Catalunya vs Euskal Herria–When Language, Culture and Football mix in Spain

Spanish football is never short of passion. Real Madrid-Barcelona ‘clasicos’ divide families and towns in two when these teams meet twice a year in the Spanish La Liga. The Sevilla-Betis derby literally divides the city of Sevilla in two just like the Barcelona-Espanyol and Levante-Valencia matches. The passion felt in these matches is something like I’ve never seen.

This passion is also carried over into what is a ‘strange’ part of Spanish football. That is, the battle of the autonomous regions. On Saturday, the Spanish autonomous regions of Catalunya and ‘Euskal Herria’ (which literally means Country of the Basques’ in Basque) will take to the field in a game that is garnering quite the attention in Spain and will pack the San Mames in Bilbao. I bet you are asking: Why is this game so much more than a game? To do that, we will need to go further into the history of Spain itself.

Spain is divided into 17 autonomous regions and two autonomous cities. These autonomous regions are self-governing in that each essentially has their own political court, police system (more or less) and capital city. (Read here if you want more info) The autonomous regions were created to give regions in Spain their own identity, but also to keep Spain whole as a nation.

Some of these autonomous nations were decided based on being a historical nationality two of them being Cataluña (Catalunya in Catalan) and País Vasco (Euskedi in Basque and possibly Euskal Herria depending on the translation). These two regions were given autonomy rather quickly after the Spanish Constitution in 1978 due to their history, which includes their own distinct language spoken in each region.

In País Vasco, the historical language spoken is Basque. The Basque language is interesting (reminder that I am a Linguist by day so this is interesting to me) because it is a language isolate, essentially making it unrelated to any other languages that exist in the world. This is very uncommon in the worlds languages and one of only two languages in Europe with this distinction.

In Catalunya, the historical language spoken is Catalan, which is a Romance language that broadly stated is a cross between French and Spanish. Catalan is spoken in Barcelona and throughout the province of Catalunya. Ask anyone who has ever been to Barcelona how the signs are written. First, the sign is in Catalan, second in either Spanish or English (sometimes English to stick it to the Spainards) and third, in whatever of the previous two it wasn’t written in.

Now why is language important? Well, you have to remember until 1978 and the death of Franco, Spain was under a dictatorship, in which Francisco Franco said ‘If you are Spanish, you will speak Spanish’ and outlawed any other languages besides Spanish to be spoken in the country. People were literally shot and killed for speaking Catalan, Basque of Gallego (another language spoken in Spain, mostly near Galicia). With this, Franco took away the culture and history of each of the speakers of Basque, Catalan and Gallego. They were forced to speak Castellano (What ‘Spanish’ is called in Spain) and were never to speak their other language again for fear of death.

Fortunately, Catalan, Basque and Gallego were kept alive by many devoted speakers who did not want to see their language, or their history, be destroyed by Franco. After Franco’s death and with the formation of the autonomous regions, Castellano was made the official language of Spain, with all other languages receiving the same respect in their own regions. Thus, Basque was able to be spoken and used in Pais Vasco, and Catalan in Catalunya.

Now, fast forward to the year 2007. In Spain there exists a strong nationalism within each respective autonomous region, and none more evident than in Catalunya and in País Vasco. Both regions would like nothing more than to separate (if possible) from Spain and form their own country and live their own happy lives. Catalans are often portrayed as ‘tacaño’ which means ‘stingy’, in the rest of Spain and are thought of as being nationalistic to a flaw in their love for all things Catalunya. País Vasco is similar, but with ETA killing and causing havoc (this is another story) and protests for the ‘right’ of Basques to have their own country and homeland, they are seen as taking it to the next level.

With regards to the languages, you now have four languages that are being used at the same time and are all ‘official’ languages. Go on any website centered in Barcelona. The website will be in Catalan, Castellano and English. Go on and see an article written about Barcelona. Comments will be in Catalan and in Castellano. People speak Basque to ‘give it’ to non-basques. The same goes for Catalans as they will speak Catalan in Barcelona to show that they are Catalan nationals and proud of it. Language for them is a symbol of identity and one of pride, something that Spaniards as a whole are not afraid to show.

Where does this story take us in a football blog??? Well, as we all know, everything political in football crazy nations eventually transcends into the world of football and this is no different.

