Political Football Clubs Part Three: The Separatists

Political Football Clubs Part Three: The Separatists

As part 1 and part 2 of The Football Faculty’s series on political football clubs explained, there are a number of sides who display political identities that can be categorised under the traditional labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’.

A form of football politicism that doesn’t easily fit into either of these camps, though, comes in the shape of the sport’s ability to act as a vehicle for separatist sentiment in regions with strong independence or regionalist movements.

For the avoidance of any doubt, separatism is as it says it is; it is an entity, organisation or state’s pursuit to be separate and independent from something it is already part of. This isn’t something that is by any means exclusive to football. The vast changes being felt in the western world are just that: the UK’s excruciating attempts to leave the European Union (Brexit) and the advent in the US of the protectionist demagogue, Donald Trump, are both national forms of political separatism.

While by no means supported or governed exclusively by separatist leaders, the clubs mentioned in this article have all had ties to wider independence or regionalist movements of some description.

Barcelona

In October 2017, Barça found themselves in the centre of a political storm. Due to play Las Palmas in a La Liga game, Barça players, such as Gerard Piqué, had earlier voted in a referendum on independence called by the Catalan government, a referendum declared illegal by the wider Spanish government. Voting still went ahead (the Spanish government authorities only managed to prevent 79 of 2,315 polling stations from opening on the day) and Barça chose to play against Las Palmas behind closed doors as a form of protest. The match likely would have been postponed outright had the league not threatened an automatic 0-3 walkover defeat and a three point penalty. Despite ‘winning’ 90% of the vote on the day, the Catalan ‘coup’ eventually failed.

Having once refused to take on a shirt sponsorship, but now beholden to their more recent big-money deals with Qatar and Rakuten, Barcelona’s growth as a colossal global brand has probably cost it any ‘leftist’ credentials that may once have been projected upon it (despite remaining supporter-owned). However, as is suggested by its motto ‘Més que un club’ (‘more than a club’), it remains intrinsically political through its existence as a symbol of Catalan identity and resulting links to the Catalonian separatist movement.

Barça’s ties with Catalonian nationalism are historical and well-documented. It installed Catalan as its ‘official language’ around the time of the First World War, and the assassination of club president Josep Sunyol, a strongly pro-independence figure, was a key moment in the Spanish Civil War during which time the Camp Nou was considered a rare safe space for the Catalan language.

More recently, Barça broke its long-standing insistence on public neutrality with regards to Catalan independence by releasing a statement implying support for a legal referendum on the issue in 2017 which never came to pass. It later shut its stadium’s doors on the day of a match against Las Palmas in light of ongoing clashes between protestors and police related to the illegal vote that came out in favour of independence.

Athletic Club Bilbao

True to itself, or discriminatory? Since 1912, Bilbao have had an unofficial rule of only employing individuals born or who come through a youth academy in the small Basque region of northern Spain.

Staying in Spain, and though lacking an association to a genuine independence movement similar to that possessed by Barça, Athletic Club Bilbao’s commitment to a Basque identity also makes them noteworthy above the normal regionalist or city-based pride expressed by supporters of clubs around the world.

To this day, Los Rojoblancos retain a policy of only employing footballers from the Basque region. It’s a stance that is supported by the club’s fanbase, 76% of whom once said they would prefer to be relegated from La Liga for the first time in their history than change their eligibility rules in an El Mundo poll. This policy implies a resistance to homogenous Spanish nationalism, with their matches against Real Madrid, who are widely viewed as emblematic of the Spanish establishment, known as ‘The other Classico’ next to the one Real play against Barcelona. In contrast to Barça’s now happily global brand, though, the actively regionalist running of the club also amounts to a footballing form of anti-globalisation that opposes the modern day big-money importation of international superstars to wealthy European teams.

Glasgow Celtic

Celtic fans displaying ‘Yes’ placards during the Scottish referendum in 2014. The United Kingdom; the union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, was rocked when Scotland tried to break off unilaterally and go-it-alone in 2014. Unsurprisingly, during campaigning, Rangers fans displayed signs saying ‘Vote No’. Scotland eventually voted to stay in the UK with 55% of the electorate voting to remain, although recent political turbulence and the surge of the Scottish Nationalist Party suggest this is an issue that is long from being put to rest.

While their self-described “anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-sectarian” tendencies earned them a place in our overview of leftist clubs, Glasgow Celtic’s association with the move for Scottish independence from the UK as well as Irish Republicanism merits them a mention in this part of our series, too.

Indeed, one of those forms of nationalism has somewhat begotten the other, as the Irish Republicanism historically voiced by Celtic fans stemming from the club’s Irish emigrant origins carries with it an anti-English sentiment that has made it fertile ground for pro-independence voices.

Though hampered slightly by a suspicion towards the Scottish Nationalist Party and its tough stance on public order, reports at the time of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum suggested Celtic fans were more likely than average to vote ‘Yes’. This was reflected by the contingent of around 1,000 fans who held up placards in the 18th minute of a match against Dundee United pointing towards the 18th September vote.

This isn’t to say that Celtic were alone in having segments of support in favour of independence, though; Hibernian fans also displayed ‘Yes’ flags around the time of the referendum and were known to sing ‘Flower of Scotland’ during games to voice support for the move. Hibs’ city rivals Heart of Midlothian, meanwhile, were embroiled in controversy after the club alleged pro-independence campaigners of “hijacking” the club’s logo after it appeared without permission on literature passed around at a 2014 Edinburgh derby.

Sporting Club de Bastia

The mountainous island of Corsica finds itself in a geographically unique situation. Nestled neatly between France, Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain, the island is part of France and its citizens French, but much of its history has seen it more culturally tied to the Republic of Genoa and the Italian language. Naturally, there are calls for the island to gain independence from France, and Bastia have come to represent Corsican nationalism.

Perhaps lesser known to British football fans will be Sporting Club de Bastia, a French club who are often viewed as the footballing representatives of Corsican nationalism and the accompanying pro-independence movement in Italy.

The most successful team on the island despite a recent downturn in fortunes, Bastia’s crest features the Corsican ‘Moor’s head’ symbol and the club have a historical link with the nationalist militant group Fronte di Librazione Naziunale Corsu (FLNC). Charles Pieri, the group’s leader during the late 90s and early 2000s, would regularly arrive at the club’s stadium by convoy before taking his place in the presidential box despite never officially being on the club’s payroll.

The Fronte di Librazione Naziunale Corsu (FLNC)

A member of the FLNC was alleged to have been blackmailing a holiday company into sponsoring the club in 2005, with a bombing campaign which targeted a number of their offices around Corsica and France suspiciously ceasing as soon as money was handed over. Back in 2002, Bastia reached the final of the Coup de France at which its supporters booed Le Marseillaise as it was played over the Stade de France’s PA system, signalling their distaste for mainland French patriotism.

And finally… 

A final aspect of footballing separatism worth noting in this discussion – albeit one that strays slightly from our focus in this series of football ‘clubs’ – is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA).

Made up of non-FIFA recognised members including Cornwall, Yorkshire, the Donetsk People’s Republic, Romani People, Quebec and Tibet, CONIFA offers a space for groups which hold an identity beyond that of FIFA’s preference for nation states to be represented on an international level. The CONIFA World Football Cup and European Football Cup are currently contested on alternate years with African, American, Asian, Oceania and World Women’s Cups all planned for inauguration by 2021. The existence of the body serves as a reminder that the fluid and subjective nature of nationalism, regionalism and identity politics as a whole is no different where football is concerned.

BY TOM GUERRIERO-DAVIES AND MIKE BUTLER