“To speak of sport is to speak of race, enthusiasm, and the optimistic struggle of youth.” (Josep Sunyol)
English football, for all its quirks and layers of social influence, is a relatively apolitical animal. In a direct comparison with the politically charged clubs of Italy and Spain, English teams are arguably far less representative of ideology and cause.
With that in mind, the highly politicised regional struggle played out by Barcelona and Real Madrid can seem somewhat alien to the British football fan, the friction between centralism and the movement for Catalan independence a sketchy intellectual argument between two abstracted factions. That conception of the situation, as it happens, could hardly be further from the truth.
To gain a greater understanding of the simultaneously delicate and brutal history of FC Barcelona’s role in the campaign for Catalan nationalism, a window into the life of one man in particular must be opened. That man, Josep Sunyol, is central to the political narrative of twentieth century Catalonia and has come to represent some of the major points of contention that defined revolutionary Spain and, latterly, the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In many ways Sunyol, as I will come to explain, was – in a somewhat romanticised context – the first hero and martyr of the Catalan cause.
Born into a wealthy Catalan family in 1898, Sunyol qualified as a lawyer after leaving school but still actively pursued a career in the political arena. In 1925, just two years after General Miguel Primo de Rivera had staged his coup d’etat, Sunyol became a member of FC Barcelona, at that time a club just 26 years into its existence and still building a rapidly expanding fan base. However, Rivera’s dictatorship had imposed heavy restrictions on the Catalan club, any outward displays of regional nationalistic sentiment having been outlawed by the Andalusian Falangist leader.
In 1928, three years after joining the club in the midst of such a poisonous political atmosphere, Sunyol was elected on to Barcelona’s board of directors as well as becoming the president of the Federation of Associated Catalan Football Clubs. At roughly the same time he started engaging in journalism, writing on football for La Rambla and becoming well known for his articles which sought to paint sport as an integral part of Spain’s road back to democracy. Such opinions may hardly provoke an earth-shattering response in the current climate, but in Rivera’s Spain the views of Sunyol were patently anti-authoritarian and incriminating.
Despite an intensely volatile social situation, the Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 after the Rivera dictatorship had faltered in light of the economic disarray cause by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In the weak democratic government which formed in its wake, Sunyol was elected as a representative of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a newly-formed party which fought for the interests of Catalan leftists. The Catalan representatives in parliament enjoyed a fair degree of success in the early days of the new republic and, despite not being universally popular amongst their own people (Barça members very much included), secured an increased amount of devolved power for the region.
As his prominence in Catalan society continued to rise, Sunyol was elected president of FC Barcelona in the summer of 1935 and declared that he would do his utmost to ensure that the success of the club would not become weighed down by the baggage of radical politics that was coursing through regional Spain at the time. However, matters were soon to be taken out of his hands a year after the start of his presidency when, in July 1936, General Emilio Mola and General Francisco Franco led a military coup against the government of the Second Republic.
Franco was declared leader in early October as the Civil War began to rage, with football – as well as many other sectors of Spanish society – being shut down as the conflict began to intensify. Suddenly, several of the Barcelona directors, some of whom (including Sunyol) had very publicly declared their sympathy to the cause of Catalan nationalism, were in danger of serious reproach at the hands of the Fascist military forces that had instigated the coup and seemed to have the upper hand in the subsequent fighting. A decision was taken to keep the football club running, but to move it into regional rather than national competitions as Spain began to fragment into a series of politically divisive regional zones. Shortly afterwards the fighting reached the streets of Barcelona itself as chaos and anarchy took hold.
In the early days of August 1936, as Catalonia became enveloped in the shroud of war, Josep Sunyol left the city of Barcelona alone and headed for Madrid via a short stopover in Valencia. It is thought that he was bound for the capital to meet other eminent Republicans and enter into discussions about how best to defend the regions of Spain from the ravages of military action. But Sunyol never arrived at the meeting.
Though details are sketchy, it is thought that Sunyol was driving through the mountains to the north of Madrid when he was stopped at a military checkpoint. The road was likely controlled by Falangist troops, and the soldiers, recognising Sunyol as a wealthy Catalan, arrested him before shooting their prisoner dead several days later.
To make matters worse, Franco’s regime went about sullying Sunyol’s reputation after his death, labelling him a vehement “anti-Spaniard” and completely writing him out of the history of both FC Barcelona and Catalan politics in general. The authorities even ordered his gravestone to bear the Castilian version of his name, ‘Josep Suñol’, rather than the Catalan ‘Sunyol’. It was the final insult.
Since his death, Sunyol has become a central figure in the history of FC Barcelona, a representative of the general political ethos that has become increasingly central to the identity of the club. He may have been written out of Spanish history by Franco, but the significance of Josep Sunyol will never be lost on the people of Catalonia.