Football’s symbiotic relationship with Spanish regional identity

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FC Barcelona, ‘Mes que un club’ – more than a club [Credit: Jack Ford via]

As the 2017 Catalan independence referendum highlighted, Spain is a country of countries. Franco may be long dead, but his long and divisive shadow is still cast across the 17 autonomous regions of Spain. In many ways, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) is still being played but with a ball, not guns.

In 1997 after finishing a year studying at Madrid’s Universidad Autonoma I returned to complete my 10,000-word dissertation. Its title was “Spanish Regional Identity as Expressed Through Football: A Case Study of Real Madrid v FC Barcelona”.

The Real Madrid team of the time was Fabio Capello’s pre-Galáctico squad featuring Raul, Clarence Seedorf, Davor Suker and Roberto Carlos. Barça was coached by Bobby Robson and his ‘translator’, Jose Mourinho, and spearheaded by the awesome attacking force of Brazilians Ronaldo, Romario and Giovanni, plus Hristo Stoichkov and Luis Figo.

Naturally, the two teams were the key protagonists in the La Liga title race, eventually won by Madrid. The rivalry was very different in those days. There was still a raw regionality to it: The perceived centralists from the capital with the royal title, whose fans had included former dictator Francisco Franco, versus the megaclub from the Catalan capital who pretty much put and kept catalanisme on the international stage.

Until the 2017 Catalan referendum, I viewed the recent Clásico rivalry as one which was no longer so much regional as commercial. In the Robson era, the blaugrana shirt didn’t even have a sponsor.

But as recent events, such as moves to ban the Catalan independence Estelada flags (the red and gold stripes of the regular Catalan Senyera flag but featuring a blue triangle and white star at one end) at the 2016 Copa del Rey final, or Barça’s decision to wear their Catalan flag away strip for its behind-closed-doors home game against Las Palmas over the referendum weekend, show that the ‘More than a club’ ethos is alive and well at the Nou Camp.

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The Catalan ‘Estelada’ independence flag [Credit: Pixabay]

But regional football rivalries aren’t restricted to the big cities of Madrid and Barcelona. Athletic Bilbao is a force on Basque identity, as is Valencia on the east coast, or the Galician clubs, Celta de Vigo and Deportivo La Coruña. We haven’t even mentioned the Andalusians yet.

To understand how we got here, we have to understand Spain. Here goes…

Spain: A country of countries

Spain is Europe’s second most mountainous country after Switzerland. Over the centuries, the Iberian Peninsula has been settled by numerous peoples – Basques, Romans, Visigoths, Celts, Moors, Jews and others. It wasn’t until 1492 when the ‘Catholic Kings’ – Ferdinand and Isabella – seized the Moors’ last stronghold in Granada that a peninsula-wide kingdom was achieved. This sat awkwardly with regions who had developed their own language and culture, especially the Basques, whose language is the oldest in Europe and totally unrelated to the Latin-based Iberian tongues of Castillian, Catalan, Gallego (Galician), Portuguese, Valenciá and Mallorquin (spoken in the Balearic Islands).

To cut a long story short, centuries of discord came to a head in 1936 when the democratically elected Republic was faced with a military challenge by the right-wing army. Thus began the Spanish Civil War, ending in 1939 with General Franco – who’d been backed by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy while Britain and France stood idle – victorious, and thus began 40 years of fascist dictatorship.

Despite being Galician, Franco was all for “One Spain, great and free”, which meant surprising the symbols of regional identity, particularly regional flags and language. Street names were changed, Castillian was enforced in schools. Opposition was outlawed under pain of death.

Where would a Basque, a Catalan, a Valencian or a Galician feel safe speaking their own tongue? In a football stadium, where it is impossible to arrest tens of thousands of people. This was where the local teams could fly a spiritual flag for their region and fight back against the centre, albeit for 90 minutes and on a football pitch.

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Football was already long established in Spain before Franco took power, and he himself was a big fan. Like Mussolini before him, he saw the propaganda value of football, and his team was Real Madrid. Franco understood the value of enabling regional teams to win every so often, plus drew massive propaganda value from Spain’s 1964 European Nations’ Cup final victory over the communist USSR.

Madrid v Barça

As alluded above, Real Madrid is perceived as the establishment club. A popular anti-Madrid football chant, set to the tune of the club’s anthem, translates roughly as; “F*cking Madrid, f*cking Madrid, the team of the government, the embarrassment of the country.”

Spanish sports dailies are a big thing, and I was lucky enough to speak to both Madrid-based Marca and Sport of Barcelona when researching my dissertation. Both agreed. Madrid-Barça is all politics. The Clásico has always been super-hyped but will take on added significance after the Catalan independence issue. Canal Plus France has already satirised it here.

Within Barcelona itself, the city’s second club Espanyol means ‘Spanish’ in Catalan, formed to represent the many migrants from the other regions of Spain that came to make Barcelona their home.

Athletic Bilbao

Bilbao is the biggest city in the Basque Country in northern Spain. With its own pre-Roman language, the Basques took a hammering from Franco from the famous bombing of its ancient spiritual centre, Gernika (Guernica) through to the banning of its language. It was Basque terrorist group ETA who assassinated Franco’s would-be successor (name/check) two years before Franco’s death.

Picasso Gernika

Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is recreated in the eponymous Basque town

Athletic Bilbao famously has had an unwritten Basque-only policy since 1912, so only players born in the Basque Country or who have learned their skills at a Basque club can represent the club. This included French Basques, such as Bixente Lizarazu. This kept the team authentically Basque and they’ve always been competitive despite this policy probably limited their chances of success, although – like Madrid and Barça, Athletic have never been relegated.

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The Galicians

Just north of Portugal is the stunning region of Galicia. The Gallegos claim Celtic roots, reflected in the name of one of their most prominent clubs, Celta de Vigo. Despite Franco coming from the port of El Ferrol in Galicia, he didn’t cut the Gallegos any slack. In the 1990s, the Bebeto-led Deportivo La Coruña side won the title, but that’s about as good as it got for Galician football


The eastern region of the Valencian Community shares a very similar language to Catalan and it’s not uncommon to see independence graffiti and ‘no som espanyols’ (we’re not Spanish) daubed around the place.

Valencia CF is my team in Spain as I spent a few months in the city. Valencia’s distrust of Madrid is far less acute than Barça’s, but Real Madrid is still the team they want to beat and when the club won the title under Rafa Benitez in 2001-02 season, celebrations were far bigger than when Spain won either of its recent international trophies.


In the deep south, where many of the clichés about Spain hail from – such as Flamenco and bullfighting – so you’ll find a fiercely strong regional identity. Seville’s Real Betis and Córdoba both play in the colours of the Andalucian flag (green and white). Unlike the other regions, there isn’t such a strong independence vibe in the south.

So, there you have it – Spain is complex. As a big fan and frequent visitor to the country, I hope the country resolves its differences with dialogue rather than reverting to the 1930s way of doing business.

If you’d like to learn more, some great reads on politics and football in Spain include Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper, Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe, Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett.



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