspora. This occurs on a large scale, like protests in Piccadilly, but far more often on a small scale, such as when the Penya’s bottles clink as they drink to yet another Barça victory.

Dictatorships may be foreign to London, but the politics of sport are nothing new to the United Kingdom. Most recently, the nation was rocked by the Hillsborough scandal, which exposed a large-scale police and media cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the death of nearly a hundred Liverpool FC fans after a stampede at the 1989 Football Association Challenge Cup. In past years, this event caused English elites to decry football as another manifestation of low-class hooliganism. The revelation of the cover-up has turned the tide, however, empowering everyday Englishmen to demand more transparency from the police.

Hillsborough, and events like it, will continue to link English sport with taint and tragedy; Catalan separatism will always wear Barça colors. It is curious, then, that it is sport which people turn to in times of turbulence. In many ways, it is the one thing that stays the same. Football fans are fond of quoting Eduardo Galeano on the subject: “In his life, a man can change wives, political parties or religions, but he cannot change his favorite football team.” Likewise, as Catalan Londoners testify, a person can change addresses, jobs and countries, but he or she cannot change jerseys.

Catherine Addington is a foreign correspondent. Email her at [email protected].

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