Both Euskal Herria (País Vasco) and Catalunya (along with most of the autonomous regions in Spain) have their own sides consisting of players that are born in each respective region. Most of the regions don’t garner much attention and the games are seen as ‘friendlies’ are normally are played during the Christmas break and randomly throughout the year. However, Pais Vasco and Catalunya want to be seen as their own separate footballing ‘nations’ and be recognized as such. Their desire for independence is stretching out onto the soccer pitch, or more likely, their lack of progress on the Political front has brought their Political and nationalistic views to the national sport. Both want to play competitive international matches against other countries. Sure, the regions do play matches against other countries as The Canary Islands played Angola on Friday, but these are not widely recognized games. Many Catalans are calling for a Catalunya-Spain match, but this game is essentially, against the law and would not be played. You can remember a while back the talk of a Catalunya-United States game seemed like it was a done deal but it was called off for being ‘played at the wrong time’ since the regional games are played over the Christmas break. Really, the Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) called off the game since they did not want to see Catalunya play the US squad. They are complacent with a Canary Island-Angola match, but a game against the US puts the Catalan side into a whole new level, one that the RFEF does not want to see come to fruition.

Both teams were denied their petitions to play authorized international competitions this past week. This does not have an effect on the game on Saturday, but does toss up another roadblock on the road to being ‘official’. El Pais has the headline that ‘The teams from the Basque Country and Catalunya will claim their officiality tomorrow in San Mamés’ Both teams will be looking to make headlines tomorrow and bring their claims to be recognized officially to the football pitch.

Both teams do not bring amateur sides to these games. Catalunya will suit up the following players. See if you recognize any of the names.

Albert Jorquera, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, Bojan Krkic, Marc Crosas (Barcelona), Ferran Corominas, Ángel Martínez, David García, Francisco Chica (Espanyol), Antoni Pinilla, Dani Tortolero (Gimnàstic), Sergio García (Zaragoza), Sergio González, Joan Verdú (Deportivo), David Berenguer (Getafe), Bruno Saltor, Carlos García (Almería), Josep Maria Soler (Manresa) y José Miguel Morales (Terrassa).

Pais Vasco bring the following players, most all who play for Bilbao:

Aitor Lopez Rekarte (Almería); del Athletic de Bilbao: Aduriz, Etxeberria, Gabilondo, Iraola, Yeste, Fernando Llorente, Amorebieta, Orbaiz y Del Horno; Iñaki Lafuente (Espanyol); Gaizka Mendieta (Middlesbrough); Puñal (Osasuna); de la Real Sociedad: Aramburu, Riesgo, Labaka, Mikel Gonzalez y Xabi Prieto; y Joseba Llorente (Valladolid).

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that Athletic Bilbao has a policy that is ‘All Basque players, all the time’. They do not sign non-Basque players, and have never been relegated from the First Division of La Liga. This does not stop players from going abroad to play, but the majority of the Basques stay at home and play for Bilbao. According to a survey in El Mundo 76% of Athletic fans would rather see the club relegated than give up the cantera policy. Some see this policy as racist, but others as simply ultra-nationalistic.

What I am waiting to see tomorrow is who is appointed the referee for the game. Is it possible for the teams to find a referee that speaks Spanish, Basque and Catalan? That would be simply an amazing feat in my mind, not for the fact of being multilingual, but simply for the fact that he would speak two languages that are only spoken inside Spain and are not taught outside of their respective region. I’m almost certain the referee will speak Castillian and that will be the end of it.

So tomorrow when Catalunya and Euskal Herria take to the pitch in what seems to be a simple game of football over the La Liga Christmas break, you’ll know that the game is really so much more.


5 Responses

  1. Thank you for the history lesson, really interesting reading. Do you think things will progress beyond where they are now, and we’ll have breakaway nations?

  2. Maybe in football, but you will NEVER see a Pais Vasco that is truly independent of the Spanish state. It is just too much, to ask and even if Spain would say yes, they want the bottom part of France as well, and with ETA still around, they will not give in to this.

    I try to put it in comparison with the states we have here, but it really can’t be done. These people are strongly nationalistic, even in places like Extramadura and Castilla La-Mancha, but it’s nothing how the Catalans and Basques are.

  3. This was a wonderful, interesting read.

  4. […] Football in Spain — The Nationalism of its Regions There are five major languages spoken in Spain. Castillian is the largest of these but the others have speakers in the millions. After the Spanish Civil War, Franco attempted to corral the use of regional tongues and impose Castillian on the other regions. With the dictatorship hard and heavy, regional languages and nationalism found their greatest inspiration on the pitch. Every time el Barça took the field, it carried the aspirations of the Catalanes, Celta the hopes of the Gallegos, Valencia the dreams of Valencianos while Racing Santander and Atletico Bilbao took up the Basque cause. Here’s more on Spain’s football divide from Center Holds It. […]

  5. Nice subject area that you have chosen.

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