(Article originally written and published in October 2017)
“Hey, I will stand my ground
And I won’t back down” Tom Petty (and Catalunya)
Watching the Barcelona team make their way onto the pitch of the empty Camp Nou stadium at the weekend made for interesting viewing. The Las Palmas players didn’t seem too phased as they jogged and jumped out of the tunnel but the Barca players seemed, in turn, bemused, confounded, confused, unsure and angry. And though they took a while to get going in the almost tangible emptiness, they eventually eased to a 3-0 victory thanks to two goals and an assist from Messi.
Meanwhile, in the city and the surrounding region, old people and families with children were being thrown down stairs, and pushed and pulled to the ground by Spanish police and army, as the residents of Catalonia attempted to exercise a bit of self-determination.
The authorities were probably right to prevent spectators from attending the game, but it seems it was the only reasonable decision made among a series of disastrous ones. The police could not guarantee the safety of supporters; the Spanish FA refused to postpone the game, so the Catalans took to the field with furrowed brows and ploughed Las Palmas into the dirt in a show of footballing superiority.
While the attempted referendum, concerning the sizable and rather wealthy region of Catalonia seeking independence from Spain, has obviously massive political implications in Europe and the EU, my train of thought eventually brought me back to Ireland.
What are the similarities between our two great nations I hear you rhetorically ask? The great cultural revivals in Ireland and Catalonia during the 19th century? A shared struggle for independence from a larger, culturally inferior neighbour perhaps? Conservative Catholicism? Fear of fascism? No, no, no and no. It is the prospect of both “countries” having brilliant football teams playing in the English premier league!
You might be under the impression, thanks to the hundreds of hours of relentless propaganda we football fans subject ourselves to every time we switch on Sky Sports, that the Premier League cannot get any better; but it can. Just add in Barcelona, and Girona and Espanyol, all currently plying their trade in the SPANISH La Liga.
Then throw in the as-yet-unfounded Dublin super-club Ireland FC (we can work on the name later). There you have it, a super-charged multi-national competition that would surely deserve the title of the best league in the world. Even Celtic could get in on the act, break free from the old firm rivalry that defines them, and grow exponentially. All of this is very improbable of course, but not impossible.
The idea that Barcelona and the other Catalan teams could be excluded from La Liga if the region wins independence has been mooted in many quarters in recent days. In recent years, Barcelona fans and players have been vociferous in their pro-independence stance, frequently flying Catalan flags at games, and great players like Iniesta, Xavi and Guardiola regularly voicing their support for an independent Catalan state.
Current player Gerard Pique said that he would retire from international football with Spain if his views were a problem for anyone. The Spanish fans took to booing the player at their training session this week, with chants if “Get out Pique, we don’t want you”.
In case you think the notion of Messi, Suarez and Coutinho strutting their stuff together on a cold winters’ night in Stoke is totally bonkers, you might consider that they will have to play somewhere in a newly independent Catalonia, and not necessarily Spain. La Liga president Javier Tebas said, “In sport, it isn’t a-la- carte and things must be clearly stated … It isn’t easy to have an agreement and study Spanish legislation but if they (Catalan clubs) do get that, [independence] then they will not be able to play in Spain’s La Liga, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
People will say that if the region does become independent then some compromise inevitably would be reached, as the financial losses for the Spanish FA and Barcelona would be incalculable. However, if it is cash Barcelona want, then the cooler climate of the Premier League might be tempting.
While Ligue 1 would be the most obvious alternative to La Liga, geographically and culturally, England would be a much more lucrative option. Moreover, for the doubters that think this could never work, the precedents already exist; e.g. Monaco playing in the French league, Swansea and Cardiff playing in the English league, or even Derry City playing in the Irish league.
Having considered the notion of Barca playing in the Premier League in the not too distant future my attentions quickly moved to Ireland, and it dawned on me that we might be missing a trick here. The devotion of, dare I say it – millions – of Irish football fans to their adopted English clubs is unquestionable, and a little perplexing.
We all want to watch and enjoy football at the highest level, watch the best players in the best stadiums. Why hasn’t any Billionaire; Irish, Arab, Chinese or Russian, realised the potential for an Irish premier league club based in Dublin?
I remember Joe Kinnear’s ill-fated attempt to relocate Wimbledon FC to Dublin in the early 90s that never really got off the ground. He obviously saw the potential; big capital city, no transport issues; massive untapped fan base in Dublin and the country writ large. And now we have the Aviva stadium to-boot, the perfect Premier League platform.
The Irish league would then act as a breeding ground for young Irish talent, with the best players ultimately representing Ireland internationally and in the Premier League. The more you think about this the more it starts to make sense.
There would be angry articles and bilious blogs, exasperated editorials and cries of “you’re destroying our game, our country!” The League of Ireland may be temporarily bolstered by the perennial bandwagon jumpers for a few months, protesting the sale of our footballing soul to the Sassenach, before returning to its endearing ordinariness.
Nevertheless, as the well-financed Irish club works its way up through the English leagues, with a popular Irishman and fan favourite at the helm, up to the Championship and fighting for promotion to the Premier League, then the fans will come.
They’ll still follow their own adopted clubs but their heads will turn closer to home. The tribalism we Irish are conditioned to will exert its influence as the team in green takes to the fields of Old Trafford, Anfield, Parkhead, the Camp Nou. Children all around the country want an Ireland FC jersey off Santy (I said we could work on the name later).
The club will take off. The Aviva stadium is full every second week, the FAI coffers are bursting at the seams from their slice of the Premiership pie and grass-roots football has never been healthier with all-weather pitches in every village in the country. In a world with Trump; Police brutality in Barcelona; Kim Jong Un’s haircut, and John Delaney, anything is possible.