How the outspoken Joan Laporta lit a fire under Catalan pride and Barcelona

How the outspoken Joan Laporta lit a fire under Catalan pride and Barcelona

Barcelona, a vibrant, modern city on the north-east coast of Spain, is the capital city of the community of Catalonia, a region with the qualities to be a fitting location in a George R. R. Martin novel. The Montaña de Pedraforca sits proudly in the north of the province, overlooking the mighty history that has unfolded and unique culture that has blossomed south of the foothills.

The region of Catalonia is currently one of 17 comunidades autónomas that make up the country of Spain as an amalgamated, modern whole – but it hasn’t always been so. Go back to the 15th century and Catalonia belonged to the Crown of Aragon; southern Italy and the Sicilian Islands along with Catalonia were united under a separate monarchy to that of the Iberian Peninsula. Jump forward 200 years to when Catalonia falls and you find yourself linked with arguably the region’s most popular facet of its modern culture: football. 

Watch any FC Barcelona game at the Camp Nou and around the 17th minute turn the volume up. At exactly 14 seconds in, Blaugrana fans will begin to chant the way they always do: “In – inde – independència!” The calls for Catalan Independence – the idea that Catalonia should become a nation-state separate to that of the rest of Spain – from some quarters makes reference to the loss of Catalonia to the king of Spain, Felipe V, in the year 1714. For many people, the identity of what it means to be from Catalonia is expressed in its football club. Barcelona is, for many, the heartbeat of Catalan sentiment. 

The club’s inception in 1899 by Swiss businessman Hans-Max Gamper brought with it a pride to the city. However, such pride was short-lived as Francisco Franco turned Spain into a military dictatorship that was to last over three decades. The second of its kind in less than a decade, the Spanish Republic would serve as the eight-year-long punctuation mark in between Primo de Rivera and El Caudillo.

In 1939, Franco stood alongside Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler after the help of the German allowed for a victory for the falange in the war that gave rise to the Spanish nationalist regime. Driven by centralism, xenophobic censorship was implemented; the regional languages of Spain were deemed illegal along with any symbolism that didn’t depict the fascist version of the country that now existed.

Read  |  The story of Real Madrid and the Franco regime

As a result, for over 40 years Barcelona’s homes of Les Corts and subsequently the Camp Nou acted as safe-houses for the people of Catalonia. Despite the crushing regime, a certain degree of expression of Catalanismo was shown within the walls of the stadium. Indeed, shouting for the football club became shouting for Catalonia. Football Club Barcelona became Club de Fútbol Barcelona, yet the people still stood by their team. 

Good things come to those who wait and the culés waited until the mid to late 20th century until they got back what they deserved. The year 1975 came and went. With it, Franco departed. Barça was Barça again; the Senyera was back on the flagpoles in the stadium and Catalonia could sing once more.

Joan Laporta used to work as a lawyer before he decided to run for president of Barcelona a few years after the turn of the 21st century. Before that, he was a member of the short-lived Partit per la Independència, a political party in Catalonia that for the three years of its existence campaigned for the “old” ways of life – independence for a region that was now home to a stagnating football club.

The previous president, Joan Gaspart, had only been there three years himself, but they were far from golden: Luís Figo had left, money was spent aimlessly, and the club languished in €230m of debt amid allegations of corruption. Meanwhile, 600km away, Madrid didn’t even laugh. Why would they? They were too busy showing off their shiny new superstars.

After substandard results and their not-so-noisy neighbours looking to embark on world domination, the Barça fans grew tired. Little did they know but social change was just around the corner, and both themselves and the club were about to embark on a flag-bearer tour as well. 

At the start of the electoral campaign, Laporta was widely acknowledged as the outsider in the pack of six who stepped up after Gaspart admitted defeat and abdicated from his role as president. However, in a sensational turn of events, the ex-lawyer soon found himself neck and neck with the original favourite for the role, Lluís Bassat.

Read  |  Building and destroying a legacy: Luís Figo at Barcelona

In a shrewd move put together by his young, slick team of businessmen, Laporta vowed to rekindle the Catalan values of the club and bring in Manchester United midfielder David Beckham, a world-class signing for a team that fully deserved to eat at the top table. He accomplished one of those things, and with it, brought the club to new heights. Beckham, in the end, wasn’t needed and duly signed for Real Madrid.

With over 27,000 votes, accounting for 52 percent of the total, Laporta broke the record for the presidential candidate with the most votes in the club’s history. In his first press conference – given in Catalan not Spanish – the new president vowed “to return the club to the top of world football” and, crucially, “use the club as an instrument to project the image of Catalonia to the world.”

Barcelona would once again become a superclub, achieved with a conscious decision to reconnect with its roots and present Catalan morals and values at the heart of every move.

The language of Catalonia is a statement in its own right; its usage carries innate and unshakable nuances of identity separate to that of the rest of Spain. Laporta certainly believed so. As if the president saying that “[the independence of Catalonia] is a necessity” was not enough, he made the remark in Catalan. The direction in which Laporta was taking the club from that moment on was glaringly obvious. 

Foreign players subsequently had it in their contracts that they would go to Catalan lessons. Samuel Eto’o was once criticised for responding in Spanish to a Catalan journalist after a match against Rac