El Centrocampista

Catalonia is not Spain! – Nationalism, separatism and the greatest rivalry in world football

Action Images/John Sibley

Not many countries have constitutions which refer to several nations and peoples within a single sovereign state. Whilst many nationalists would like to consider their nations to be unique, in Europe only Spain has so finely worded a charter.

When the post-Franco constitution was drawn up in 1978, the question of addressing Spain’s significant regionalism was hotly debated. This was a nation which had, of course, been engaged in a brutal civil war just a generation before. The challenge for the new government was to provide a compelling case for national unity whilst also allowing room for regional autonomy.

Spain is not alone in its regional diversity; Italians frequently define themselves by their region rather than by their nation, and even France, one of Europe’s older nations, has separatist wings. But Spain is not marked by many ‘dialects’ as is the Italian case; it is a single country with many languages. The Constitution granted autonomy within a national framework to Spain’s regions, and by the 1990s, it seemed to have achieved the desired results. Surveys in Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country showed that an increasing proportion of the population in these areas was now defining itself primarily as ‘Spanish’.

Catalonia, in spite of its central role in the Civil War, had become the most integrated of the traditional separatist regions. There was now room for children to learn Catalan, for flags to be displayed on civic institutions in Barcelona, for the Barcelona football team to play without fear of intimidation. The Olympics of 1992 in the city positioned Barcelona as a fully integrated representative of Spain on a global stage.

Michael Billig’s 1995 theory of ‘banal nationalism’ seemed to find its perfect expression in the region; with a certain amount of autonomy allowed, the region no longer had to fight for independence. By giving Catalonia an inch, Spain ensured that it did not seek to take a mile. Yet Billig’s theory suggests a certain negativity to such developments, as if a blandness, an idle acceptance of the status quo, had set in. In reality, Catalonia’s status as simply one of many regions of Spain ought to be celebrated.

In 1943, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 11-1 in a cup match at the Bernabéu. Barcelona had scored first and were level at the break, before Franco intervened at half-time, threatening the Barca players. A second-half walkover was to follow. 

Football in Spain has always been deeply political. To this day, Athletic Bilbao sign only Basque players, and old tensions resurface with every clasico. It would be difficult to explain to any fan in the Nou Camp for the Barcelona-Real Madrid showdown in a few weeks’ time that there is anything ‘banal’ about the rivalry.

Yet it is a rivalry which, in spite of a number of controversial events in recent years, appears to recognise the limits of common decency. The dark days of the 1940s seem a long way off in a time when Real Madrid’s international cohort are led by a man from the opposite side of the Iberian peninsula, whilst Barcelona possess the core of the all-conquering Spanish national team.

The great success story of Spain in the post-Franco years is that the country now appears to have a more developed sense of national identity whilst regional pride remains. In a country where football and politics so often overlap, this has been reflected in the clash between the nation’s two most decorated sides. The rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid is no longer pseudo-ethnic, and nor is it overtly ideological: it is simply two of the world’s greatest teams engaging in the game’s greatest rivalry.


We hope you have enjoyed this short introduction to the political and socio-historical background of Spanish football. We will be discussing the subject in more depth in future content and hope to bring a unique and informative look at all aspects of the game in Spain.


  1. Jack Saunders

    12 April, 2012 at 13:54

    In some sense I’d say that the nationalism element of the Madrid-Barca has less been sidelined by the diminishing importance of national feeling, but more by the internationalization of the fixture. However important FCB might be to Catalan nationalists, they’re simply dwarfed by the global and national following their brand generates.

    If you’re trying to sell kits in Cadiz, it’s rather difficult to use the club as a platform for Catalan nationalism, even if Joan Laporta did manage to use it as a means to get himself into the regional parliament as an Independentist. The club aside, Catalan nationalism has rather grown in strength over the past two decades, and the two largest national political forces got absolutely trounced by the right-wing catalan CiU at the last municipal elections.

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  3. Ross Highfield

    12 April, 2012 at 14:29


    Thanks for commenting. I’d certainly agree with your first point – as I briefly alluded to in the article, this is the world’s greatest rivalry watched by people across the globe. It would also be illogical to position the rivalry in ‘nationalist’ terms these days, given that Barcelona represents the core of the Spanish national team.

    Nationalists will always try to manipulate mass passions, and football is no exception. But do you think most people in Catalonia would actually advocate separatism today? I think the success of the CiU says it all – this is a right-wing party which has achieved local success. The Spanish Civil War was also, of course, a proxy war for the whole of Europe, a microcosm of the fight between Right and Left. The fact that a right-wing Catalan party has now gained success backs up the view that ideology has disappeared from the old Catalonia-‘Spain’ rivalry.

