Més Que un Club, Less than Stellar

13May08

Rijkaard

Phil Ball has an excellent article (per usual) on the rise and fall of Dutch legend Frank Rijkaard’s tenure as manager of FC Barcelona. As a pseudo-rival of my preferred club Chelsea F.C., I must confess to a sense of schadenfreudian joy in the news, especially since Rijkaard– whose downfall was probably more the doing of the formerly omnipotent and current impotent and indignant Ronaldinho than his own– has been linked to replace charismatically-deficient Avram Grant as Chelsea’s manager. He would be an upgrade, but probably not much of one; Chelsea have other problems–namely that their only true strikers that have made an appearance in the first team both want to leave. Plus, Grant’s confidence is growing, and what once looked like one of the most boneheaded hirings in all of sports, seems to have worked out after all. Ahhh, to be a Russian with unlimited money; well half of unlimited money, anyway. We want pre-nup! We want pre-nup!

But I digress. Rijkaard’s departure marks the end of a very rough year for Barcelona. Consistently outplayed by rival Real Madrid challenged most of the year for second by the surprising Villareal F.C. A tough pill to swallow for any elite team in any sport–basically imagine the Yankees convincingly winning the AL East over Red Sox and the Orioles sneaking up towards second.

But Barcelona is bigger than that. It’s a political movement, a national icon, and one that is revered but also controversial. Barcelona is of course in the region of Cataluna, in the northeast corner of Spain. The Catalan speak their own language (catalan), seemingly a mix of Spanish, German, and French, but it is really its own. The club motto–found in the title of this post–is “more than a club,” and there’s probably no truer motto in sports.

The Catalan are known for their separatist culture. During the Spanish Civil War (a subject sadly ignored by most history teachers, left to be fodder for mediocre movies), it was the Catalan with their socialist-leaning politics that presented the greatest contrast to the fascist Francoist movement. In fact, the country was essentially split by the camps. The Spanish Civil War was essentially a pre-cursor to much of what we saw in World War II; Communists and Socialists were among the first targets of the Nazis and other fascists.

And in this conflict, FC Barcelona played a major role in aiding the Catalan movement. The Francoist movement, largely supported by the bourgious and military naturally had a major advantage both monetarily and militarily. In order to raise awareness and funds, Barca, one of the best teams in Europe even then, went on a fund raising tour of the Americas for leftists of Spain.

However, the Francoists ended up winning the war, and with the rest of the world too occupied with World War II, Franco seized power. Personally, I’ve always found suspicious that the international community, especially the US, refused to go after Franco. He was a hideous dictator who supported both Hitler and Mussolini in WW II, and received their support as well. Chalk it up to another morally questionable decision made out of the excessive fear of the spread of communism–like the installation of military fascist leaders like Franco in central and south America, or the inability to challenge the USSR over the slaughter of 20 Million Ukrainians (remember, this is going on at the same time that 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis. Certainly a horrible tragedy and injustice, but maybe not even the greatest of that time–again, a point for another column).

And so Franco led until his death. He even selected Barcelona’s rival, Real Madrid as his favorite team (certainly not the fault of the team, but they did naturally receive some benefits from this status) But Barcelona continued to represent the alienated people of Cataluna, even to this day. The desire for Catalunia independence still lives on, as they were never granted it even after the Francoist era ended. Though that argument for independence is in most cases very moderate, groups have far over stepped their bounds in their argument.

The point I’m getting at though, (I know it took me awhile) is that it seems that as goes the club, so goes the spirit of the region. In America, while the success of certain teams can be helpful to a region or city, there’s really nothing like a FC Barcelona. It’s a shame in a way– soccer is the beautiful game after all, and the simplicity of rules and magnanimous personalities can draw even the most casual of sports fans in; that power is exponentially magnified if the club is literally willing to support its supporters. Regardless of your allegiances, you have to respect that type of reciprocity. Best of luck to Rijkaard and Barca.

Ps–Bonus Old School Rijkaard

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