On the evening of 1 October 2017, in a strange, almost surreal match, Barcelona played Las Palmas at the Camp Nou. The empty stadium was so silent one could hear the players shouting amongst themselves, groaning or complaining at the referee’s decisions, and the thumping sound of boot meeting ball. That morning, outside the stadium, voters taking part in a referendum for the independence of Catalonia from Spain – a referendum deemed illegal by the Spanish government and constitutional courts – had been met by national police and the Guardia Civil in full riot gear.
As the day wore on, while police forces raided polling stations, seized ballot boxes and made arrests, electoral colleges rushed to make makeshift arrangements to keep the referendum going. In the streets, balaclava-clad protestors clashed with the national police. Videos emerged on social media of members of the fire-brigade protecting protestors from the riot police and in some places, there were confrontations between the national police force and the local Catalan police.
By late afternoon however, the focus steadily shifted to the Camp Nou. How would Barcelona, the club which had come to symbolize Catalan identity and resistance, whose fans Manuel Vázquez Montalbán had once described as the “symbolic unarmed army of Catalonia”. Faced with La Liga’s refusal to postpone the match and the threat of losing six points if the match did not go ahead as planned, Barcelona’s directors decided to go ahead with it, but behind closed doors.
The decision to play did not go down well with everyone. Jordi Monés and Carlos Villarrubí, two directors, resigned, many fans vented their frustration and said that the match should not have been played at all, in an emotional interview defender Gerard Piqué who had voted in the referendum earlier in the morning called the match his “worst experience” as a professional, and ex-president Joan Laporta called it “an abstention”. The tremendous significance that the football club has for Catalonia is evident – columnist and author of Fear and Loathing in the La Liga, Sid Lowe called the Camp Nou “the sounding-box of Catalan sentiment”. But what is taken to be Barcelona’s “identity” today was not formed at the Camp Nou but a place a little more than a mile away – a site now occupied by the Parc de les Corts. Here, once stood the Camp de les Corts and it was the events on the pitch and terraces of this stadium that forged Barcelona’s identity as a club that symbolizes republican and Catalan sentiments.
Barcelona fell to the forces of King Philip V on 11 September 1714. The Catalans had chosen the wrong side in a war of succession. Yet the date is remembered by them as the day they lost their “independence”. Within two centuries however, Spain lost its colonies – in the 1890s, the Spanish people were struggling to come to terms with the fact that the once mighty Catholic Empire of Spain was in its death throes. At the same time, Catalonia witnessed a resurgence of cultural identity. At this time of social and cultural crisis a Swissman named Hans Gamper arrived in Barcelona in 1899. He fell in love with the city and in the fag-end of October that year he published an advertisement in Los Deportes announcing his wish to establish a football club. Thus was born Football Club Barcelona – founded by a group of Swiss, British and Spanish (or rather, Catalan) enthusiasts.
In 1901, Barcelona won its first trophy – the Copa Macaya – and in 1905 won the Campionat de Catalunya. Gamper, who would later adopt the Catalan name of “Joan” instead of “Hans”, became president of the club for the first time. After collecting funds from local businessmen, Barcelona acquired its own stadium, the Carrera Indústria, in 1909. In 1917 Gamper appointed Englishman Jack Greenwell as manager of Barcelona and with the likes of Paulino Alcántara, Ricardo Zamora and Franz Platko, the club won multiple honours in the period between 1919 and 1929 and enjoyed its first “golden age”.
The Camp del Carrera Indústria however soon became too small to accommodate the growing number of people turning up for Barcelona’s games and construction began of a new stadium. In May 1922, Barcelona moved into the new Camp de les Cort – their home for the next 35 years. On 20 May 1922, the stadium hosted its first match, a friendly between Barcelona and Scottish side St. Mirren.
Meanwhile, outside the stadium, Spain was entering into a tumultuous period. In 1923, General Primo Rivera, with the backing of King Alfonso, adopted the slogan “Country. Religion. Monarchy” and orchestrated a coup which overthrew the parliamentary government of Spain. Rivera suspended the constitution, established martial law, imposed strict censorship and sought to suppress all forms of regional autonomy and cultural expression. Two years later, Les Cort would witness an event that would eventually shape the future identity of Barcelona.
