The importance of Catalonia – past and present – to Spanish football

The importance of Catalonia – past and present – to Spanish football

BEFORE FORMER SPANISH NATIONAL TEAM COACH LUIS ARAGONÉS noticed that his team could pass the ball faster than any player could run with or without it, Spain were far from a source of national pride. They had lots of individual talent but little in terms of cohesiveness, lacking what my grandfather would call ‘moral fibre’.

Vicente Del Bosque picked up the mantle laid down by Aragonés and helped reinvent the national team in 2008 to claim victory in the European Championships. This lack of identity prior to the championship success could also have been found nationally during the post-Franco years that left many citizens of the newly-democratic Spain in a daze looking for something to relate to again after years of being told what to do, feel and be.

Spain never sent you into a hazy nostalgia of names and games gone by. When a person utters Brazil, you can instantly reel off a list of players from Pelé to Neymar, all of whom revelled in the Brazilian-style Jogo Bonito, which was perfected in the favelas and on the beaches. In contrast, the mention of Italy can induce themes of passion, concentration, aggression and intelligence. Names like Sacchi, Lippi and Trapattoni all learned from the approach of Catenaccio, which was the basis for Serie A’s domination of Europe in the 1990s. When England is mentioned, a collective groan fuelled by underachievement and disappointment can be heard.

The point is, when one thinks of Spain they think of the modern day heroes whose style is solidly built upon a foundation not created, and some would say not even perfected, in Spain. During the 1980s, Real Madrid’s Quinta Del Buitre created a domestically superior team suited to attacking football that would eventually evolve into Los Galácticos, but the lack of a solid midfield base and any real cohesion meant it was unsuccessful when replicated on the international stage.

Once the 21st-century Spanish national team got into gear, they wrote themselves into legend with three consecutive major trophies, jaw-droppingly beautiful football and a group of players who shall live on through the wonderful memories they have created. However, an autonomous region – or nation depending on who you are speaking to – would claim at least half of this era-defining team belongs to them, as well as the footballing philosophy that team was and is based on. That region is Catalonia.

A proud Catalan and possibly the most important member of that Spanish team, Xavi told a group of reporters as recently as December 2016 that “the Catalan national team would be among the best 10 or 15 sides in the world”. It’s enough to make one wonder; what is the philosophy of Catalan football? And how has it influenced the makeup of Spanish football’s image globally?

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When discussing Catalan football, the logical place to start would be the national team itself. As neither FIFA nor UEFA recognise Catalonia as a nation, they exclusively play friendlies alongside the occasional game against another autonomous region of Spain, the Basque Country, whom Catalonia have only beaten once in 13 attempts.

Without any real competition to play against, the Catalan national team itself is not a satisfying place of pilgrimage when searching for answers regarding the philosophy and great players of Catalonia. Although there are many teams in Catalonia rich in pride and history, there is only one team whose influence is felt across not only the region and country but across the whole world, and has been reverberating on some frequency since the 1920s.

FC Barcelona is the greatest club in Catalonia’s history. It’s a fair criticism to say they have lost their way recently, however, prioritising money above the legions of fans and their own philosophy, but they are far from the only guilty party. Although not the first team to have been formed in Catalonia – an honour that goes to Palamós who won the race in 1898 – they were certainly the first team in Catalonia to produce superstars. They are also half of one of football’s greatest rivalries, El Clásico, which exemplifies how competition can be a catalyst for greatness, as well as how politics is never far away when looking into Catalonia and Spain’s footballing history.

One of the first men to play for both the all white of Madrid and La Blaugrana of Barça is a man whose influence on Spanish football is still felt today. Ricardo Zamora was a charismatic and stocky goalkeeper who took to wearing a flat cap and white polo neck jumper. This look was often copied by his peers, which enhanced his status as a celebrity of the times, so much so that in 1934 when President Niceto Zamora was sworn in, Joseph Stalin is said to have commented to his messenger: “This President Zamora, wasn’t he a famous goalkeeper?”

If any more proof of Zamora’s stardom was needed, then the fact he has the award for most clean sheets named after him puts him on a pedestal no other goalkeeper in Spanish history can match. This is the first of many moments in which Catalan players have influenced the Spanish game. When you take into account the physicality in the 1920s, the all-out attacking formations and heavy ball, then you realise how much more difficult the goalkeeper’s job was back then, making Zamora’s feats all the more impressive. On top of that, he also allegedly smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and had a penchant for cognac.

Another star from the 20s for Barcelona was Josep Samitier. A midfield general the home fans called El Mago (The Magician), he made his debut at 17 and by 25 was the star of the team and the highest-paid player in the country. He also enjoyed a drink and a night out, much to the dissatisfaction of the board, and was never afraid to voice his admiration of General Franco.

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However, on the field, Samitier was something of a revolutionary. He was one of the first midfielders to play the ball out from the back, adopting a hybrid of the sweeper role and the pivote that was so essential to Samitier’s namesake Pep Guardiola as a player and manager.

The time of Samitier was also the time of Pichichi, whose Athletic Club were the team to beat. Their philosophy was, effectively, lumping it up to the big men. They were big, strong and couldn’t be bullied. Formations were of defence and attack with little in between, so Samitier’s foray into the middle to link the two was huge in terms of the evolution of the game. It would re-emerge in Catalonia and on the international stage years later, with fellow Catalans Guardiola, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and the Basque Xabi Alonso all playing the part in their own image with largely unparalleled levels of success.

