Catalonia Yearns to Root for a Home Team of Its Own

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Aug 30 16:46:53 UTC 2004

>>From the NYTimes,   August 30, 2004


Catalonia Yearns to Root for a Home Team of Its Own

Published: August 30, 2004

LLEIDA, Spain, Aug. 23 - In its eyes, Catalonia, the dynamic region that
is contained in Spain but yearning for self-rule, is a wallflower at the
Olympics. "We don't feel at all represented by the Spanish team," said
Daniel Rovira, a bartender, as he watched a local soccer game on
television, rather than the final of the men's 100-meter dash at the
Athens Games. "We have our own language, our own culture.''

Nationalism flows thick in this ancient city of 120,000, a gateway between
Catalonia and the rest of Spain. But that nationalism comes wrapped in the
Catalan flag, not in Spain's. In his restaurant down the road from Mr.
Rovira's bar, Jaume Areste Alonso switched the television from the
Olympics to the same soccer game, the Catalonia Cup, a match between
Barcelona and a crosstown rival, Espanyol - a preseason game at that.

Mr. Areste Alonso said the Olympics would interest more people if
Catalonia could compete with its own team. "It may take awhile, but the
day will come," he said. "One hundred percent of the people here support
it." Until then, sports fanatics from semiautonomous regions like
Catalonia are sure to feel a little left out when they watch the Olympics,
which brings together teams from about 200 countries, some as tiny as St.
Kitts and Nevis. For these fans, the sense of local pride is as strong as
their national identity is weak.

That means that the athletic contests are not limited to the playing
field, but enter into politics. During the four-decade dictatorship of
Franco, regional languages and cultural celebrations were banned, so
rooting for the Barcelona soccer team became a proxy for Catalan pride,
one reason there is such a strong feeling about elevating regional teams.

Some Catalans, like Mr. Rovira, the bartender, support full independence
for Catalonia, but his is not a mainstream view. Sports is another matter.
Catalans have gathered more than a million signatures calling for Catalans
to have their own national team, he said. Convergncia i Uni, a mainstream
party in Catalonia, which does not advocate independence, says it will
send Parliament a bill next month that will call on the national
government to drop its opposition to allowing teams from Catalonia to
compete internationally; the 16 other regions of Spain would get the same
rights. In the Basque region, a largely autonomous area across the
peninsula from Catalonia, a political party says it will propose similar

"It's our dream, but it's also our right," said Josep Maldonado, a
congressman who is leading the efforts for the Convergncia party. In a
telephone interview from Athens, where he had traveled to cheer on Catalan
athletes representing Spain in the Olympics, Mr. Maldonado said proudly
that "Catalonia is the world champion in high mountain races,"  referring
to marathons at high altitudes. It also has been granted provisional
membership in the International Federation of Roller Sports, he said.

But in most sports, including soccer, the central government lobbies the
governing federations to oppose the inclusion of Catalan teams, he said.
The only way to stop the lobbying is through legislation, Mr. Maldonado
said. Catalonia, like Spain's other regions, has substantial autonomy from
Madrid, but is pushing for more from the new Socialist government.
Political analysts say the government will have a difficult job satisfying
them without loosening the political bonds that keep Spain a unified
nation, not only at the Olympics.

The International Olympics Committee may not want to hear from a nonstate
like Catalonia, but there is little doubt that the region stands apart in
many ways from Spain.  Although residents speak Spanish, most of the
conversations overheard here are in Catalan. Waiters address customers in
Catalan. Many of the signs leading to the city's most celebrated landmark,
the Seu Vella cathedral, which was built in the 13th century, are only in

Asked how often he speaks Spanish, Manel Murgo, a 26-year-old salesman,
said, "I speak Spanish when I go to Spain." His friend Daniel Puch, a
26-year-old businessman, said, "If I go up to a group of Catalans and
start speaking Spanish, they look at me funny." Mr. Puch said he and his
friends considered themselves Catalan first and Spanish second. In a game
between a Catalan and a Spanish team, they would cheer for Catalonia.

Catalonia has better athletes, not to mention better food, and a stronger
economy, Mr. Puch and his friends said. But leaving all that aside, Mr.
Areste Alonso said there was a final reason for preferring Catalonia.
"Catalan is much prettier than Spanish,"  he said.

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