On 14 June 1925, Barcelona had scheduled a match against C.E. Júpiter in honour of the Orfeó Català, a renowned symphonic choir that had become a Catalonian cultural institution. The government at first refused to permit the match to be played but finally caved in to public pressure. The damage however had already been done. A band from a British Royal Navy ship that was anchored at Barcelona at the time was invited to perform before kickoff. As the band struck the opening notes of the Marcha Real, the national anthem of Spain, the terraces of the Camp de les Corts erupted in boos and jeers. The perplexed band-leader shifted to God Save the King and much to the dismay of the Spanish bureaucrats and government officials, the crowd at the stadium started cheering loudly. The Spanish authorities closed the stadium for six months (later reduced to three) and Gamper was forced to resign and flee to his native Switzerland.
Five years later, however, the dictatorship had fallen and in 1931 King Alfonso suspended the monarchy ushering in the Segunda República – a parliamentary republic governed by a coalition of right-wing and centre-left republican parties. In the elections of 1936 however, the Popular Front, an alliance of socialists, communists and left-wing parties of Madrid and Catalonia, received an overwhelming majority of votes. The following months witnessed increasing violence between left and right and Spain steadily became a simmering volcano ready to erupt.
On the evening of 17 July 1936, General Francisco Franco declared war on the Popular Front government. He was supported by Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and conservative and right-wing parties in Spain like the Falange Española, the fascist party founded by José Antonio Rivera, the son of the former dictator. The famous cellist and composer, Pablo Casals was in Barcelona for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when news of the uprising broke out the next day. In the middle of the rehearsals at the Orfeó Català, he received an official message from the government notifying him about the cancellation of the concert and urging the musicians to return to their homes immediately – fascist troops were marching upon Barcelona. He later remembered that day:
“I read the message aloud to the orchestra and the chorus. Then I said, ‘Dear friends, I do not know when we shall meet again. As a farewell to one another, shall we play the Finale?’ They shouted, ‘Yes, let us finish it!’ The orchestra played and the chorus sang as never before, ‘All mankind are sworn brothers where thy gentle wings abide!’ I could not see the notes because of my tears.”
Meanwhile at the Les Cort, Josep Sunyol, a lawyer and journalist who had founded the left-wing newspaper La Rambla (which had opposed Rivera’s military dictatorship), was elected president of the club in 1935. He was also a parliamentary deputy of the Esquerra Republicana Catalana – the Catalan Republican Left. When war broke out, Sunyol was tasked with liaising between government representatives in the besieged cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.
On 6 August 1936, while in Madrid, Sunyol wished to visit the front himself. He travelled in black Ford saloon, sporting a Catalan flag on the wings. Accompanying him was a lieutenant in the Republican militia and the journalist Pere Vergili. The car sped past groups of soldiers on the narrow mountain roads of the Sierra Guadarrama till it finally stopped at a small stone house nicknamed Casilla de la Muerte (“House of Death”) due to the large number of accidents that took place at a sharp bend near it. The house had been converted into a staging area and according to Sid Lowe, was manned by around twenty-five soldiers when Punyol and his companions arrived.
The men got off and greeted the soldiers with “¡Viva la República!” and explained that they were on their way to the front to visit the troops. The soldiers greeted them back and invited them inside. The men replied that they were in a hurry and turned towards their car. This time, the soldiers trained their guns at them and ordered them inside. Punyol and his companions had unknowingly crossed into the Francoist side of the front. All three were shot and their bodies were dumped somewhere in the vicinity. After the war, while Franco’s government branded Punyol “a communist and a separatist” who had pursued an active campaign of Marxism and separatism through his newspaper and held him responsible for the “markedly anti-Spanish direction taken by FC Barcelona”, in Barcelona itself, he became the “martyr president”.
As the war dragged on, Barcelona faced financial difficulties and the team toured Mexico and the United States to raise funds and avoid bankruptcy. Several players decided to remain in America instead of returning to war-ravaged Spain. On 16 March 1938, Italian planes bombed the city including the club’s headquarters at Consell de Cent. On 26 January 1939, Barcelona finally fell to the fascists and Franco’s troops marched into the city. Among them of course was a volunteer corporal named Santiago Bernabéu.
