20 September 2019
Can Catalan soccer clubs such as FC Barcelona continue to play in La Liga once Catalonia becomes an independent sovereign state? Photo: Reuters
Can Catalan soccer clubs such as FC Barcelona continue to play in La Liga once Catalonia becomes an independent sovereign state? Photo: Reuters

What the soccer world would be like after Catalan independence

In my previous article I discussed the possible political and diplomatic implications of Catalonia’s independence for both Spain and the entire Europe.

However, as for the people of Hong Kong, perhaps what most of them are truly concerned about is whether their favorite Catalan soccer clubs such as FC Barcelona can continue to play in La Liga (Spain’s top soccer league) once Catalonia becomes an independent sovereign state.

Gerard Esteva, chairman of the Sports Federation Union of Catalonia (UFEC), believes that after Catalonia gains its independence, FC Barcelona will have the right to choose between staying in La Liga or switching to France’s Ligue 1.

This is easier said than done. The norms governing international relations and state sovereignty don’t necessarily apply to the soccer world as well, which explains why Monaco, a sovereign state in its own right, is allowed to play in the France’s top soccer league.

And the reason why the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) is unlikely to allow Barcelona to join Ligue 1 is that if it did so, it would virtually open the floodgates for other soccer clubs across Europe which are also thinking of joining foreign leagues for economic or commercial reasons, thereby turning the existing “international order” of the soccer world on its head and giving rise to a lot of chaos.

In the meantime, however, La Liga president Javier Tebas has taken a tough stance on the issue. Citing the Spanish Sports Act, Tebas asserts that once Catalonia secedes from Spain, all football clubs based in the region, including FC Barcelona, RCD Espanyol and Girona FC, will automatically lose their places in La Liga.

He also “kindly reminds” Barcelona that once it leaves La Liga, the club will no longer be able to have the same amount of annual TV rights revenue it now enjoys.

As far as the commercial prospects for a Catalan soccer league are concerned, Tebas believes it would at best be as popular as the Dutch league, not to mention that the newly-born Catalan league will have to make extra effort for its clubs to compete in the UEFA European Champions League.

In other words, Catalonia’s independence is likely to spell uncertainty for FC Barcelona. There’s a chance that might trigger an exodus of star players from the club.

In fact, Zinedine Zidane, former French soccer legend and current coach of Real Madrid CF, said he just couldn’t imagine a La Liga without Barcelona.

Nevertheless, Lionel Messi, the Argentinian striker and golden boy of Barcelona, seems to be in favor of an independent Catalonia: a Catalan rather than a Spanish flag was displayed at his wedding banquet back in Argentina.

Another critical issue that may arise from the independence of Catalonia is how it is going to change the landscape of the Spanish national soccer team, since one-fourth of the players in the Spanish squad were born in Catalonia.

According to US media, once Catalonia breaks off from Spain, superstars such as Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fàbregas and Xavi are likely to quit or to be ousted from the Spanish national squad, thus joining the “Catalan team”.

Even though an independent Catalonia may also form its own national team, and as Xavi speculates, would turn out to be successful, the new Catalan team will find it hard to make its debut in international soccer tournaments.

Spain will certainly go to great lengths to boycott the Catalan team using its influence with the international football governing body FIFA, just like the way it had been barring the Gibraltarian soccer team from playing in the World Cup over the decades. In fact, it isn’t until next year’s World Cup that Gibraltar finally will be qualified to play its qualification matches.

However, if, against all odd, Catalonia as a sovereign state does eventually make it to major international tournaments, its performance will be worth looking forward to, and the Catalan team is likely to wow soccer fans across the globe just as Croatia did back in 1998, when the country made its World Cup debut and finished an impressive third.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal