The second part of four in the serialisation of my dissertation ‘To what extent can Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona be considered to have been political institutions in Spain during the twentieth century?’, this instalment looks in detail at the political life of FC Barcelona and just how rooted in the mechanics of state (and region) the club can be said to have been.

Part one can be found here.

FC Barcelona and General Primo de Rivera

To begin the first part of the main political analysis of this thesis I will look at FC Barcelona’s links to Catalan nationalism, the salient points of which I have explained in the previous chapters, and discuss the extent to which the actions of the club during the regimes of General Miguel Primo de Rivera and General Franco can be equated to those of what we might hold to be more traditional political institutions.

On 13th September 1923 Primo de Rivera had overthrown the constitutional government with a military coup d’état and been given legitimacy by Alfonso XIII shortly afterward (Payne: 1999, p.24). Despite his leadership style being initially popular amongst certain sections of Spanish society, Primo de Rivera appeared to drift further towards a form of Fascism relatively quickly after taking office. Indeed, the dictator was on record as having said “Fascism is a universal phenomenon that ought to conquer all nations” (Payne: 1999, p.28).

This move towards the right of the political spectrum saw an increasing insistence on Madrid-based centralism from the regime (Burns: 1999, p.86-87), political Catalanism being condemned and restricted in its various socio-political expressions. With Primo de Rivera refusing Catalonia the increased autonomy it was demanding – allegedly due to pressures exerted by a number of other significant military figures in the coup (Rial: 1986, p.94) – opposition to the regime in the regions seeking autonomy began to gather pace.

The first linkages made between FC Barcelona and political action came in June 1925 during a benefit match at the club’s Les Corts ground (Ball: 2003, p.92-93). With Primo de Rivera having outlawed both regional government and use of the Catalan language in the preceding months, the game was seen as a political opportunity for the people of Barcelona, Francesc Cambo and Joaquin Ventosa Calvell – two high-profile Catalan politicians – both being in attendance (Burns: 1999, p.86-87).

At half-time a band of Royal Marines struck up the Spanish national anthem but were drowned out by a hostile reaction from the crowd, a clear sign of disrespect that was met with a military edict from the authorities fining the club and suspending its operations for six months (Burns: 1999, p.86-87). It may have only been a relatively minor act of dissent, but this was the first clear public alignment those associated with FC Barcelona had made with the cause of Catalan nationalism.

While this action is probably too rudimentary and spontaneous to be considered to be anything approaching the policy-shaping behaviour of a political institution, such protests could be said to reflect the elements of the research of Jennifer Gandhi. As she explains in Political Institutions under Dictatorship, rules and norms do not exist for how dictatorships ‘should’ operate, and so authoritarian regimes exhibit a plethora of institutional arrangements (2008, p.38).

Gandhi propounds her point, going on to describe how dictatorships vary in their responses to discontent and how that discontent fits into the wider institutional structure. Observers of such action are divided as to the importance of these ‘ruptures’ and mass mobilisations in sabotaging and ultimately ending non-democratic regimes (Gandhi: 2008, p.75). While Gandhi herself emphasises these type of protests as important to the challenging of dictatorships, others such as Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead (1986, p.19) see them as an irrelevance to the institutional structure, believing that the spark for democratisation must come from within the authoritarian regime itself.

However, it is not in relation to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, but to the emerging Catalan politics of the time that FC Barcelona can arguably be said to have held the most institutional significance. The prologue to the official history of the club claims that “throughout the most difficult times [FC Barcelona] was the standard that represented Catalonia and the Catalan people’s desire for freedom” (FC Barcelona: 2011). These political linkages, as I hope to demonstrate, seemed to grow increasingly formalised and official during the regime of Primo de Rivera.