After the war, Franco’s government ruthlessly suppressed all cultural symbols of Catalonia. Enric Piñeyro, the Marquis of Asta, was close to the new government and was appointed club president. As part of a homogenizing campaign in favour of Castilianism, the club’s name was changed to the Spanish “Club de Fútbol Barcelona” and the red-and-yellow stripes on its crest that represented the Catalan flag was changed to make it resemble the flag of Spain. Franco however decided against shutting down the club – in the words of Jim Murphy, author of 10 Football Matches that Changed the World, “he hoped that football in Barcelona would be the faith that would blind the people, if not into full acquiescence, then at least into distraction.” Soon the Camp de les Corts became the only place that Catalan sentiment could be expressed freely.
On 29 June 1939, Les Corts opened its gates for the first time after the war – Barcelona was set to play against Athletic Bilbao – a match that Lowe rightly refers to in his book as “Exorcism”. The flags of Spain, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy flew over the terraces and fascist salutes were performed. Before kickoff, Catholic fascist intellectual Ernesto Caballero delivered a speech in which he addressed Barcelona’s history in which “evil spirits” had sullied its glory with “turbid and separatist politics”. A Barcelona team hastily made up of players from several other clubs with only four from its own squad beat Bilbao 9-1. Marca reported the match in the following vein: “Barcelona, bathed in the River Jordan, purified in its waters of patriotic feeling, have entered into footballing normality.”
In 1951, the stadium became the site of one of the most important anti-Franco demonstration in postwar Spain. In February that year, the government announced a 40% increase in tram fares to be effective from 1 March. Agitation against the increase started almost immediately – protestors called for a boycott, people started walking to their work-places, tram drivers went on strike and after some trams that were still running were attacked, police were deployed to protect them. By 4 March 1951, the strike was so successful that the government pinned their hopes on the football fans at the Les Corts to finally break it. That day as Barcelona beat Santander 2-1, leaflets were distributed in the terraces of the stadium. After the match, the police around the stadium watched in amazement as thousands of Barcelona supporters streamed out and opted to walk home in pouring rain rather than take the special trams deployed by the government for the match.
All discussion about Spanish football more often than not eventually boils down to one dichotomy – Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, Catalonia vs. Spain, Republicans vs. Fascists, left vs. right, rebels vs. the Establishment. Lowe has extensively written on this subject and the several major caveats or flaws of this narrative in Fear and Loathing in La Liga. Yet justified or not, the fact remains that whenever the two teams meet, passions run high, and every El Clasicó has an intensity of “the game of the century.” Many trace this rivalry to the now infamous Copa del Generalisimo game at Madrid on 13 June 1943, where a government or military official threatened the Barcelona squad before kickoff (some even claim there were not one but two visitors to the Barcelona locker room that day – one before kickoff and one at half-time) and the home team won 11-1, thus forever being associated with Franco. It all however started a week before at Barcelona.
In the first leg of the game, Barcelona won 3-0 – Madrid complained of bad refereeing, criticized a penalty decision and insisted that Barcelona’s third goal was offside. At the same time though, something unusual also happened at the Les Corts that day. Throughout the game the Barcelona fans whistled and booed at Madrid. They were jeering what they perceived to be rough tactics used by the team from the capital. Back in the capital however, the act was received as Barcelona fans whistling at the representatives of Spain, booing the dictatorship itself. A frenzied anti-Barcelona campaign followed in the papers which ultimately culminated in the fateful match that also holds the record for the highest margin by which Madrid has defeated Barcelona.
On 15 June 1950, in a record deal in Spanish history, Barcelona signed László Kubala. Between 1951 and 1953, with Kubala, Barcelona won every title on offer. He would inspire the now famous song by Joan Manuel Serrat – “Kubala”. Despite increasing Les Corts’ capacity to 60,000, recent successes meant that the club was fast outgrowing the stadium. Work began to build a new stadium on 28 March 1954. In September 1957, the club made the Camp Nou its new home and the Camp de les Corts was closed. The stadium was finally demolished in February 1966.
The Camp Nou has been the home of Barcelona for six decades now. Yet it is the spirit of Les Corts that makes Barcelona “mes que un club” – a spirit that is evident in the several Catalan national flags flown in the Camp Nou during matches and the chants for independence that go up during every match at the stadium when the clock strikes 17 minutes and 14 seconds.
Shirsho is @ShirshoD. Picture credit to Oscar Miño Peralta.