When Samitier died in 1972 Catalonia felt the loss of one of their own, which was ironic considering his political ideologies, and the fact he had left Barcelona at the end of his career for Real Madrid where he joined his old friend Zamora. Nevertheless, he played 454 games and scored 333 goals for Barcelona  – not bad for a pivote – over a 13-year spell which included five Copa del Reys, 12 Catalan Championships and the first ever La Liga title

During the time of Zamora and Samitier, the rivalry of El Clásico didn’t exist. A national league was only introduced toward the end of their careers, and Barcelona had other teams in Catalonia to worry about like Espanyol and the Catalan champions of the 1928/29 season, CE Europa.

Once the Spanish Civil War had come and gone, the Catalan people had a different enemy. Franco’s oppression of their traditions and identity was so extreme you could be arrested for merely airing a word in Catalan, and once El Generalísimo had decided to throw his support behind Real Madrid to gain popularity, an added spice would be present at every game between the two clubs. Two games during Franco’s dictatorial regime would intensify this rivalry helping to mould it into what it is today.

The 1968 Copa del Generalísimo final between Barcelona and Real Madrid was played out at the Santiago Bernabéu, and became known as the ‘Bottles Final’. After Real Madrid fans exorcised their frustrations at the performance of the referee Antonio Rigó, the physicality of the game and the end result by barraging the players with glass bottles, the material was banned in container form from Spanish stadia.

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The match ended 1-0 to Barcelona after a 21st-minute own goal from centre-back Fernando Zunzunegui, but the controversy surrounded two penalty appeals from Madrid that Rigó dismissed. The amount of on-field fighting and over-the-line tackles were so bad that Barça winger Carles Rexach later opined that “these days it would have finished eight a side”. The game was postponed to halt the glass throwing, but once the players were back on, an inevitable scuffle occurred near the by-line and the glass came at the players again.

Interestingly, Real Madrid striker Amancio’s remarks on that day were that the glass was flying but without any real consequence. In response to hearing this from well-renowned Spanish football expert Sid Lowe, former Barcelona midfielder Josep Fusté revealed a four-inch scar on his knee to the Guardian journalist.

If the fuse had been lit, the explosion would be felt two years down the line. In the same competition of the 1969/70 season they met again, but this time in the quarter-final. Neither team were doing as well that year and it looked increasingly likely that this would be their only chance of silverware. The stakes had been raised. Real Madrid won the first leg in the capital 2-0 and in the return leg the spotlight would once again be stolen by the referee; this time the accused was Emilio Guruceta.

Rexach had given his side the lead and, to use his words, Barcelona were “absolutely all over them”. Fourteen minutes into the second half and the bomb detonated. Manuel Velázquez was put through on goal, sprinting toward the home team’s penalty area when Joaquim Rifé brought him down. Guruceta pointed to the spot, even though the foul took place “a metre and a half outside the area” according to Real midfielder Ignacio Zoco. Barcelona defender Eladio applauded with sarcasm and was sent off for his trouble.

Once Amancio converted the penalty, the game was over. Some players looked to walk off the pitch in protest with the crowd egging them on to do so. According to Guruceta’s match report, 30,000 cushions were thrown from the crowd out of protest at his decision, scattered across the pitch like rocks in a lava field. After 85 minutes, the match was brought to a premature end. The police reported that 69 seats had been ripped out, 169 more broken, five benches burnt and 11 windows smashed. The Real Madrid players had to be escorted and protected by the Guardia Civil overnight.

For years Catalans had to take the overly-repressive nature of Franco’s regime on the chin without much opportunity to express the justifiable pain it had caused. The intensification of El Clásico gave the people of Catalonia a channel to funnel their emotions and was the main way of expressing their hatred towards the regime. Supporting Barcelona took on a whole new meaning; from then on, politics and football went hand in hand in Spain, and this was never more so on display than when El Clásico took place and all of Catalonia stopped to see if their heroes could vanquish the imperialistic symbols of Franco’s tenure.

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When you think of Spanish football, the battles over the years between these two clubs conjure some of the great moments of La Liga. Current Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez once said: “If FC Barcelona didn’t exist, Real Madrid would have to invent them.”

Once the rivalry hit this level of intensity, the polarisation of the fans and their beliefs deepened. The idea of playing football for joy, hope and beauty stemmed from Barcelona being an escape from the drudgeries of normal life, especially under the dictatorship which did all it could to wipe out the individualism and identity of Catalonia. Players of the past had given Barcelona some semblance of an image, but one man is responsible for how the club and Spain play today.

Johan Cruyff joined Barcelona for a world record fee in 1973 and instantly helped his new club win their first La Liga title in 14 years, as well as being instrumental in a 5-0 destruction of Real at the Bernabéu. His time as manager also brought unprecedented success with four La Liga titles in a row, and most importantly, the European Cup of 1992. Cruyff’s iconic Dream Team brought a style to the Blaugrana that was implemented from the youth setup upwards. Based on the Dutch Total Football ideology, tiki-taka has taken on a life of its own since its inception.

All about possession-orientated tactics, it became the antithesis of Real Madrid’s ideology, which focused on luring the world’s greatest players to don the infamous all-white shirt in the hope of creating phenomenal football. This they did, before Guardiola’s Barcelona changed the landscape of the game forever and overtook the Dream Team in terms of trophies won and amount of fans reduced to tears of sheer emotion.

Domestic and European domination, a batch of players who helped create the spine of the victorious national team, tiki-taka, Guardiola, Cruyff, El Clásico and the history of Catalonia all played a part in forging the current image of Spanish football into the global brand that current manager Julian Lopetegui is leading today.

The relationship between Spain and Catalonia has been a tumultuous one to say the least, and doesn’t look like improving, but La Roja owes a debt of gratitude to the autonomous region. Maybe one day when Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué are presidents of their respective clubs and are reminiscing of a time when transfer fees were solely in the millions, they will recognise the country’s and the region’s special relationship as the spark for so much entertainment and some outstandingly breathtaking moments. Isn’t that what football is all about?

By Tom Johnson  

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