El Clasico is the most anticipated regular football fixture on the planet. Player Development Project Lead Researcher, James Vaughan was fortunate enough to experience the rivalry himself in early 2017. The legendary Barcelona vs. Real Madrid fixture got James thinking about the history of his adopted home in Catalonia and the way it has shaped FC Barcelona. In this two part article, we follow James’ match-day experience and find out how Catalan and Barcelona history and social construct interlink.

I emerge from the metro in Badal and start the 10-minute pilgrimage to Camp Nou. I walk in a daze, amazed that I have one of the 99,354 tickets for today’s game; another 650 million spectators from 185 countries will tune in and watch El Clasico over the airwaves.

I’ve lived in Barcelona for nine months and watched games at Camp Nou but I never thought I’d experience El Clasico in the flesh, and with good reason. In the months leading up to kick-off tickets sold for thousands of euros. However, this year Barça’s form wavered (the worst start to a season since 2007) and slowly but surely Madrid extended their lead in La Liga, so suddenly with game day looming tickets started appearing online.

I’m walking with a friend who bought his ticket on a re-sale website for almost 350 euros! Somehow I got my ticket for half that price on Barça’s website this morning. Half of 350 euros is still an embarrassing amount to pay for a football match but we justify our extravagance by reminding each other: “It’s the Clasico!”

Outwardly I smile at the reassurance but inwardly I’m empathising with Barça’s founding father Joan Gamper. Establishing the club in 1899, Gamper championed the values of amateur sport but lived through its professionalization, resenting money’s growing influence. It was an influence that shaped Barcelona at the turn of the 20th century and continues to shape our society today… I become lost in thought, brooding on this idea as we continue our walk towards Camp Nou.

According to MARCA (a Spanish sport newspaper with an estimated daily readership of 2.5 million) these clubs have spent over a billion euros on the starting 22 players! The obscene spending reminds me of Barcelona’s indiano families at the time of Joan Gamper. It was a time when families like the Güells wrote blank cheques to commission extravagant houses and the famed modernist masterworks of Gaudí, Domènech and Puig materialised on Passeig de Gràcia. As the city’s extension emerged (Eixample) inequality boomed and Barcelona’s workers were left to endure the cramped, disease-ridden “old city” where life expectancy was as low as 26. Increasing inequality saw social tension soar and Barcelona was nicknamed “the fiery rose”. From these volatile conditions emerged a civil war and eventually a fascist dictatorship.

A recent exhibition – L’1% C’est Moi by Andrea Fraser – at Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the sentiment captured at a recent Woman’s March suggest that gross inequality and fascist rhetoric are re-emerging globally today. L’1% C’est Moi highlights the relationship between increasing art funding and today’s growing worldwide inequality. As financial inequality booms, artistic endeavours receive greater funding. Are footballers the 21st century’s version of the modernist architects? Is Messi the new Gaudí? Are football’s elite benefiting from a growing inequality?

The MARCA report said that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid spent a combined total of 1,049 million euros to compile today’s line-ups. 613.4 million of that one billion was spent by Real Madrid; often nicknamed Royal Madrid for their seemingly inexhaustible wealth. In comparison, MARCA called FC Barcelona’s investment “significantly inferior” and “due to the number of high profile players originating from La Masia”.

I’m reminded of the prominence of La Masia and it’s meaning, “the farmhouse”. It is both the name and subject matter of a Joan Miró masterpiece, the painting that best encapsulates the Catalan culture. It is also the name of the residential building at Barça’s academy – literally an old farmhouse in the time of Johan Cruyff. Today La Masia is synonymous with the learning environment that has developed, housed and refined the curators – players and coaches – of one of Catalonia’s most revered sociocultural artefacts, a dynamic and organic masterpiece: FC Barcelona’s unique style of play. They explain it like this at FCB’s museum.

