WORDS: EUAN McTEAR
The Basque and Catalan national teams are not recognised by FIFA or UEFA and only play occasional friendlies, but passions run high whenever their representatives take to the pitch. Recent high-profile games between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao got Euan McTear thinking…
On 28 December 2014, while most European players were either enjoying a winter break or preparing for yet another fixture in the unforgiving English Premier League schedule, over in Bilbao there was an international match taking place. Only, it wasn’t particularly international.
This was a match between Basque and Catalan ‘national’ sides, yet every player on the pitch that evening was eligible to play for you-know-who – the country that both sets of fans were determined not to be associated with.
Obviously not every one of the 45,000 attendees at Athletic Club’s shiny new San Mamés stadium in the heart of Bilbao was a supporter of independence, but the chants of, “we want it more than you,” in both Catalan and Basque language Euskara were not referring to victory in the evening’s 1-1 draw; they were referring to independence from Spain.
We don’t know just how much residents of the Basque Country region in central northern Spain want independence, but we do, supposedly, know just how much Catalans want it. That match at the tail end of 2014 was held just under two months after Catalonia held a non-binding referendum on independence from Spain in which 80.8 per cent of votes cast supported Catalonia becoming an independent state.
There is a caveat, however, which is that the turnout was estimated at just 40 per cent, thus suggesting that mostly the independence-minded turned out to vote that Sunday afternoon. Yet the result was still whoppingly in favour of independence and gave the friendly match in Bilbao an extra edge. The pair had met before – twice already in the previous decade actually – but one could sense that this match had an extra and politically charged dimension to it.
While both regions have, let’s say, doubts about remaining within the family of Spain, both are, however, equally keen to become members of the FIFA family. It was for official recognition by FIFA that both sets of fans marched through Bilbao side-by-side towards the stadium to demand they be recognised before that evening’s match.
That FIFA has not granted either the same kind of status that parts of other countries have received in the past, such as England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Faroe Islands or – more recently – Gibraltar, irritates football fans in both regions.
Because of that lack of a FIFA invitation, both the Basque and Catalan teams can only play in friendly matches and these matches are, therefore, not recognised by world football’s governing body. As such, it is extremely hard to secure big name opponents since no FIFA-ranking points are available for winning the match and many international teams prefer instead to play friendly matches that will count in their favour, particularly European nations since the rankings affect seeding for FIFA World Cup qualification groups.
The above might explain just why four of the Basque Country’s last six matches – excluding those against Catalonia – have been played against South American teams who do not come under a seeding system for World Cup qualification and why six of Catalonia’s last eleven matches – again, excluding those against the Basque Country – have also been against South American teams.
Another complication for the pair is that it is difficult to field their best players given that both regions’ best players, such as Gerard Pique, Cesc Fàbregas, Sergio Busquets for Catalonia and Xabi Alonso, Javi Martínez and Fernando Llorente for the Basque Country, all feature for Spain. It is for that reason that the matches tend to be held during the winter break ( as they regularly have been since the death of Franco) when there isn’t a full slate of international matches already scheduled. That generally permits only one outing in the popular-with-fans Basque or Catalan jerseys per year.
So is FIFA membership on the horizon?
In short, no, it almost certainly isn’t. The annual festive friendlies feed aspirations of FIFA-recognised teams and of World Cup qualification in many fans’ heads, but are too infrequent to promote a genuine sustained call for recognition. That this subject tends to rear its head just once a year while everyone is on holiday anyway does little good for the cause.
Both FIFA and UEFA have so far rejected both sides’ claims for an independent international football team, this despite years and years of campaigning from both the Basque and Catalan associations and even from Basque and Catalan politicians. That both regions field their largest clubs in the Spanish Football Federation’s league hierarchy goes against the push for independent teams as it has been argued that this demonstrates that both regions are part of Spanish football.
There would also be the tricky issue of transition, another argument against the wishes of the Basque and Catalan associations. Whereas there was no Gibraltar player needing to make the choice between playing for England and the tiny island state, with Catalonia or the Basque Country World Cup winners such as Busquets and Llorente would have to choose between playing for Spain or for their newly-founded region.
In fact, they may not even be permitted a choice given they would have already featured for one nation and thus be ineligible to turn out for another.
Only youngsters yet to feature for either would be able to choose to play for Catalonia or the Basque Country over Spain, but is a super-talented young Barcelona star really going to want to play for Catalonia and forfeit World Cup glory, or is he going to choose to play for Spain and give himself a legitimate chance of lifting the most coveted trophy in football? The answer to that may depend on how patriotic or glory-seeking each individual is.
Realistically, the only way that either Catalonia or the Basque Country will have its own FIFA-recognised national team is if the regions themselves go independent from Spain.
Whether or not that is likely to happen any time soon is a debate for a very different set of column inches, but if the whistles to the Spanish national anthem at last season’s Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Athletic Club – the largest-supported clubs in Catalonia and the Basque Country respectively – are anything to go by, the animosity towards Spain from these regions is far from dying down.