BARCELONA (Reuters) - Tensions around Catalonia’s upcoming independence referendum have spilled onto the soccer pitch in Spain after a warning from the country’s national football league that one of its crown jewels, FC Barcelona, would be expelled if the region seceded.
Catalonia is home to the world’s second most-valuable club, with five-times European champions Barca a mainstay of Spain’s La Liga whose boss, Javier Tebas, has said the club would not be allowed to remain in the league in the event of secession.
Spain’s football community believes secession is a distant prospect, given that Madrid has declared Sunday’s vote as unconstitutional, but that has not stopped the Catalan political crisis from exposing divisions among fans and some officials.
La Liga’s threat to expel Barca in the event of independence would leave the club, estimated by Forbes magazine this year to be worth $3.64 billion, and its players, including five-times world player of the year Lionel Messi, without a league.
The region’s other top-flight clubs, Girona and Espanyol, would also face expulsion from Spanish soccer.
Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium is a cauldron of separatist fervour, but the club is careful not to openly support independence. Instead, it says Catalans should decide and has criticised Spain’s attempts to prevent the vote going ahead.
After police raided Catalan government offices and arrested officials this month, the club issued a statement condemning “any act that may impede the free exercise” of democracy and freedom of speech.
FC Barcelona and La Liga declined to comment to Reuters, though the club’s vice-president, Jordi Cardoner, told reporters this week the vote would be “an important day in the history of our country, but we have to focus on football”.
Soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, also declined to comment on the implications for FC Barcelona and other Catalan clubs if the region were to declare independence after the vote, which Spain regards as unconstitutional.
“As a general rule FIFA does not comment on potential future scenarios,” a FIFA spokesperson told Reuters.
Secession, though, would be a tricky political football for FIFA. If La Liga were to exclude Barcelona in the event of Catalan independence — a move Tebas said would be required by Spanish law — FIFA could be asked to determine if Spain had breached its rule against government interference in football.
FIFA would have the power to suspend Spain, the 2010 World Cup winners, from competing in international soccer, less than a year before the 2018 tournament in Russia.
A soccer crisis could be avoided if the law were to be amended, but most Spanish lawmakers are opposed to Catalan independence and it is not clear if they would approve that.
Many Barcelona fans regard independence as paramount, despite the implications for their storied club.
“I believe the club should have an even stronger position in favour of the right to decide,” said Carles Ordiales, president of supporters group Seguiment.
“Barca and Catalonia have been linked historically and the club should be 100 percent committed to the people of Catalonia.”
Barca’s support stretches far beyond Catalonia and Spain, however, and not all supporters back its stance.
“I have contradictory sentiments,” said Barca season ticket holder Dam Calderon, also a member of Seguiment.
He said he was not a separatist but believed Spain’s efforts to prevent the referendum going ahead were shameful.
“I understand the club’s position and why they released their statement. On the other hand, I think about the millions of Barcelona fans who are not separatists, and that might see it differently and feel offended by it.”
The coach of Barcelona’s arch rival Real Madrid said he could not imagine La Liga without its 24-times champions.
“I see Barcelona as always being in La Liga and that’s it. I hope that does not happen,” Frenchman Zinedine Zidane said at a pre-game news conference this month.
Former Barca president Joan Laporta, who backs independence, shares that sentiment: “Barca versus Real Madrid is a very attractive product and trying to get rid of it would be an error on the part of the government, the league and the soccer federation,” he said on Friday.
Even if Spain prevents the Catalan government from staging a credible vote on Sunday, independence supporters among Barca’s fan base are still likely to have something to cheer about.
On referendum day, Barcelona play lowly ranked Las Palmas at the Nou Camp and are likely to extend their six-game winning start in La Liga and remain top of the standings.
As ever, fans will chant “independence” at precisely 17 minutes and 14 seconds into each half of the game, a tradition marking the 1714 Siege of Barcelona by Spain’s King Felipe V who vanquished the Principality of Catalonia as a political entity.
Editing by Mark Bendeich and Ken Ferris