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Football and Politics: Catalans' goal divides Spain

The Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is not used to being jeered at by his own Socialist party faithful, but that was what happened when he boasted that a Spanish soccer team would win the Champions League.

The problem was not the boast, which stands a good chance of being proved correct when Barcelona take on Arsenal in the Paris final, but where he chose to say it. Zapatero was talking to several thousand Socialists in the Madrid suburb of Carabanchel. Those booing him were mostly supporters of Real Madrid - bitter rivals of the prime minister's beloved Barcelona. The jeers were not just about football, though. They were also a reminder that the political relationship between Madrid and Barcelona - or the region it sits in, Catalonia - has become Zapatero's biggest headache.

FC Barcelona, led by Brazilian star Ronaldinho, likes to claim it is 'more than just a club': to some of its fans, it is a symbol of Catalonia. 'Barcelona is much more than a football club, and being a Barça supporter means not just supporting the club,' the defender Oleguer Presas explained recently. 'To defend Barça is to defend Catalonia.'

The right back is a hero to fans, precisely because, in a team full of players from Brazil, Holland and Cameroon, he is one of just a handful of Catalan players. Oleguer is also part of a growing number of Catalans who would like to see Catalonia recognised as a country in its own right.

And it is Catalonia that has been Zapatero's biggest problem in his two years of government. A new autonomy charter, designed to dampen nationalist ardour by transferring new powers to Barcelona, has led to months of tense wrangling in the Spanish parliament. It finally got parliamentary approval last month, and is now being reviewed by the Senate. It must be put to a referendum among Catalan voters in the summer.

Among other concessions, the charter gives Catalonia a greater share of income tax and other tax revenue collected in the region and a greater say over the court system, which is controlled from Madrid. In a roundabout way, it also refers to Catalonia as 'a nation'. The process of negotiating that charter saw the conservative opposition People's Party, and powerful voices from within the ranks of Zapatero's own Socialists, launch a ferocious campaign against giving away any more powers from Madrid to Barcelona.

Last week the People's Party called on Zapatero to allow all Spaniards to vote in the referendum. The party sent vans carrying 900 boxes with a national referendum petition signed by four million Spaniards - 10 per cent of the population - to the parliament.

Zapatero saw his standing in the polls seriously damaged by the Catalan issue earlier this year. A ceasefire by the Basque terrorist group Eta has seen support rise again, but he is now keen to get the charter sorted as soon as possible. Some saw the shadow of the Catalan deal hanging over a cabinet reshuffle carried out by Zapatero a few weeks ago. One of his most popular ministers, Defence Minister José Bono, left the cabinet to spend more time with his family. Observers pointed out that Bono had been one of the government's strongest opponents of Catalan autonomy.

His successor, Antonio Alonso, this week replaced the army chief of staff, General José Antonio García González, in what was considered a further knock-on of the Catalan affair. This followed an outburst by Lt Gen José Mena Aguado, who warned that the army might intervene if Catalonia gained more power. Mena was placed under house arrest and later dismissed. García was lukewarm in criticism of his subordinate and eventually paid for that with his job.

The fury with which the Catalan autonomy plans have been received in Madrid and elsewhere contrast with the comparative calm in Barcelona itself. Catalans, without indulging in the sort of violence that has seen Eta kill more than 800 people over the past four decades, are past masters at negotiating autonomy.

Even separatists like FC Barcelona's Oleguer speak more radically than they act. The full-back was invited to join the national squad for training earlier this year, provoking speculation that he would refuse to turn up on the basis that he was not Spanish. But he did, and may be playing for Spain in the World Cup.

It was a sign that football, sometimes, is more important to Catalans than politics. They will be happy to get a new statute of autonomy, but they'll be even happier to see Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Oleguer raise the Champions League trophy in Paris next month. Right now Arsenal, not Madrid, is the enemy.

Catalonia in brief

· Medieval Catalonia united with northern Spain in 1137. With the declaration of nd republic, it became an autonomous region under Francesc Macià in 1931 but a revolution for total independence failed three years later.

· Catalan is a Romance language derived from the Latin spoken in the area, which was occupied by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. The first Catalan texts date to the 12th century AD. Dictator General Franco banned official use of the language in 1939.

· After Franco's death in 1975, Catalonia became one of 17 autonomous communities that constitute Spain; a population of 6.8 million inhabits the region.

· Catalans of note include Salvador Dali, Joan Miró and Antoni Gaudi.

· Catalonia has its own police force - the Mossos d'Esquadra.

· One third of Spain's wines come from the region.

 

Giles Tremlett, The Observer, 30.04.06

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,1764504,00.html