    I sense your view of the ‘progress’ made in Spain after Franco is slightly more negative than mine, and whilst I would maintain that a lot has been done to improve relations between Spain’s ‘nations’, I will acknowledge that whilst in Barcelona at the time of the Euro 2008 final, I walked the up and down La Rambla and yet found only one small restaurant showing the match, whilst Madrid’s Plaza Mayor (I think) was filled with thousands of fans watching on the big screen…

  4. Rhys

    13 April, 2012 at 09:01

    Surveys in Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country showed that an increasing proportion of the population in these areas was now defining itself primarily as ‘Spanish’.


  5. Igor

    13 April, 2012 at 09:38

    “Surveys in Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country showed that an increasing proportion of the population in these areas was now defining itself primarily as ‘Spanish’.” WRONG As far as Catalonia and the Basque Country, most of the population define themselves primarily as Catalan and Basque. And most define themselves as NOT SPANISH. In 1990 and nowdays.

  6. Ross Highfield

    13 April, 2012 at 10:56

    Thanks for reading.

    I think there are a couple of issues here. I did not state nor mean to state in the article that the majority of people in these areas define themselves primarily as Spanish; I simply said that the proportion that do is increasing. This is a point made by a number of academics following extensive research, see Guerin and Rejean Pellettier’s ‘Cultural Nationalism and Political Tolerance in Advanced Industrial Societies’ and Martinez-Herrera and Miley’s ‘The Constitution and the Politics of National Identity in Spain’. Clear figures are given which evidence this growing sentiment, and Daniele Conversi has also written extensively on the sense of ‘dual identity’ fostered in these areas since the Constitution which allowed space for autonomy and regional pride within the national framework.

    I think it’s rather easy to look at individual incidents and state that separatism is still at large and that Spanish identity has not grown, but this view has been significantly challenged and indeed disproven by extensive research.

    The article was not meant to lessen regional autonomy or differences, which are explicitly encouraged in the Constitution – it is simply that this does not need to run against national sentiment anymore, but can now run alongside it. A country like Italy, for example, might learn a lot from such a model. As might the European Union, if we look at it on a larger scale.

    • Igor

      13 April, 2012 at 11:05

      Thanks for your reply Ross. I can still assure you the proportion is not increasing, no matter what academics say. I live in the Basque Country and I can assure you it is just the opposite. The constitution was approves at that time because it was better than Franco, and Basques and Catalans should accept a minimum, but believe me when I tell you that a referendum on the constitution nowadays in Basque Country and Catalonia would reject it.

      I agree that Barcelona-Madrid rivalry has not to do with politics, it is just two great football teams.

  7. Ross Highfield

    13 April, 2012 at 11:11

    I’d agree, the Basque Country in particular would be less receptive to the idea of ‘national’ identity, I think Catalonia is probably further ahead on that front (which those academics also acknowledge, too). That said, are things really getting worse on that front? You would know more as you live there at present, and it would be interesting if things have regressed after (some) success in the 1990s. Perhaps the economic crisis is involved? There’s nothing like adversity to bring out small-minded nationalisms, as history has taught us.

    • Igor

      13 April, 2012 at 11:20

      Last regional vote had a socialist lehendakari because a political party was not able to vote, but next ones will be in less than a year. I predict between 60 and 65 % of the vote for the nationalist parties (PNV and Amaiur) All those would vote yes in an independence referendum.

  8. Ross Highfield

    13 April, 2012 at 11:28

    Is there perhaps a difference in how they vote at the regional and local elections, though? No idea if there is, just wondering – I’ve read suggestions that in regional elections voting patterns would suggest a desire for independence but people simply vote for these parties as they represent the region well. But would voting follow this pattern in the national votes, or would a desire to engage with national issues then take hold?

    It’s clearly a very difficult area to get a definite consensus on, because as is so often the case, research carried out for an academic paper may not correlate with what people might say if stopped and asked on the street.

    • Igor

      13 April, 2012 at 11:31

      In you look at the last 8 years, it is difficult, as there has been a party barred from standing in the vote. Last vote (to the Spanish parliament) and next one (Basque parliament) are good examples to see the real map of Basque identity vs Spanish identity

  9. Ross Highfield

    13 April, 2012 at 11:53

    I’ll definitely look out for the specific results for those, then – thanks for all of your input.

  10. wesam

    2 December, 2012 at 22:50

    any evidence for this event from Catalonia news paper at that time, or any video for any witness from barca team in 1943

    plz i need this info

  11. Jose Martinez

    2 March, 2013 at 19:44

    “In 1943, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 11-1 in a cup match at the Bernabéu. Barcelona had scored first and were level at the break, before Franco intervened at half-time, threatening the Barca players. A second-half walkover was to follow. ”

    Just wanted to clarify that this is the wrong information you have here. Barcelona had by no means scored first and it was NOT 1-1 at the break. The result was 8-0 at the half for Real Madrid and Barcelona did not score until the 89′ minute after the scoreline was already 11-0.

    Real Madrid goal scorers: Pruden (5,32,35), Barinaga (30,42,44,87), Alonso (37,74), Curta (39), Botella (85)
    Barcelona goal scorer: Martin (89)

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