The features of La Masia are not only prominent in player development ideology they dominate the Catalan architecture in Barcelona’s famed gothic quarter as well. With La Boqueria (the famous farmers’ market) remaining at the heart of the city. The book Barcelona, by Robert Hughes describes that farming metaphors and organic values are captured in what the Catalans call seny – a revered type of natural wisdom. These natural values and organic metaphors are embodied throughout Barcelona’s city, materialising as expanding cycle lanes, green street light innovations, traffic limiting super blocks and the environmentally sustainable Nou Camp Nou (renovations begin this summer). A respect for nature also emerges in many sociocultural historic works, particularly those of (and those influenced by) La Sagrada Família architect Antoni Gaudí, a man who captured what Robert Hughes calls the Catalans’ desire to see themselves as “simultaneously innovative though respectful of their roots”.

In contrast, Madrid’s Spanish history is seen (from Barcelona) as one of colonial privilege, material greed, exploitation and the oppression of its colonies. Columbus Day (October 12th) brought this tension to life as the police presence trebled and antagonists flew the “Spanish” flag through Plaça de Catalunya; a real rarity in Barcelona (see Figure 4 below).

Tensions rose between tour guides too, with the Catalan guides stating their perspective in our WhatsApp (online) chat: “Today marks genocide and the start of Spain’s oppression in the Colonies”. To many Catalans – especially those who fly the Senyera Estelada (the starred flag: symbol of the Catalan independence movement) – Catalonia remains an oppressed Colony fighting for self-determination.

As we continue to walk our talk turns to the game, the teams and even the cities themselves. I struggle to keep my overwhelming Barça bias at bay and my distaste for Real Madrid in check. For me, Real Madrid epitomise so much of what is wrong with the modern game.

As we walk, we talk about the political manoeuvres of Franco in the 1950s and the infamous Di Stéfano affair. Quickly this turns to talk of Florentino Pérez in the early 2000s and the transfer policy that remixed old colonial tactics with quick fix corporate capitalism. We ridicule the outlandish sums of money spent on players like, Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo as we reflect on the Galactico era, a time when Real Madrid broke the world transfer record five times in a row but failed to overthrow Guardiola’s golden generation.

Barça’s intrinsic focus on “development within” stands in stark contrast to the extrinsic focus on buying world famous Galácticos. And while the world is never black and white – Barça do buy players, and Real Madrid do develop home grown players – to me, these approaches illustrate a deep sociocultural-historic divide in values between Madrid and Barcelona and perhaps provide some insight into the different and nuanced city cultures and the mentalities of the people.

As we walk through the neighbourhood alongside Camp Nou I hear chanting on the breeze “Barça…Barça…BARÇA!” I’m suddenly aware of a rumbling mass of humanity, you almost feel the tension before you hear the noise. It’s an experience I used to only associate with football matches, but I’ve sensed it twice walking through Barcelona as the sun rises. Approaching Arc de Triumph (see below) and Barcelona’s courthouse I felt the same mass of people, heard the same chanting and then saw a sea of Senyera Esteladas (see video below).

Thousands of people were camped outside the courthouse protesting the Spanish leaders who have taken Catalan politicians to court for holding an “illegal” independence referendum in November 2014.

In these moments I’m reminded that Barça versus Madrid is entwined with another historic and ongoing rivalry. As Barça legend Carles Rexach explains in the documentary Barça Dreams: “A lot of people I know think that when Barça plays against Real Madrid it is really Catalonia versus Spain, it’s hard to explain, you have to experience it to understand it.”

It’s two hours until kick-off and people are spilling out of the local hole-in-a-wall bar and onto the street (see below). We walk past five police vans – three more than usual – and I attempt to take a picture. As I look down at my phone, heavy military boots enter my peripheral vision. I look up at a man in dark blue overalls wearing a black beret and carrying a semi-automatic gun: “sin fotografía por favor” … no photos please. The policeman’s uniform reminds me of the military conquests of Felip V and Franco, both of which left Barcelona occupied and the Catalan language oppressed – long remembered injustices… We walk off to find a local bar.

There’s an explosion and the bar I’m standing in lights up, the sound is deafening and we stand stunned…I look around for dust and damage but nothing is out of place. Outside the instigators begin chanting “Puta Real Madrid, Puta Real Madrid” (translated to “Real Madrid whores”). Mini explosions from “bangers” (fireworks) become frequent and chants erupt as we nurse our drinks outside the bar; the songs carry an excited but aggressive edge, something I’ve not noticed at other games. My mind wanders from thoughts of military oppression to festive celebration and the minefield that became our local Barri leading up to the festival of Saint Joan on midyears eve.

