Examining the Catalan call for independence from Spain and the possible sporting ramifications if successful

The Catalan independence question comes at an incredibly inconvenient time for Spain’s current government. Spain is grappling with unsustainable borrowing costs and a soaring public deficit while it tries to calm its citizens over high unemployment rates and its somewhat stringent austerity programme. Now they risk the possibility of losing 20% of the country’s economy. Catalonia is the industrial heartbeat of the spanish economy as well as being the most populous and affluent region in Spain. Without resulting to a geography lesson, Catalonia is of course situated on the Mediterranean, bordering France, and is home to seven million people and made up of four provinces: Barcelona, Lleida, Tarragona and Girona.

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 means that the country is composed of 17 autonomous communities and two autonomous cities. These areas of Spain have varying degrees of autonomy, to the extent that, even though the Constitution does not formally state that Spain is a federation, actual power shows, depending on the actual issues considered, widely varying grades of decentralization from central government. Challenges have often been brought before the Spanish courts, most recently in 2010, when the Spanish constitutional courts ruled that although the term “nation” could be applied to Catalonia, the description had no legal validity. Effectively it would be illegal for Catalonia under the Spanish Constitution to become independent.

The President of the Catalan Regional Government (Generalitat de Cataluña), Artur Mas, told parliament recently that he intended to call a referendum on independence for Catalonia even if central government would not authorise such a move. Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, the leader of the Unió party, defended the President of the Generalitat’s call for the right to self-determination: “I consider the right to hold a referendum to be perfectly democratic”, and that, “exercising the famous right to self-determination, that raises so many suspicions, does not equate to independence. I can exercise my right to self- determination and, at the same time, pledge my commitment to a formula to continue in the context of Spain”.

There are fears in some parts that increased tensions could result in a return to the dark days of the Spanish Civil War. Colonel Francisco Alaman of Spain’s Army recently promised to crush the “vultures” if they choose independence from Span. “Independence for Catalonia? Over my dead body, and that of many other soldiers”. He went on to say, “Even if the lion is sleeping, don’t provoke the lion, because he will show the ferocity proven over centuries.” It is easy to reject these comments as hyperbole coming from one particularly conservative old military honcho but according to retired Lt. General Pedro Pitarch it is in fact, “Deeply-rooted thinking in large parts of the armed forces.”

Now if it was not bad enough that Spain could lose not only its industrial and financial hub, a large portion of its citizenship, further damage to its already struggling econonmy and international prestige, not to mention the likelihood of serious civil unrest between those considering themselves Catalan and those in the rest of Spain, we must (as this is a blog about both law and sport) question what would happen to Spain’s national football team and its domestic league?

In 1962, at the 33rd FIFA Congress in Santiago, Chile, FIFA put an end to what was seen as an era of relatively free country-swapping by football players. For example, Alfredo Di Stefano played for three national sides during his career including his native Argentina, then Colombia, following a move to their domestic league, and later for Spain when he joined Real Madrid. Moreover, the great Ferenc Puskas, who was a star for his native Hungary during the 40’s and 50’s before switched his national allegiance to play for Spain in the early 60’s following his exile from Hungary due to the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by the Soviet Union at the time.

I would suggest that most football supporters are aware of the rules on players qualifying for their national sides. It is well known that players like Lucas Podolski who was born in Poland, or that Mesut Özil the German-born son of a Turkish immigrant were both allowed to play for Germany under FIFA’s regulations. FIFA’s Article 15 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes is of particular note as it states that any Player who has already participated in a match (either in full or in part) in an official competition of any category or any type of football for one Association may not play an international match for a representative team of another Association if the players is over 21 years of age. A player, up to his 21st birthday, may only once request changing the Association for which he is eligible to play international matches.

Hypothetically, should the Barcelona based players like Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Carlos Puyol, or Gerard Piqué wish to renounce their Spanish nationality and take up a Catalonian one (and I would be very surprised if given the chance they didn’t), and as many of them are older than 21 and have played more than one international game for Spain, they would be unable to represent a national Catalonian Football Team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil or indeed thereafter.

However, under FIFA’s Article 18 if a Player who has been fielded by his Association in an internationalmatch permanently loses the nationality of that country without his consent or against his will due to a decision by a government authority, he may request permission to play for another Association whose nationality he already has or has acquired. Perhaps the key phrase here is ‘without his consent or against his will’. If FIFA were to strictly interpret their rules then surely a player who voluntarily renounces his own citizenship, as in this hypothetical case, would not be able to rely upon this regulation. But we do live in the real world after all, and I would find it unlikely that, regardless of any political pressures applied from Madrid, FIFA would not allow these stars of the wordern game to continue to shine on the international stage especially given the history of the Catalan region. Ergo some of the greatest players of their generation would just have to apply and argue their case to FIFA that they are now Catalonian as a result of the independence of that region and should be allowed to play for the national team of this hypothetical new European state.

