Manchester City could be the biggest losers as Pep Guardiola’s distant Catalonia protest sounds bum note

Manager’s yellow-ribbon protest is divisive at home in Spain but could still earn him a suspension from English football authorities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 4:21pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 6:36pm

The rogue Manchester City supporting element in my family travelled to Wembley Stadium on Sunday wearing yellow ribbons. Despite knowing that I spent most of my time in Catalonia, pay taxes there and have two Catalan speaking children, they’d never asked about the imprisoned independence leaders Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez.

You see yellow ribbons around Barcelona in support of the two men, but they’re not everywhere. The frenzy around Catalan independence has calmed significantly in 2018 after December’s elections when more people in Catalonia’s biggest two cities, Barcelona and Tarragona, voted for parties opposing a Catalonian breakaway. But in Santpedor, the nondescript town of 7,000 where Pep Guardiola grew up and where his parents still live, as in much of the rural Catalan hinterland, feelings are strongly pro-independence.

The cause gained fresh impetus on Friday when Manchester City manager Guardiola – a Catalan nationalist – was fined by the English Football Association for wearing a political message in the form of the yellow ribbon.

On Saturday evening, thousands of giant yellow ribbons were distributed outside Camp Nou ahead of the first Catalan derby between FC Barcelona and Girona. A large ‘Liberty’ flag was unfurled in the same position as a ‘Catalonia is not Spain’ banner has been unfurled for the biggest Barca matches for the last 20 years. Camp Nou has long been a hotbed of chants in favour of independence, which have been aired during the 17th minute of each half for the last five years as the push for independence grew.

The chants have long been loud, but there was never any serious opposition to Catalonian separatism until the autumn of 2017, when several huge anti-independence marches showed that the push was anything but a unanimous one. Families remain bitterly divided on the question.

When independence was briefly declared, Spain’s government declared it illegal and cracked down, businesses relocated their headquarters outside Catalonia, tourism dropped and the separatists found international support for their cause lacking.

The FA fine imposed on Guardiola has changed that – at least among City fans. Like the Arsenal fans who walked down Wembley Way singing ‘She wore a yellow ribbon’ in the 1970s, thousands of City fans wore yellow ribbons. These, however, are in part political propaganda. The Committee for the Defence of the Catalan Republic gave away 6,000 yellow bands outside Wembley and the actions of City fans will delight Catalan nationalists, even if they are not worn in support of the prisoners, but for the manager who is leading City to the Premier League title.

They don’t want him to become dismayed with life in England, but for Guardiola, the fine and subsequent publicity is a price worth paying to keep the issue in the spotlight. It also keeps his credibility high in what he considers to be his homeland. Other high profile Catalan sportsmen such as Gerard Pique have become noticeably lower profile over expressing their views about independence since the autumn.

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They know it will divide their followers. Guardiola doesn’t have to live and work in Catalonia. He can influence from a distance and be happy to be a thorn in the side of the Spanish government, just as his mentor Johan Cruyff was. Cruyff’s son Jordi told me a story about how his name, which he shares with the patron saint of Catalonia, was outlawed under the dictatorship of general Franco.

“My dad said, ‘My son has a Dutch passport, I can call him what I like and his name is Jordi.’

“They replied, ‘That is illegal, it has to be the Spanish version, Jorge’.

“Then my dad said: ‘I’m not going to make a scandal, but tell your bosses it will become a scandal.’ They had to accept me because I was Dutch.”

Jordi thus became the first person to bear that name legally in decades, a gesture which sealed Johan’s place in Catalan hearts.

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A plane carrying Guardiola’s family was recently searched by police searching for exiled Catalan nationalist politician Carles Puigdemont.

Rival United fans mocked City fans for their new-found political consciousness. They’d love if the issue unnerved Guardiola, to gain any advantage over the man who is casting a cloud over their lives and some have become keen students of Catalan independence after Guardiola’s fine. I was asked, among other things, if the Catalan nationalists supported Guardiola, did that make others prefer United? Anything for one-upmanship in the name of football banter.

Like it or not, sport and politics are intrinsically linked, from the soft power projected by sovereign states who own giant clubs to the political manoeuvring around where tournaments are situated or players moving clubs. Fifa, wary of any attempt to hijack football for political purposes imposed a ban on the wearing of poppies to remember Britain’s war dead, before backing down.

Guardiola is a man of principle, and defied the FA during and after his side’s Carabao Cup victory, but his defiance may not be without cost, and he has accepted that the FA, Uefa and Fifa may suspend him.

A penny for the thoughts of City’s owners, who considered previous boss Roberto Mancini too bombastic and went for Manuel Pellegrini, an intelligent man who they were quite happy said little of note. Guardiola does speak out and he’s aligned with a strong political movement that struggles to find the support it wants outside Catalonia, no matter how many yellow ribbons City fans wear.