Nationalism and Unity Through Sports

On May 30th, 2015 I experienced one of the greatest moments of my life, I sat 8 rows up behind the goal during Barcelona’s Copa Del Rey victory against Atletico Bilbao. It wasn’t just a game, it was the second championship the Blaugrana would win on their way to the treble, it was the game where Messi scored what some consider to be the greatest goal of his career. While this game was one of the greatest experiences in my life it was not until later until I was able to fully appreciate the greatness of this day due to its importance to Catalan nationalism.

FC Barcelona’s motto is “Més que un club” which translated from Catalan into english means “More than a club”. This statement is infinitely more true the more and more I have learned about Catalonia and Barcelona. Catalonia has a distinct history from Spain even having its own language. Historically speaking the culture in Catalonia has always been distinct, in fact, Catalonia almost broke free from Spanish rule in 1714. To commemorate this, FC Barcelona fans sing the Catalan national anthem when the game clock hits 17:14. In recent years Catalonia has been striving to gain independence from the rest of Spain once again and its home club of Barca has been a storm center of activity and national pride. The motto and national anthem are strong reflectors of their national identity. Not only this but in the 2015 Champions League final in Berlin against Juventus, the third trophy in Barcelona’s treble, fans held flags promoting independence from the rest of Spain; this resulted in a fine from UEFA which FC Barcelona has pledged to fight against. In recent years the conflict has gained steam as Catalonia desperately tries to break from Spain and a secessionist vote succeeded. Spain does not want Catalonia to leave due to economic reasons and has made threats if Catalonia tries to secede. One of their most notable threats was to expel FC Barcelona from La Liga. Despite these threats, prominent Barcelona players Piqué and Xavi still encourage those who are battling for Catalan independence. Luckily for the Barca and all of its fans, the Prime Minister of France offered a place for the club in Ligue 1 if they were removed for La Liga. The soccer team residing in the Camp Nou is less of a soccer team and more of a symbol of a budding nation.

Adding further intrigue to the game was the team playing against Barcelona, Atletico Bilbao. Bilbao is located in the Basque Country, home of the Basque people. The Basque people, similar to the Catalans, have their own ethnic identity completely distinct from the Spaniards including their own language. For years citizens of the Basque homeland have worked for independence, some using condonable methods. During the years of Franco’s rule, cultural suppression led to the formation of the terrorist organization ETA. Years of terrorist attacks ensued failing to result in any meaningful gains towards independence. Now the Basque are learning from their Catalan compadres, they have scheduled a vote for independence just like the Catalans had done.

This game was not just a game, it was a stage for the Basques and the Catalans to express themselves in front of the King of Spain, who attends every Copa Del Rey. Throughout the entirety of the game and before chants of “Vi..Va.. La Indepencia” echoed through the Camp Nou. The game had increased security due to the nationalist fervor and fear of outbreaks of violence. As I walked towards the stadiums flares, smoke and the chants of two peoples striving for independence filled the air.

While the 2015 Copa Del Rey was an excellent example of sports being used as a medium for nationalism, however, history reveals incredible examples as well. In 1980, in Lake Placid,  New York the United States Men’s Hockey team pulled off what some consider to be the greatest sports moment of the twentieth century, the “Miracle on Ice”. In the semi-final of the hockey tournament at the Olympics, the US Hockey team beat the Soviet Union who were odds on favorite to win the Gold medal. The Soviets had won the previous 4 straight gold medals for hockey in the winter Olympics. In those twenty years the United States had only beaten the Soviet Union once. Not only this but the Soviet team was comprised of many talented veterans and professional hockey players while the US team was filled with college athletes. Two weeks before the Olympics during an exhibition the Soviets had beaten the US in a 10-3 rout. Despite these great odds, the US team was able to defeat the Soviets and two days later beat Finland to win the Gold medal.

The Miracle on Ice was of great political importance during the time due to the contentious Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Olympics in 1980 were played on the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage Crisis. The height of the Cold War was occurring during the Olympics and the sport of Hockey became the method these two nations would wage war. Adding further intrigue to the Olympic games were numerous advocate saying the US should protest the games to stand up to the Soviets. The game became a symbol for the political conflict between the Soviets and the Americans and galvanized the national sentiment in one while one signaled the slow decline of the other.

The various teams discussed are so much more important than your average team, including our beloved Florida Gators. Some teams becomes a symbol for more, striving to unite a people and reach common goal. In 2001 after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the New York Yankees found themselves in the World Series. The Yankees would go on to win the championship and help galvanize New Yorkers together and help heal the country. After the Boston Bombings in 2013, the Boston Red Sox found themselves in a similar situation the Yankees were in 12 years earlier. After the bombing the David Ortiz, a Boston sports hero and icon, spoke to a somber crowd in Fenway declaring that “This is our fucking city”. Months later the Red Sox won the World Series uniting the city of Boston similarly to how the Yankees united New York. While these stories to not directly speak to nationalism they do reflect how certain teams can unite a group and mean more to a place than just any other team. Both these teams triumph in the face of terrorism declaring to the world that their cities were still alive and well. FC Barcelona, Atletico Bilbao and the US Men’s Hockey team each had equally profound impacts on their own respective nations and have become a mechanism for political statements. Sometimes sports are only sports and teams are just teams, their purpose is only to entertain us. Other times sports and their teams becomes something more special than we can realize. Sports can become part of a movement— a cause- they represent a yearning for a change or a people and when this happens a team becomes more than a club.

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