The Partisan Politics of the Peninsula

On the 28th of April, the majority of 47 million people go to the polls in Europe’s next major parliamentary election. After major votes in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy, it is the turn of Spain, a country that is possibly more politically divided than any other in 21st century Europe.

While a victory for the PSOE is likely, the right is expected to make further gains in the same way that it has elsewhere in recent years. Andalusia is Spain’s second largest comunidad autónoma in terms of landmass and the absolute largest in terms of population. Much of the region is agricultural, meaning that the centre-left and socialist parties have historically enjoyed strong and loyal support there. However in the region’s elections in December 2018, the newly establised “Vox” populist party from the right received 11% of the votes, making them the second most popular party in the comunidad autónoma. The greater concern for those in the centre and on the left is that Andalusia’s vote has historically been a reliable indicator of how the proceeding national level vote will play out.

Desperdicis Sant Andreu Ultras

Thus, many Spaniards are concerned. The result may be an astonishingly high turn out at the polls in order to counteract the expectation of a haul of votes for the young Vox party, founded in only 2013. However, it is important to acknowledge that contemporary Spain is highly divided when it comes to politics as it is. Ignoring the short-term crisis in response to the Catalonian independence referendum that was judged to be unconstitutional in October of 2017, ordinary Spaniards are engaged with political debate thanks to their hang ups with the Spanish Civil War, meaning that support for both left and right is fairly rigid.

As one of the most influential wars of the 20th century broke out, towns and cities across Spain were effectively forced to become either Republican or Fascist pockets of support, from which the forces could draw resources and fighters. Towns a stone’s throw away from each other often became intensely hostile to one another, as one was often pro-Republican and the other pro-Franco. After the victory of General Franco’s El Falange party, open political dialogue was discouraged and avoided for decades. Tensions went underground. After Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970’s, these civil associations with the left and the right resurfaced, and as such fan groups of the local Football clubs chose to institutionalise their town’s historic association with a political ideology.

Brigadas Amarillas graffiti

In a recent visit to a major Spanish city, I was given the opportunity to speak to the members of the leading Ultra group. After a brief interview with the president, I hung out with some of the younger guys to enjoy a cold beer and hear what they had to say. It took little time for one to ask me a question that perfectly summarises the way in which  politics dominate Spanish Football culture;

So, which are the Communist Football clubs in England?

The concept of fan groups associating openly with political ideologies is so normal in Spain, this young gentleman assumed that this was the norm across all of Europe. Not so. In the UK fan groups are far more likely to identify with a specific religion or industry than they are with a political ideology, purely because the British Isles do not have the same history of domestic ideological conflict. Baring enthusiastic millennial types, support for communism for example in the UK has traditionally been very muted, probably thanks to Britain’s position as a leading 1st World nation in the Cold War era which left no room for Marxist sympathisers.

Athletic Bilbao badge

Not the case in Spain. It is very much assumed that dominant ultra groups and fan groups of professional Football clubs will identify with either the right or the left. While many individual fans vote independently, their respective clubs often develop associations with ideologies and political sentiments that endure for generations. And, as a consequence, onlookers continue to judge fan groups as “fascist” or “communist” as a matter of course in a way that is alien in the UK. I struggled to explain this to the young lad in my less-than-perfect Spanish.

The proof is in the pudding. We can look to the ultras across the aforementioned Andalusia to get a feel for the way partisan Spanish Football fandom works. Cádiz CF, Xerez Deportivo FC and Sevilla FC are the most celebrated “left-wing” clubs, while Recreativo de Huelva, Real Betis Balompie, Málaga CF, Córdoba CF and Real Jaén CF are all associated with the right. A surprising exception to the clear and delineated political assignations across Andalusian Football is Granada CF, whose fans are not collectively referred to as “leftist” or “right-wing”. This is perhaps surprising; Granada’s abundant, austere, Moorish architecture reminds any visitor that this city was the final stronghold of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, is possibly the most culturally distinct city in the whole of Spain. Or perhaps this is fitting of Granada’s “oddball” status.

Rayo Vallecano lgbt

These seemingly arbitrary associations with left or right are throwbacks to those pockets of support for either ideology during the Spanish Civil War. In the context of Football culture, they fuel complex rivalries and affiliations. Leftist Sevilla and Xerez Deportivo are allies, but Real Betis on the right are consequently enemies of Xerez even though they never meet on the pitch. Pretty much everyone hates antifa-dominated Cádiz, even though Xerecistas and Sevillistas are also on the left. Cádiz’s far-left philosophy has allowed them to develop a friendship with anti-establishment club Rayo Vallecano but has been cause for increased confrontation with Málaga, who in turn no longer see the “East Andalusian Derby” with neutral Granada as a big game. And the left-wing ultras “Riazor Blues” of Galician big-club Deportivo La Coruña have established links to both Sevilla FC and Xerez Deportivo on the basis of political ideology, while Deportivo La Coruña see fixtures against Atlético Madrid, the team associated with the air force in the Franco era, as one of their biggest grudge matches, even though Madrid and La Coruña are 500km apart.

The Socialists will win Sunday’s election, though many news outlets will report gains of the right, spearheaded by the populist party Vox. This however will not relieve Spain of its politically partisan Football culture. It would take an extraordinary episode that is powerful enough to erase the scars of the Spanish Civil War to eliminate the Spanish propensity to peg their Football fan groups at different points on the political spectrum. However, such a large movement would likely be incredibly costly and damaging to the country, thus we can rest assured that Spanish Football culture will continue to be dominated by its readiness to pick sides. Nobody wants another Spanish Civil War.

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8 thoughts on “The Partisan Politics of the Peninsula

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