Freedom of Speech, Barça, and Modern Spain

[This article was written with Cristel M. Jusino Díaz]

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. -Voltaire

A football fan being charged with “violence, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance in sport” is hardly something new. That it would occur in Spain is equally unsurprising. Xenophobia, after all, is well documented in the highest echelons of the domestic league, sitting in boardrooms right next to racism. This time, though, there’s an added twist in this article. A quick recap of it in the next paragraph:

Sergi Massó is a 25 year old Barça fan who, like many others, traveled to Madrid for the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao. After he’d gone through the Vicente Calderón gates with his friends, Massó was singled out by police because the scarf he was wearing contained the phrase “United for Freedom” in both Euskera (Basque) and Catalan; the two autonomous regions’ flags, the Ikurrina and Senyera, respectively; and an ancient Celtic symbol sometimes associated with radical Basque separatist movements, the lauburu. Sergi’s scarf was confiscated by police and a complaint was filed with the Madrid City Council* after the match. Today, El País, reports that Sergi has been fined €3001 for the display of these pro Catalan and Basque independence symbols, which the Council claims is a grave offense, citing the perpetration of “violence, racism, xenophobia and intolerance in sport.” On top of the fine (which is more than 4 and a half months worth of the Spanish minimum salary), Massó is also banned from any sporting facility in Spain for the next 6 months. The paper, El País, points out that Sergi is a known member of Solidaritat per la Independencia (SI), a pro Catalan independence group founded, coincidentally, in 2010 by ex FC Barcelona president, Joan Laporta.

Some context, perhaps: The conservative Partido Popular (PP), headed by Mariano Rajoy, recently won the Spanish elections, returning to power after 12 years of Socialist rule. Spain is facing one of the biggest economic crises in its history, including a massive youth protest movement known as 15-M. These protests, which were national, were sometimes, perhaps often, met with violent police repression. Given this context, tensions were running high in the days leading up to the 2012 Copa del Rey final. Into this scene ran Esperanza Aguirre, the Madrid Community President and a member of PP, stating that if the anthem were booed, the match should immediately be suspended and then played behind closed doors. When questioned about the harshness of these statements, Aguirre reminded the press that freedom of speech allowed her to state her opinion that the anthem should be respected at all costs.

In the end, on the same day of the Copa del Rey final in Madrid, the local authorities authorized a “National Unity” march organized by Falange Española, the modern incarnation of the radical right wing party that supported Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from the 1930s onward. In the same way that pro-independence movements have their symbols, the Falangists display Francoist Spanish flags, while one can also hear people singing the Francoist anthem, “Cara al sol”. These demonstrations are, apparently, unrelated to “violence, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance in sport” and are thus protected under freedom of speech.

This may seem only vaguely connected with Barça, but as FCB becomes a larger global brand, it has run across the differences between being a regional player and a marketing powerhouse. It has also reached a point where it is using its own history to expand itself into places where that history does not have the same depth of feeling for fans. For those who grew up in Catalunya during the dictatorship, there is often an obvious connection between the Barça that allowed Catalan in its stands when the language was otherwise banned and their own feelings towards it. This is probably not true of many foreign fans (both authors are in that category), but Sergi Massó proves that younger fans can still identify with catalanisme.

Barça should—must—stand for the right of its fans to sport a variety of politics when they attend matches. It is not a question of aligning with the SI, the PP, or any other political party or viewpoint, but rather that freedom of speech does not apply simply to one set of fans or political affiliation. It is for everyone and Barça should defend the right of its fans to exercise it. That obviously does not include inciting violence, being racist, xenophobic, or otherwise intolerant, but it does mean defending our own rights through defending the rights of others. Massó may not be your political cup of tea (or Esperanza Aguirre for that matter), but that does not make them worthy of being silenced. Furthermore, Barça is a Catalan institution and Catalans should have the right to expect that Barça, purporting to represent them as mes que un club or som la gent blaugrana/Tant se val d’on venim will publicly defend their rights. Esperanza Aguirre is right about one thing, that’s for sure: freedom of speech is massively important.

Let’s hope Barça can step up and help one of its own.

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*In Spanish, Delegacion del Gobierno de Madrid (read about it here), which has only rough analogs to the American system of governance. Esperanza Aguirre is the head of what amounts to the state government, there being a difference between the community of Madrid and the city of Madrid much as Barcelona and Catalunya are different.