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When in doubt, act Canadian

Tuesday 3rd October 2017
Political turmoil, reminiscent of my Canadian upbringing in the 1970s, forced an otherwise unremarkable Barcelona match to be played behind closed doors.

FIFA, UEFA, and the RFEF, all political organisations administrated by elected officials, mandate separation between football and politics. If the hypocrisy wasn't self-evident prior to this weekend's meeting between FC Barcelona and Las Palmas, it should be now.

Politics is life. Football is a microcosm of life. Politics is therefore inextricably linked to football.

If the RFEF, the Spanish FA to you gringos, thought it was doing the right thing by insisting Barcelona and Las Palmas play their match on the same day the autonomous region of Catalonia had set to hold an unsanctioned referendum on secession from Spain (because the Spanish government was too cowardly to sanction one) they are blind to their own political essence.
In the same manner federation president Javier Tebas' earlier threat that Barcelona would be expelled from La Liga should Catalan gain independence was designed to influence the 'illegal' vote in the ruling Castilians' favour, so was his ultimatum to play the match or be levied a six-point penalty.

Last season, the match between Celta Vigo and Real Madrid at Balaidos was rescheduled due to the stadium suffering severe storm damage. Had Barcelona allowed fans through the Nou Camp turnstiles on Sunday, a human storm fueled by political rage may well have inflicted similar destruction.
Thus, mandating the game be played effectively fined the club one match's gate receipts for the region's political beliefs. That, in itself, was a political act. Meanwhile, those watching the match on television or online must have felt like they were in a dentist's waiting room, without the usual singing from supporters to be heard in the background.

In 1976, Canada experienced a similar ideological conflict. Quebec, the country's predominantly French province, was caught up in a movement towards independence.

There were certain differences. For instance, the Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, father to the current PM Justin, was a Quebec native. He led a majority government in the Canadian parliament. Mariano Rajoy, the serving Spanish President is not Catalan. He is from Galicia, a region that neighbours Castille to the northwest, as distant from Catalonia as one can be in contiguous Spain. Rajoy is struggling to lead a minority coalition.

Rajoy's vulnerability is being exploited by opponents such as Carles Puigdemont, leader of Catalan's (semi) autonomous government. Trudeau senior had a similar foe in Parti Quebecois leader Rene Levesque, who had been elected provincial Premier on a pro-secession platform.
In 1976, Quebec's population was 6.2 million, compared to 22.9 million for Canada as a whole. There were roughly three English speaking citizens for every French. From personal experience, which is admittedly not scientific data, I can say that roughly two of three anglophones wished the francophones would just leave already. Such patriots believed anyone who didn't like being Canadian needn't.

On the one hand, their attitudes tolerated, if not promoted, a certain amount of bigotry, similar in a manner to the United States' current issue with Spanish-speaking Mexican and Central American immigrants. Only, Quebecois weren't immigrants, legal or illegal. They were citizens whose ancestors had settled in Quebec as early as 1608, when Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City. They had been here first, then invited to stay on, keeping their own language and culture, when the British claimed three-quarters of New France (excepting Louisiana) in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, after winning the Seven Years' War.

On the other hand, it made some sense. The Parti Quebecois wasn't asking for greater inclusion and recognition for French language and culture. It, or a core element among its supporters, was demanding political independence. If one lives in a free society, one such freedom should be the ability to leave.
Borders are, after all, a fiction. As historian Yuval Noah Harari, notes, they exist only because humans imagine them to be real. Fictions allow us to cooperate in ways other species cannot. Yet, when we forget the fictions are there to serve us. When we begin to serve them, trouble arises. Trouble, such as hooliganism in football and the silly political games being played by Tebas, Rajoy, and Puigdemont.

One-in-three Canadian anglophones had the wisdom to see the damage Quebec's secession would do the entire country (including Quebec). Led by Pierre Trudeau, they patiently sought a compromise with Renee Levesque and the Parti Quebecois. There was no bullying, no waving constitutional, police, or military authority in the separatists' faces. There was just civil discourse. Trudeau understood that when you push, the other side will push back. This is a fundamental human trait the current Spanish government doesn't appear to understand.
Police were sent into Catalonia to close polling stations and confiscate voting equipment. The action only led to citizens occupying schools and churches to keep them open for the vote. Ultimately, Catalonian police elected not to intervene, disobeying Madrid's edict. Naturally, Catalans disinterested in independence stayed home to avoid potential trouble. Independence supporters, meanwhile, were well represented. They clashed with unwelcome federal police. Although the vote was obviously unfair, with intimidation and violence on both sides, and was not independently monitored, the secessionist movement now has a dangerous weapon in its fight against Madrid.
Carles Puigdemont intends to introduce the referendum's results to the Catalan parliament in an effort to have them certified. Rajoy will then have the option to antagonise Catalans further by dissolving Puigdemont's government for violating the Spanish constitution or to sanction a legitimate referendum to appease both Catalan separatists and loyalists.

Given loyalists are currently the majority in Catalan, it seems a calm, rational choice to sanction a democratic vote. Allowing all voices be heard would be ideal. Unfortunately, populism rules the day in Spanish, as well as global politics. Both sides in this dispute are solely focused on their own desires, caring not for commonality or the greater good.

That was not the case when Trudeau and Levesque faced off. After four years of careful negotiation, a referendum was sanctioned. The majority of Quebec voters voiced their desire to remain Canadian. The minority remained unconvinced. A second referendum was held 15 years later with the same result. Even now, a vocal minority remains intent on secession. Yet, that vocal minority respects the majority view and, despite that resistant core among its constituents, the current Quebec government was among the first to criticise the violence surrounding the Catalonian referendum.

Before that first Quebec referendum in 1980, however, Trudeau and Levesque had to negotiate the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Surprisingly, in the context of today's political climate, the two sides agreed that sport should not be affected by political discord. The Olympics went on without any interference from separatist-minded francophones.
Outside political interests were another story. Nadia Comaneci scored her perfect ten. Boxing fans were introduced to Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon and Michael Spinks. In football, however, the three African qualifiers, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia, withdrew. They joined 25 other African nations protesting New Zealand's inclusion after the All Black's rugby team had broken the sporting embargo to tour apartheid-ruled South Africa just before the Games.

Canada and Quebec's decision may have in part been inspired by the country's recent choice to ignore the Cold War and stage hockey's 1972 Super Series with the Soviet Union. Yet, the Great White North has long been known as a place where cooler heads usually prevail, both on the lager and the drinker. Its government doesn't taunt ideological foes, threaten radicals, or look for fights. Fisticuffs are even being phased out in hockey. It's a country that values respect, understanding, and cooperation.

Not so in contemporary Spain. As a result, Castilian leaders are only converting supporters to the independence movement's cause. Forcing football matches to be played behind closed doors and several key members of the national team to choose sides, perhaps cutting their international careers short, isn't productive. It's bullying and the targets being pushed are pushing back. None of that would be happening had Mariano Rajoy, Javier Tebas, and their supporters taken a moment to have a pint and remember that cooler heads prevail. When in doubt, it's often best to act Canadian.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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