Spain: FC Barcelona is a Symbol of Catalonia’s Unique Culture

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'More than just a club' -- inside Camp Nou - photos by Matt Genner
‘More than just a club’ — inside Camp Nou – photos by Matt Genner

“More Than a Club” — FC Barcelona Embodies the Spirit of Catalonia

By Matt Genner

Whether you are climbing the steps of the Sagrada Familia or sipping a coffee near La Seu in the Barri Gòtic, Barcelona has many spectacular places of worship to explore. The most important to Barcelonians, however, is the Camp Nou, home of their beloved soccer team, FC Barcelona. The Barca Symbol of the FCB crest is as much a part of city as tapas.

On match days the city is awash with the club’s colors of claret and blue, as fans travel to the stadium or cram into the bars to watch the game. Heading towards the ground, I slip into one of the many bars lining the Avinguda Diagonal to soak up the pre-match atmosphere.

Estaban Median is a culé (the Catalan word for ‘ass’), a term used to describe the loyal fans of FC Barcelona. Dating back to the twenties, it refers to the supporters who used to sit on top of the stands with their bottoms exposed to people wandering past.

Living and Breathing Barça

Since he moved to the city fifteen years ago, Estaban has been a regular at the Camp Nou. Over a few glasses of Estrella Damm he tells me the important role that the club has played in his life.

“When I came here from Andalusia one of the ways I was able to feel part of the city and part of Catalonia was to support Barça,” he says.

“It was hard being a migrant but the club gives you an identity. Now I feel Catalan and I’m proud to live in Barcelona. Being a culé is about living and breathing Barça. The most important day of my year is when Madrid come here. The whole city is electric. Barça are playing for a nation that day, not a city.”
Camp Nou, home of FC Barcelona

Camp Nou, home of FC Barcelona

Leaving the bar, I walk down the Avinguda de Joan XXIII watching the fans streaming towards the stadium. The Camp Nou looms on the horizon.

Europe’s largest stadium is a concrete giant; its huge grey stands rise from the earth, providing a contrasting backdrop to the bursting colour of the stalls selling shirts, scarves and flags.

The air is filled with the noise of children excitedly, and at times annoyingly, blowing horns, as they rush to see their heroes.

Climbing through the bowels of the stadium, I eventually reach my seat high up in the third tier. The Camp Nou looks enormous from the outside but only now do I realize its true size. The lower tier is dug into the ground meaning it’s invisible approaching the stadium.

With kick-off approaching the communal singing of the club’s anthem reverberates around the ground. ‘Blaugrana al vent, un crit valent, tenim un num el sap tothom, Barça! Barça! Barça! (Red and blue colours flying in the wind, and a cry of courage with a name that we all know, Barça! Barça! Barça!).

Shouts of ‘Torero’

Club flags are waved, interspersed with the Senyeras, the flag of Catalonia, as the players emerge from the tunnel to the applause of 96,000 people.

Shouts of ‘torero’ echo around the ground in appreciation of good play and exceptional skill. The term originated in the crowds at bullfights in response to daring moves by the fighters.

This is not the only language derived from bullfighting to permeate football. Players are referred to as ‘el matador’ and the game ‘la corrida’, with fans waving white handkerchiefs in moments of deep emotion.

Returning to the Camp Nou the day after the match, to visit the club’s museum and take a tour behind the scenes of the stadium, I enter the tunnel. On my right is the players’ chapel, giving them a chance for one final prayer before ascending to the pitch.

Walking out of the tunnel the perspective is very different from that of my lofty position yesterday. Now the vast stadium seems claustrophobic with the steep stands extending forever upwards. Seats that were full of spectators are now empty, revealing the words ‘més que un club’.

The chapel at Camp NouThe chapel at Camp Nou


Diego Maradona's shirt at the FC Barcelona museumDiego Maradona’s shirt at the FC Barcelona museum

Looking at the many exhibits in the museum illustrates that Barça is ‘more than a club’. At a time when globalization is blurring cultures, sport is becoming increasingly important as a way to convey national and regional identities.

Sandwiched between France and Spain, Catalonia has fought throughout its history for various levels of autonomy. In the last hundred years FC Barcelona has been part of that fight.

With their main rival, Real Madrid, perceived as the team of the central government since Franco’s dictatorship, el clásico, when the two teams meet, is seen as a battle against central power.

A Living Tradition

A detailed look at the life of Hans Gamper, who founded FC Barcelona in 1899, greets me as I enter the museum. An adopted Catalan of Swiss-German origin, he paved the way for Barcelona to be an open club which embraced new supporters. This tradition, as Estaban had told me, still lives on today.

The museum is full of trophies, including the European Cup won in 2006 and shirts from the club’s famous players such as Ronaldo and Maradona.

On display is artwork from the club’s various anniversaries including a poster painted by Catalan artist Joan Miró and works by Salvador Dalí.

The links between the club and cutting-edge design continue today, with the Camp Nou due to be revamped by Norman Foster into a multi-colored stadium, in keeping with the city’s quest to modernize.

Artwork from the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympic GamesArtwork from the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympic Games

As much as the football club has been used to express Catalanism, Montjuïc Castle has been used as a means of repressing separatist feelings within the city.

The area is now a popular destination for visitors with the castle, palace, various museums and the site of the 1992 Olympic Games attracting travelers to the now peaceful and picturesque hill.

Founded by Hercules

When Hercules, the mythical founder of Barcelona, climbed Montjuïc, he must have known instantly that he had found the perfect place for a settlement. Reaching the castle at the summit, which for many years was used to bombard the city with cannon fire, the view is spectacular.