Article 18 of the Regulations Governing the Application of Statutes (now repealed by the above regulations) that came about as a result of the 33rd FIFA Congress provided special circumstances designed to cover situations like the breakup of the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. The new and improved Article 18 would in theory provide for much the same as its predecessor, albeit with the possible difficulties as outlined above. Of course if this were to happen then Spain would lose many of its current sporting heroes and this may perhaps result in them being unable to defend their European and World Cup crowns.

So, we have in theory at least, solved the issue of a new national Catalan Football Team filled with stars from Barcelona. But what about Barca itself? Will a new “Liga Catalunya” be formed and filled with the small teams from Lleida, Tarragona and Girona for Barcelona to face off against. More than likely this would make the current Scottish Football League look more like the Bundesliga or the Premiership in terms of its competitiveness. FC Barcelona would be a very big fish in a very small pond. So could Barcelona continue to play in La Liga the way we see Cardiff and Swansea as part of the English Football League? Well in this analogy it should be noted that there wasn’t a professional football league in Wales at the time each of those clubs were founded, so they decided to join the closest one that was in existence. In this situation there would likely be severe strains between Madrid and Barcelona, and those running La Liga may feel that Barcelona should no longer continue to participate.

By its own definition the Spanish Professional Football League (La Liga) is; ‘a Sporting Association incorporated under private law that, pursuant to the provisions of articles 12 and 41 of Law 10/1990, of 15 October (hereinafter the Spanish Sports Law), shall be composed exclusively and mandatorily of Public Limited Sports Companies (Sociedades Anónimas Deportivas) and Clubs that compete in official professional football competitions of national scale, and shall have legal responsibility for organising such competitions in conjunction with the Royal Spanish Football Federation (Real Federación Española de Fútbol, hereinafter the Spanish Football Federation).’

The LIGA is a legal entity with full legal capacity to pursue its purpose and full autonomy from the Spanish Football Federation, of which it forms part, with regards to its internal organisation and operation.’

The internal rules governing the league can be found here. Alas my Spanish is fairly limited and I am only just able to order a cold beer correctly so if anyone who happens to be fluent wants to peruse these further then please be my guest. I would make an educated guess that within the internal rules of the league there is the provision for removing a club should they no longer “follow the rules”, so to speak. I would expect that Barcelona would then be ejected from the league. Although I am happy to be proved wrong and educated further on this assumption. Even if Barcelona wanted to be a part of La Liga they would likely find themselves in a similar situation to what Celtic and Rangers have over the last few years in regards to joining the Premiership.

I would not suggest that the playing status of the Spain national team, or Barcelona and their players, should be a defining issue in the argument for Catalonian independence. It is but a small issue when put into comparison with the other present and historical problems facing Spain and Catalonia. Not to mention the ramifications for the Eurozone or to the UK. Nor would I pass any opinion on the validity of another peoples’ or regions rights to self govern and be independent from a state that they no longer wish to be a part of. This post merely intends to highlight a few of the legal and sporting headaches that would likely come about as a result of independence for Catalonia. However, I am sure there are far more intelligent minds than I that could sort this whole thing out quicker than you could cook a paella.

Post Update: One of our guest bloggers, Simon Boniface, made the following observations for the post that I had not previously considered. Simon believes that should La Liga not accept Barca to participate in the league it would seem logical that they might and should apply to and participate in the French League, Ligue 1, due to the close cultural ties that Catalonia has with the neighbouring area of France.

As football is so key for Barcelona they would have to maintain that part of their culture and perhaps joining the Frech league would accomplish this. That all said and done it is highly unlikely La Liga would reject them in, Simon’s opinion. The dispute with Real Madrid would be even stronger and enhance the rivalry between the two power houses of Spanish football. To take away El Clasico would mean a hit in the pocket for the La Liga in terms of merchandising and television revenue. Surely no team or organisation would want that. Money always talks.

Simon’s points are well founded. The only caveats I would make is that hypothetically the other teams in La Liga (with the exception of Real Madrid) might perhaps see this as the opportune moment to get a larger slice of the pie when it comes to television revenue. There is the possibility that with increased revenue La Liga might become more competitive than the usual two horse race. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not there would in fact be an increase in revenue with Barca leaving the league. As for Barca joining Ligue 1, it is possible that Barca would still find themselves in the same position as Rangers and Celtic do in terms of joining the Premiership. Would the French clubs want the additional competition from Barca? Would they trade this against the added revenue the league would likely receive from Barca being in Ligue 1? Possibly, but of course this is all hypothetical.

I must thank Simon for his input on this post. Stay tuned as he will soon be publishing his own piece on JvdLD. Until then please do follow him on Twitter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer(s) and this article does not constitute legal advice.


England National Football Team Player Eligibility by England Football Online

National team eligibility rules: FIFA, UEFA, the IOC and the CAS by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP

FIFA Statutes August 2009 Edition