In 1928, with the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera entering its twilight (Payne: 1999, p.35), a Catalan by the name of Josep Sunyol joined the FC Barcelona board and also became the president of the Federation of Associated Catalan Football Clubs (Burns: 1999, p.96). The founder of the newspaper La Rambla (Burns: 1999, p.96) and a political figure who saw a position on the club’s board as a means to enhance his public career (Ball: 2001, p.99), Sunyol was arguably the key figure in synthesising sport and politics in Catalan civic life.

La Rambla continually linked the political situation with the fortunes of FC Barcelona, appealing – according to Jimmy Burns (1999, p.98) – to a new social order where “football and politics, far from being in fatal contradiction to each other, formed an essential part of a truly democratic society”. Burns’ claim is a sizeable one, but if correct it would appear to bring Catalan sport (something clearly dominated by FC Barcelona) more in line with conventional definitions and expectations of political institutions.

FC Barcelona and Civil War

As John Hargreaves (2000: p.12) has written, sport functions as a point of coherence for national movements to the extent that it is central to the culture, or can be made so by a nationalist movement.

Although not constitutionally mandated as the vast majority of political institutions are (Hague & Harrop: 1982, p.86), Sunyol had been elected to the new parliament in Madrid in 1931 (Primo de Rivera had fallen in January 1930) as a member of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a new party of the Catalan left (Burns: 1999, p.100). With other board members having strong associations with Catalonia’s other major party, the Lliga Regionalista (Burns: 1999, p.100), the club’s hierarchy had made its political position explicitly clear.

I believe it can be argued that this arrangement at board level fits with the behaviouralist approach to the theory of political institutions, the central tenet of which being that institutions are borne out of individuals rather than the systems of which they are a part (Hague & Harrop: 1982, p.87-88). As Heinz Eulau (1986: p.19) writes, “The root is man. I do not think it is possible to say anything meaningful about the governance of man without talking about the political behaviour of man.”

Within the behavioural tradition institutions are analysed in a unique fashion, the study of formal aspects of institutions being largely disregarded in order to analyse the social backgrounds of their members and the ways in which they are able to reshape the institution itself (Hague & Harrop: 1982, p.87-88). Dealing with the subject of why people behave in the way they do, behaviouralists make observable behaviour the key unit of analysis (Marsh & Stoker: 1995, p.45) and so any definition of exactly what constitutes a ‘political’ institution is broader and related to individualistic and social factors more than conventional descriptions.

If we apply this strand of thinking to the situation at FC Barcelona in the aftermath of the fall of the Primo de Rivera regime, then the club takes on greater political significance. While the club itself may not have been founded along political lines, it originally defined itself as “apolitical but always prepared to stand up for the human rights of Catalans” (Burns: 1999, p.100), but the individuals guiding it seemed to behave in an increasingly politically aware fashion during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Clearly, being outside of the formal Spanish political administration, the club cannot be considered an organ of government and therefore does not fit with orthodox expectations of political institutions (Hague & Harrop: 1982, p.82), but Sunyol used it as a platform to oppose conservative Catalanism (Burns: 1999, p.101) and so caused the club to enter the Catalan political discourse of the time. Strictly speaking this does not make FC Barcelona a political institution, but I believe that during this period in its history it can be labelled as an organisation of a particular political stance which exerted a significant influence on the political debate of the time.

Indeed, it was whilst en route to a political meeting that Josep Sunyol met his death (Burns: 1999, p.108) in what could arguably be held to be the most politically significant moment in the history of FC Barcelona. Shot dead in a car displaying the Catalan flag as he drove through a mountain region controlled by Falangist troops on 6th August 1936, Sunyol’s execution was an event which David Goldblatt (2006, p.302) believes saw the connections between the football club and political Catalanism strengthen yet further.

As the official history of the club itself claims, Sunyol was the ‘martyr president’ (FC Barcelona: 2011) and a figure now seen as the primary casualty of the club’s politics, whether those views had emanated from it or been projected onto it from outside. While Sunyol’s execution doesn’t draw FC Barcelona any closer to an orthodox definition of a political institution, at the conclusion of the Civil War the Franco regime issued a statement which revealed that it clearly saw the club as a centre for political activities. “For a time [Sunyol] was president of Barcelona football club, and was responsible for the clear anti-Spanish line which the club adopted” (Burns: 1999, p.110-111).

