Catalan secession threatens Spain’s golden age for sports
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Catalonia’s audacious attempt to secede from the rest of Spain represents a threat to one of the world’s sporting powers.
For more than a decade, Spain has punched above its demographic weight in sports. The Mediterranean country of 42 million citizens has produced stars in sports ranging from its most beloved football, to tennis, basketball, racing, golf, and even water sports.
But if Catalonia manages to overcome stiff opposition from Spanish authorities to secede, Spain and an independent Catalonia would suffer on the pitch, parquet, and pool.
Catalonia’s regional parliament, where separatists hold a slim majority on less than 50 percent of the popular vote, voted in favor of a declaration of independence on Friday. Spain’s central government acted swiftly to exercise extraordinary powers to fire Catalonia’s government and dismiss its parliament. Catalonia’s president responded that he wasn’t stepping down and called for a massive public protest.
In the hypothetic case of Catalonia establishing its own state, Spanish sports would retain tennis’ Rafael Nadal and Garbine Muguruza, Formula One driver Fernando Alonso, golfer Sergio Garcia, badminton Olympic champion Carolina Marin, and world champion figure skater Javier Fernandez, plus a slew of coveted soccer players.
But it would also lose an important number of talents if a frontier went up around northeastern Catalonia.
A core of footballers for Barcelona and Spain, the pillars of the successful national basketball team, and several Olympic gold medalists all hail from Catalonia.
Nadal, who is from Mallorca and speaks the island’s dialect of the Catalan language, said recently that “I can’t see Spain without Catalonia.”
“I have said many times that I feel very close to Catalonia. I feel Spanish, of course, and I understand that Catalonia is a part of Spain,” he said. “I understand that we are better and stronger together than separated.”
Here are the key issues at stake for Spanish sports:
NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM
Catalans have played a key part in establishing Spain as one of the best national teams. The team has qualified for the World Cup in Russia relying on defender Gerard Pique, holding midfielder Sergio Busquets, and left back Jordi Alba.
Pique and Busquets helped Spain to its greatest triumph at the 2010 World Cup, where they helped beat the Netherlands 1-0 in the final alongside fellow Catalans Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevila, and Cesc Fabregas.
Catalonia does have a regional team that plays the odd friendly, usually during the winter break by Spanish club football. On its own, it would be fortunate to qualify for major tournaments, instead of winning them.
BARCELONA & LA LIGA
The most alarming cost, when it comes to sports, for many Catalans on both sides of the secession debate would be the harm done to the wildly popular Barcelona soccer club.
The Spanish government and Spanish league have repeatedly warned that Barcelona and Catalonia’s other clubs, including topflight sides Espanyol and Girona, would not be allowed to remain in Spanish competitions in the case of secession.
Expulsion from La Liga would put an end to one of sports’ greatest rivalries, the at least twice annual clasicos between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The loss of income from TV and the huge drop off in quality of competition, not to mention access to the Champions League, would put Barcelona in peril of plummeting from its position of one of the world’s richest sports clubs.
And it is hard to imagine that Lionel Messi would keep his pledge to finish the best years of his career at Camp Nou if he is limited to testing his skills against a tiny Catalan league.
Spain allows teams from itty bitty Andorra to play in its competitions, but for Catalonia to get a similar deal it would need the good will of Spanish authorities to change the law. That seems very unlikely given the level of acrimony between Barcelona and Madrid.
Led by Catalans Pau and Marc Gasol and guards Ricky Rubio and Juan Carlos Navarro, Spain established itself as the next-best basketball power to the United States.
A young Pau Gasol led it to the 2006 World Cup. It lost hard-fought Olympic finals to the U.S. in 2008 and 2012, and it has won three European championships in the last nine years.
The star of Spain when it comes to the Olympics is swimmer Mireia Belmonte.
She has delivered four medals in the last two Summer Games, including a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly in 2016. That made her one of three Catalans who contributed to Spain’s haul of seven gold medals in Rio.
TORN BY POLITICS
Secession has put Catalonia’s athletes under pressure to declare their allegiance.
Pique has become a divisive figure in Spanish football. Some Spain fans jeer him during Spain matches because of his outspoken defense of Catalonia.
Pique has strongly supported what many Catalans, including some who want to remain in Spain, claim as their right to self-determination. Pique voted in an illegal referendum on secession on Oct. 1, although he has not said he wants a free Catalonia and has insisted on his commitment to the national team.
The Gasol brothers have likewise voiced their support for Catalonia voting on reconsidering, or reaffirming, its place within Spain, without either expressing a desire for secession. Pau Gasol acted as a leading spokesman for Madrid’s failed Olympic bid for 2020.
Former Barcelona player and manager Pep Guardiola has gone much further and become a leading proponent of Catalan independence.
Belmonte, however, has said that when asked about the prickly issue she “always say(s) Catalonia is a part of Spain.”
MotoGP champion Marc Marquez and taekwondo gold medalist Joel Gonzalez have said that like many people in Catalonia they are perfectly content with the dual identity of being Catalan and Spanish.
Kayak gold medalist Saul Craviotto is in the unique position of being a top athlete as well as an officer in Spain’s National Police stationed in his hometown of Lleida in northeastern Catalonia.
After Catalonia’s parliament declared independence on Friday, Craviotto said he felt forced to speak out on the political crisis.
“I am a member of the National Police, with my entire family in Lleida, and I feel proud to be Catalan and Spanish,” he wrote on Twitter. “I only ask that everything return to its normal course as soon as possible because with this senselessness we are going adrift.”