In the weeks leading up to this festival, kids released bangers with increasing frequency and ferocity. On the eve itself the beaches of Barcelona were ablaze with bonfires and fireworks, it’s far from the seny of natural wisdom, but that’s actually the point. Catalans believe you can’t always be sensible, you need a release from seny – you need rauxa. Robert Hughes explains that “the relief from seny is rauxa; meaning an ‘uncontrollable emotional outburst’. It can apply to any kind of irrational, ecstatic or ritual madness or sometimes just plain dumb activity – getting drunk, screwing around, burning churches, and disrupting the social consensus. The purpose on feast days, like the festival of St Joan and La Mercè – with its inextinguishable fire runners – is to give Rauxa a sanctioned outlet.”

Festivals also provide a space for creative expression.

Perhaps football serves as a similar outlet? I could certainly argue that some football fans, parents and coaches around the world display “unrestrained emotional outbursts”. However, on my visits, Barça’s La Masia has seemed mostly (but not entirely) immune to these obvious outbursts (yelling, screaming, pointing and gesticulating) of controlling behaviour.

The bar we’re in seems to contain a stereotypical football crowd with boisterous men drinking beer. But when I look past my biases I notice that the skinhead at the bar is actually a young woman (below) and the men under the TV are enjoying G&Ts. I glance at their drinks longingly and then begrudgingly back at my beer. We leave, and as we walk towards the stadium the crowd becomes a melting pot of sexes, ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. I’m reminded of my first time on the metro here and the many shapes, sizes, colours, languages, faces, clothing and haircuts of the people.

Founding Catalonia (and the Count-kings of Barcelona around the turn of the first millennia) Willie the Hairy proclaimed that “all are welcome” regardless of social standing, ethnicity or background. Recently this sentiment was reinforced with 160,000 people marching down Via Laietana demanding that Spain take on more refugees, stating “in Catalonia, everything is ready”!

Founded by Gamper – an emigrant from Switzerland – Barça has a strong history of acceptance and integration. The club’s first household name and top goalscorer (pre Messi) was Paulino Alcántara. Alcántara emigrated from the Philippines and debuted for Barça in 1912 as a 15 year old. And Kubala, who is arguably the most significant foreigner in Barça’s history, arrived as child refugee from Hungary to become the club’s first superstar player. My mind drifts to images of pride flags alongside the Catalan flags of independence (below) and I’m reminded self-direction can cultivate universalism, particularly tolerance and acceptance.

The history of Barcelona’s count-kings gives further insight into this trend of acceptance. Unlike their European counterparts, the count-kings of Barcelona ruled by contract, not divine right. It’s said that they pioneered a responsible feudalism and founded a Catalan bill of rights that pre-dates the Magna Carta. The count-kings’ movement towards a more egalitarian society led to an interesting oath of allegiance the people of Catalonia would swear. I memorised it for my walking tour:

“We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to be our kings, our queens and our noble lords, providing that you maintain our laws, our liberties and our freedoms, but if not…not”.

But if not, not… is a vivid reminder that if the nobles didn’t look after the people and their interests the oath became meaningless. And rather than fight for the nobility the people were more likely to rise up against them. The sentiment behind an oath established at the beginning of the 1st millennia came to life at the turn of the 20th century when the people rebelled against a new aristocracy and held Barcelona for a period known as the “tragic week”, 25 July – 2 August 1909.

During this week a major textile factory was closed down and around 800 workers lost their jobs. Locals felt that the government in Madrid and the wealthy Indiano families should have looked after this cornerstone of the economy. In the same week, the government drafted 40,000 Catalan men to fight in the “Bankers War” – a move which sparked a revolt in the city, which rebelled for 6 days.

Anarchy reigned, and many religious sites and symbols were burned – targeted because the people felt the church were out for the interests of the rich families and government rather than Catalans. Arguably, the social tensions which surfaced during “tragic week” still influence the people today.

Protest against injustice (see below) is a common thread weaving its way through the narratives of Barcelona, and nowhere has provided a better platform (or a safer haven for the Catalan language under Franco’s ban) for protest than FC Barcelona’s stadium: Camp Nou. For that story see part 2.

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