Sunyol’s murder has been said to be the event which defined FC Barcelona as the socio-political vehicle it is today. As Phil Ball (2003: p.99) has written, “Sunyol’s death is now seen as the truly defining moment of the club, the desecration of an ideology in bud, of cultural separatism, independence, the right to autonomy. It proved that even then, Barça was more than a club, and this sense of historical continuity affords some comfort to the current bearers of the flag.”

FC Barcelona and the Franco Regime

The army of General Franco had marched into the city of Barcelona on 26th January 1939, the civil war reaching its official conclusion shortly afterwards (Goldblatt: 2006, p.303). The fall of the city seemed to neuter FC Barcelona’s direct political significance, the new regime clearly viewing the club as an instrument of regional autonomy which needed to be silenced (Goldblatt: 2006, p.305). Indeed, Franco hoped to humiliate the club, attempting to show up Catalan nationalism as a pathetic and inherently ‘anti-Spanish’ ideology.

The first fixture played at the club’s Les Corts stadium after the conclusion of the civil war was preceded by a ceremony of tribute to the newly-installed regime, the Fascist officials in attendance dramatically declaring the occasion a chance to ‘exorcise’ malevolent separatist spirits from the club (Burns: 1999, p.124). In the months that followed FC Barcelona was forced to conform to the wishes of the Fascist government, the accounts of the club showing the purchase of Francoist national anthems, a crest representing the Francoist state and several Falangist banners (Burns: 1999, p.124-125). The club was outwardly being stripped of the identity which had come to define it over the previous forty years, its politics being ‘cleansed’ by the Franco regime.

With the totalitarian government so obviously opposed to regional autonomy, FC Barcelona’s tentative claim to being a nationally significant political institution is all but eradicated. Ostracised by the official arms of government, it is in the wake of the civil war that the club’s political role seems to shift from that of an institution which had a degree of direct influence on regional politics to that of a clandestine resistance organisation with little ability to mobilise huge amounts of support.

As Stanley Payne (1987, p.231) explains in his book The Franco Regime: 1936-1975, Franco’s administration was by far the most centralised in Spanish history, Catalonia and the Basque country coming in for particularly stern treatment. Catalonia was governed by a special occupation administration and the use of the Catalan language was strictly prohibited in public life, bans on its usage in literature, religious ceremonies and the legal system being widely enforced (Payne: 1987, p.231). Indeed, FC Barcelona itself was forced to change its name to the Castilian Barcelona Club de Fútbol, a move designed to remove any obvious Catalanist sentiment from the club and formally break from its past (Burns: 1999, p.127-128).

While Franco was keen to encourage football as part of a process of depoliticisation in regional Spain, and FC Barcelona was allowed to continue operating, there were a number of restraints placed on the club (Goldblatt: 2007, p.305) by an administration clearly still very nervous at its potential for again becoming a figurehead for Catalanism and resistance. As David Goldblatt (2007, p.305) explains, the club could win trophies but were prohibited from expressing their triumphs in even the loosest of political terms. Under Franco football was expressed as a form of Empire, an instrument of unification and neutral politics for the masses (Burns: 1999, p.134). FC Barcelona was, like all other organisations, forced to conform.

Stripped of its political identity and limited to relatively feeble acts such as whistling and booing the players of Real Madrid (Goldblatt: 2007, p.305), FC Barcelona had been stripped of its political and cultural identity, administrated by a hand-picked board of Fascist sympathisers (Burns: 1999, p.128-130) and, as such, I do not believe it can be considered to have been a political institution by any conventional definition during the years of the Franco regime.

  • Part Three will look at the politics of Real Madrid in detail and will be published on Tuesday.