Battle of the independentistes

On Saturday night, the King of Spain, Felipe VI, attended his first Copa del Rey final since his father abdicated last June – and was faced with a stadium full of people wanting independence from Spain.

Athletic Club Bilbao, from the Basque Country, came face to face with FC Barcelona, from Catalunya, competing for the Spanish Cup which bears the King’s name, the King’s Cup, at Camp Nou. Both sides wanted a final in Madrid. Madrid, however, didn’t want to risk hosting an independence rally. Indeed, as the game approached, and the fans descended on Barcelona, both sides were united in one call: independence.

In the streets of Barcelona, the letters spelling out independencia, spanish for independence, were being held by Basques and Catalans together. The chants for independence in this video were coming from the Basque fans making their way towards Camp Nou.

Inside the stadium, there was not a single Spanish flag to be seen. Instead, the Barça fans waved the Senyera and the Athletic fans the Ikurrina, the flags of Catalunya and the Basque Country respectively. As the two clubs walked out and lined up in the King’s presence, it was time for a respectful silence for the Spanish national anthem. Or, maybe not:

Despite threats of calling the game off if fans were being disrespectful during the national anthem (because that was clearly going to be practical), the King stood uncomfortably during the Marcha Real, while fans to the left and to the right booed, whistled and made as much dissenting noise as possible. Vicente del Bosque, the manager of the Spanish national football team, is seen towards the end of the anthem appearing even more uncomfortable than the King, not sure which way to look. This was the Basque and Catalan 48-second protest, and all of Spain was watching.

It is worth noting that this is not a new protest, either for the clubs or the King. In the 2012 Copa del Rey final, when the same teams faced off against each other, the then Prince of Asturias substituted for his father and, again, both sets of fans showed their dissent, after chanting something unprintable (either in English or in Spanish).

During the game, football did the talking for the most part. FC Barcelona fielded a strong side for stage 2 of their quest to win the treble (La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League), while Athletic sent out a younger side, drawn almost entirely from the Basque Country, per the club’s policy. The formidable strike partnership of Messi, Suárez and Neymar proved unstoppable once again and, after Neymar’s first was ruled out for offside, the one that counted was sandwiched between two fantastic efforts from Messi. A consolation from Williams pushed the final score to Athletic 1-3 Barça, but the King’s Cup was going to the Catalans.

The 17th minute of each half, however, belonged to the independentistes. On 17:14 in each half, the Catalans begin chanting in-inde-independència and waving Senyeres and Estelades (the independence version of the Senyera, which featured as the backdrop to my St George’s Day video). 1714 is significant as the year Catalunya lost its state of independence to the Bourbons, a descendant of whom was in the stadium listening to their chants, whether he wanted to or not. There was no video feed of the King’s reaction during the chanting, but one can imagine, professional though he may have tried to remain, it is not likely to have been a happy one.

Football, and Barça in particular, has always been an outlet for the anger and frustration of an oppressed Catalunya. On Saturday, as Felipe VI attended his first Copa del Rey final as King of Spain, he did so knowing in advance that the reception would not be warm. He knew whoever he was handing the cup to did not want him as their King, or his government as their rulers – and neither did their fans.

The Spanish authorities have promised charges for the protest during the national anthem, though they haven’t yet said against who. The ruling Partido Popular is looking to remove the right to freedom of expression when it comes to “national symbols” such as the national anthem. For them, the events on Saturday were an insult, but for the Basques and Catalans, the reaction is another act of oppression, another attempt to subvert their democratic rights and freedom of expression.

On the pitch, Athletic and Barça fought as skillfully as in every meeting which preceded it. Off the pitch, the Basques and Catalans were united against a country they have no desire to be a part of, but which is denying them the right to decide their own future. Democracy may only be in its infancy in Spain, but on these issues the government is proving that it is deeply flawed.

A democracy which denies the people a voice is no democracy at all.

P.s. Incidentally, this was how the national anthems of Catalunya and Euskadi (Basque Country) were greeted when the two “national” teams met late last year:

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