To my right is the Mediterranean, glistening in the spring sunshine, where for centuries the ports have provided prosperity for many of the city’s inhabitants.

In front of me the city stretches from the coast to the mountains in the north, and I can make out many of the famous landmarks such as the Sagrada Familia and the Palau National.

Located slightly down from the summit, the Anella Olimpica was the centerpiece of the 1992 Olympic Games. The Estadi Olimpic is now the home of Espanyol, Barcelona’s other, less well-supported, football club and it was here that an archer famously fired a burning arrow to light the Olympic torch but missed.

The Estadi Olimpic in Barcelona, Spain.The Estadi Olimpic in Barcelona, Spain.

I can see the torch still mounted to the stand, but for a real sense of the impact and the history of the games I head to the Museu Olimpic, located next to the stadium.

Descending through the four floors of the museum, I’m informed by interactive displays about the history of sport around the world, the history of the Olympics and then the ’92 games.

“Barcelona wanted to take advantage of the Olympic Games to show the creative capacities of its artists,” reads the sign, as I enter the section displaying the various pieces of artwork commissioned prior to the event.

The paintings and sculptures, by Catalan artists such as Tàpies and Guinovart, are vibrant, colorful pieces, portraying a dynamic city trying to express itself on the world stage.

Alternative Games

In 1936 Barcelona had planned to hold an alternative games to the Olympics, which that year were held in Nazi Germany. The ‘Popular Games’ were due to take place at Montjuïc and the stadium was originally created for them.

A poster for the 'Popular Games'A poster for the ‘Popular Games’

However, the outbreak of the civil war put an end to these plans, but items, including posters and letters supporting Barcelona from Pierre De Coubertin, are on display.

An indication of the rebellious and alternative streak present throughout Barcelona’s history, the ‘Popular Games’ were planned to be a throwback to the original Olympic values.

Leaving the summit of Montjuïc by cable car, I head for the Palau National at the base of the hill, arriving in time for the majestic display of the Font Màgica.

The 15-minute spectacle sees light, water and music bursting from the main fountain and is accompanied by the backdrop of the illuminated Palau National. It is the perfect way to end a day exploring Montjuïc.

It was not just in sporting terms that the Olympics improved facilities in Barcelona. Large parts of the city underwent regeneration including the Port Olimpic and Barcelonetta areas on the sea front.

Taking a stroll along La Rambla del Mar, then heading towards the Port Olimpic, is a great way to escape the hustle of the city center. The district is full of new shops, restaurants and airy, tree-lined walkways but I have come here to find out more about the history of the region in the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya.

A Unique Culture

The Font MagicaThe Font Magica at Camp Nou.

Catalonia has a history stretching back over ten thousand years, much of it influenced by its location between the Pyrenees and the coast.

Rising through the three floors of the museum, I witness the development of the nation from early bronze-age settlements to the present day. Catalonia has grown from a sparsely populated region to a Mediterranean empire, switching from Spanish control to an independent nation and back again.

This constant change has led to a diverse region; from the cities of Barcelona, Girona and Tarragona to the calm mountain villages of the Pyrenees, Catalonia is full of varied architecture, food and music, which has been assimilated to form its unique culture.

Reaching the final sequence of exhibitions, I am brought into the last century; a century dominated by one thing: Francoism. The reconstrucLa Bouqueria Market on La Rambla CanaletesLa Bouqueria Market on La Rambla Canaletes ted classroom depicting military-style schooling, barricades to shelter from air raids and the propaganda posters help me realise how repressed the citizens of Barcelona where during these years.

An Epic Weapon

When Franco’s coup seized power of Spain, he set about trying to destroy the peninsula’s regional identities. It was during this time that FC Barcelona became a symbol of expression for the Catalan people.

Franco banned the Catalan language and the stadium became one of the few refuges where it could be spoken.

In his book ‘Barcalonas’, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, described the important impact of the team as: “the epic weapon of a country without a state or army, el Barça’s victories were like those of Athens over Sparta.”

La Rambla is a short walk from the museum and after the laidback atmosphere of the seafront, Barcelona’s most famous avenue is densely packed.

Battling past the bars, famous flower sellers and souvenir bazaars, I head towards the Plaça de Catalunya and La Rambla Canaletes.

The Canaletes fountain is diminutive and easily missed among the myriad of performers, tourists and shoppers, and yet it is one of the most important features of the famous street.

In the past it was believed that those who drank from the fountain would always return to Barcelona. Now the water is of poor quality but the fountain is still a special place for many Barcelonians.

During the Franco years it was one of the few places where it was possible to hold public debates and was often the scene of many arguments among culés.

It is now where fans head to celebrate their team’s triumphs and there were great scenes here when Barça won the European Cup in 2006, as the culés sang through the night about their club and the Catalan anthem ‘Els Segadores’.

Més que un club, is certainly a motto that rings true. For more than one hundred years FC Barcelona has been a symbol and expression of Catalonia, providing a means of integration for immigrants and standing firm as Franco tried to destroy the region’s identity.

Now Barça is a team playing with real verve and confidence. In much the same way that the city is now free from repression, so too the football club seems unshackled. It is this symbiosis, between the team and the city, which makes FC Barcelona more than a club.

Matt Genner

Matt Genner is a freelance sports journalist based in the UK who is now starting out as a travel writer. He hopes to combine his love of watching and playing sport with the excitement of traveling the globe.