What will happen to FC Barcelona if Catalonia completes Brexit-style independence from Spain?

Barcelona have long been one of the biggest clubs in Europe

Barcelona have long been one of the biggest clubs in Europe

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Of all the manifold aspects of the Catalan debate, the least significant is, paradoxically, the most far-reaching. Because, despite having no real importance to most most people's lives, it will touch more people worldwide than practically any other.

What will happen to FC Barcelona, one of the crown jewels of European football? Will the club be able to remain in La Liga, and maintain that famed and hugely lucrative rivalry with Real Madrid? And will it be able to keep playing in the Champions League, or be forced to endure years on the sidelines?

Well the answer to both questions is pretty complicated. But, in essence, it boils down to the will of the Spanish football federation, and the Spanish government. They can make things very easy for Barca, or very difficult.

Under Spanish law, only those teams based in Spain can compete in the country's football leagues - with the exception of clubs in the tiny country of Andorra, which borders Spain and has its own agreement.

In theory, Barca and other Catalan clubs can seek their own Andorra-style agreement with Spain. But there's an obvious difference here: Andorra's independence long predates the creation of organised professional football. The Spanish government, and its sporting federations, have never faced the prospect of 'losing' Andorra like it would lose Catalona if the region breaks from Spain. And so there's no incentive to punish Andorra for its independence.

Then there's the size of the two regions. Andorra is only a quarter the size of London and has a handful of sports teams, whereas Catalonia would be a large country, and it boasts over 12,000 teams. As well as Barca, the region provides two clubs to the top division of Spanish football (Espanol and Girona) and three more to the second division (Barca B, Reus and Nastic). 

Given the proliferation of teams representing Catalonia in football and other sports, it's unclear whether Spain, or its sporting federations, would be willing to pass special legislation granting all of them access. Such a move could make Spain look weak in any post-secession discussions and incur the wrath of those who wish to punish Catalonia for its temerity.

On the other hand, there's the economic argument to consider. El Clasico, the biannual match between Real Madrid and Barcelona, is one of the biggest matches on Earth, drawing billions of viewers and huge revenue. Without Barca in the league, Spain's La Liga would be far less competitive, and sponsors would be far less willing to invest.

Were Spain to decide that the pros of retaining the Catalan clubs are outweighed by the cons and reject their application, Barca's future appears far more murky. Catalonia would have to create its own national football federation, jumping through the various loopholes laid out by football's world governing body, Fifa.

In this case, Barca fans would potentially have to wait years before Fifa approved the Catalan federation. When Gibraltar applied for membership it took five years for Fifa to grant recognition, allowing the new members to put out teams in international football as well as European club competition.

Again, there is clearly a large amount of self-interest at stake here. With five Champions League titles, Barca are one of the blue-riband clubs of European football, a fulcrum of interest for fans. And Catalonia, with players like Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Hector Bellerin, would instantly become one of the most powerful international teams in the world were the country go it alone. On the face of it, it seems churlish and self-defeating to deny them their right to compete on the world stage.

But if Catalonia does pull off the political earthquake of the year, and somehow manage to break free from Spain, the political landscape is likely to be fiendishly complicated, and the region's football clubs are almost certain to be dragged in. Those who want to protect their interest and maintain some semblance of the status quo are sure to be bombarded by those who want retribution, however petty and mutually destructive it may be.

If this thing does come to pass, there's a very real chance that Spanish, and European, football will all the poorer for it.