UE Sant Andreu first came into this blog’s consciousness during a brief visit to Madrid. The 2nd of 3 Copa Del Rey fixures in 3 consecutive days saw Club Atlético de Madrid compete at home to Sant Andreu, a team dressed in a very brash yellow top with four vertically dissecting red stripes. In the face of the Football club that used to have such close links to the National Air Force during Franco’s reign, the overtly Catalan club’s defiant message was clear. A rampant four nil victory for Atleti didn’t tarnish Sant Andreu’s away following;
this was a chance to demonstrate against Madrid rule in Catalonia right there in the capital.
I don’t think you’ll argue with me when I say that UE Sant Andreu is not one of Barcelona’s better known Football clubs. RCD Espanyol is an extremely popular outfit in the city’s industrial West largely populated by descendants of 20th century economic migrants to Catalonia from the rest of Spain. And, of course, Barcelona’s eponymous club’s global appeal and mega-success draw media attention away from smaller local outfits. However, the truth is that UE Sant Andreu embodies Catalan culture far more honestly than tourist-friendly FCB does.
The subtle nods toward Catalanism begins as soon as you plan your groundhop. The closest metro stop to the Campo de Futbol Narcís Sala is Onze De Setembre, a date that resonates with every proud Catalan. Long before the date became infamous in the Western world in 2001, September the 11th reminds Catalans of the day their region lost its independence to the advancing forces of the House of Bourbon in 1714. As you crawl out of the metro station, yellow and red stripes adorn the fencing and support structures around the stadium in front of you. Catalan flags hang from balconies that look down onto the pitch, while the tribunes inside the ground have been carefully constructed to represent the autonomous community’s flag. And even if you hadn’t quite noticed the subtle references by this stage, those bold yet beautiful jerseys worn by the home team make damn sure to hammer the message home.
This is unquestionably a Football club for proud supporters of Catalan culture.
Such potent and visible demonstrations of Catalan pride in the public arena are very timely right now.
In 2017 Catalonia staged a referendum asking its population if they wished to become independent. Only 42% of the population turned out to vote, yet 90% of those who did voted in favour of independence. Madrid meanwhile deemed the referendum unconstitutional (which it objectively was) and the subsequent declaration of Catalan independence in October 2017 void. Its police were sent in to restrict voter access to the ballots during the election, a move which was met with outrage by people in Catalonia who viewed these actions as repressive. After the dust had settled, Spain stepped in to suspend Catalonia’s self-governance, placing regional leaders under arrest and forcing others into exile. This only served to promote the separatist cause.
Since then local support for Catalan independence has not diminished. Spain has been in political stalemate for years now. The previous two national elections have produced hung parliaments and weak governments, and as 12 of the region’s leaders stand on trial for misusing funds to stage the unconstitutional referendum, Catalans are losing patience with Madrid. Those eager for independence in Catalonia interpret the lack of progress on the issue and the stagnancy of the current central government as proof of Madrid’s lack of care for the wishes of the Catalan people, just as was the case under Franco (which definitely was the case).
On the other side of the coin, we have to acknowledge Madrid’s position in this conflict. Over the course of 45 years since Spain’s transition to democracy, the government has objectively worked to give the region the greater degree of political autonomy that it has historically enjoyed.
As I sip my warm Estrella Damm at half time, a surprisingly cosmopolitan club-song set to a roaring drum’n’bass riddim thuds away from a speaker behind me. The lyrics were entirely in Catalan, as were the match day notices on the PA system.
In 1977, the Generalitat de Catalunya was established once again. Conscious of the discontent that had grown among the Catalan population toward central rule under Franco, the newly democratic government under King Juan Carlos’ guidance granted semi-autonomous rule to various regions of Spain. The extent to which Galicia, Andalusia, Navarre, the Canary Islands, the Basque Country, the Community of Valencia and of course Catalonia could now manage their own governmental affairs differed state to state, but it was the Catalans who were granted possibly the highest degree of autonomy of all Communities of modern Spain. Catalonia was given complete authority to manage its education systems, its tax structures and budgets, its police force and many other public institutions. Since that time, the autonomous community of Catalonia has enjoyed the longest period of self-governance since 1714.
What is of less political but arguably greater personal importance to the every day Catalan however was the removal of restrictions governing the use and publication of the Catalan language in everyday life. Under Franco, use of the Catalan language in radio, television, daily press publications, in the school system and at sports events was criminalised. The government U-turned on its decision to ban the publications of books written and plays performed in Catalan in the 40’s. Yet, as a defining pillar in Catalan identity and the ultimate source of Catalan pride remains its language, many Catalans have worked conscientiously to promote the public use of their tongue since Spain’s transition to democracy from a time when writing Catalan songs to be played at Football matches was a criminal act.
It has worked. The percentage of fluent Catalan speakers has risen from 60% in 1975 to 71% in 2001, and probably further since. As a result, fans and employees of UE Sant Andreu can indulge themselves in their language on game day. Yet they can only do so thanks to the political concessions given to the Community of Catalonia that Madrid sees as sufficient reparations for the cultural damage inflicted by Franco’s aggression. The Spanish state sees calls for further autonomy or indeed fully fledged independence as the Catalans having their cake and eating it; the government HAS worked to give Catalans what they have wanted.
A late second-half goal was enough for UE Sant Andreu to triumph over fellow Catalan club Terrassa, sending the Desperdicis housed in the fondo del norte wild. The leftist Ultras intensified the singing of their Catalan fan chants, sung all the while to rhythms and tunes that can be heard on the terraces across all of Spain.
Spain’s complicated current political crisis has been drawn out for so long purely because there is a legitimacy to both arguments. Catalonia has the population size and economic strength to push for full independence from a state that has otherwise done much harm to their people and culture in the past 100 years. However, Madrid has undertaken decentralisation measures to give the Catalan people the greatest possible degree of autonomy possible under the current Spanish constitution. Meanwhile, closer existing cultural ties between Castille and Catalonia than either side would like to admit mean that a break-up would certainly be exhausting for both sides in the short term.
Whatever the outcome, public manifestations of Catalan culture that fuel the separatist argument will continue to be seen on the terraces of Catalonia’s smaller yet more passionate Football clubs as much as in the more famous Camp Nou.