I don't like FC Barcelona much. I never did, not being fond of any club that's so big and powerful, but I've liked them less and less since I came to Spain. When you get closer to a football club than watching occasional games on television, the club itself loom larger, the team smaller, than they did.
There are things about FC Barcelona that I find thoroughly unattractive, over and above any problems I might have with gigantic sporting institutions in general. They are less likeable, Barcelona, than they think, and some of the reasons for that will be visible this evening, when el clásico takes place and they take on Real Madrid.
I won't be watching. It's on a satellite channel, which I do not have, our village has no bar in which to watch it and I wouldn't watch it anyway. I've taken to avoiding all games involving either Barcelona or Real, let alone both of them at the same time. I say "I've taken to", as if it were a choice, but in the last couple of weeks even that choice has disappeared, as the requirement to show one game from every jornada on terrestrial channels has been dropped, and the weekly game on La Sexta has moved to Marca TV.
I could still watch via the internet, but my connection here is slow, sometimes scarcely works at all if the weather is poor, and therefore not really good enough for televised football: and so I lose one of the small pleasures of Spanish life, the chance to watch a live game on TV in the privacy of my own home. A small thing, for sure, and small things don't matter. The accumulation of small things, however, does.
But Barcelona. If you only watch them playing football, you're likely to think of them simply as a very good football team. If you watch them as a club, however, you can form a different view - that they're a club that doesn't expect the rules to apply to them. Més que un club can get on one's nerves, too, as would any manifestation of somebody telling you, ceaselessly, how great they are, how much a cut above everybody else. When people think that, it's rare that it goes unaccompanied by a sense of entitlement.
It was the evening when Spain won the World Cup that brought it home to me. There had been, and would be, other things. Like, for instance, turning on the Camp Nou sprinkler system to try and stop Inter celebrating the victory in a Champions' League semi-final. Or one recalls the time they decided to kick off at midnight because they didn't like being told on what day they should play a game.
I didn't see either of these happen at the time (I was not in Spain until 2006, and I missed the Inter semi-final out of lack of interest in the Champions' League) but I did sit in a campsite television room, in Aragón but close to the Catalonian border, and watch Barca players pull a Barcelona shirt over Cesc Fabregas' head, while Fabregas was still an Arsenal player. In the room, around me, all the Barca supporters cheered.
Of course any bunch of players, and any bunch of fans, might behave stupidly on any given occasion. But maybe you'd have to be Barcelona to do that particular thing, that visibly, and not see that there was anything wrong with it.
That was, I think, the point at which I stopped being able to consider Barcelona as something better than their rivals - not more than a club, but more than one particular other club - and started seeing them as no better than Real Madrid. No different to them, either. Still, I have never actually wanted Real Madrid to beat them, and I don't suppose I ever will. But this evening, I am tempted, because this evening Barcelona will once again be going too far.
This evening, twice during the match, Barca fans will hold up red or yellow cards, so that they form a giant senyera, the Catalan flag. And when seventeen minutes and fourteen seconds of each half have expired, the supporters are instructed to chant in favour of independence, this being a reference to 1714, when Catalonia was stripped of many of its privileges by the Castillian crown.
This is, specifically, to express support for Catalan independence, in connection with which, elections have been called in Catalonia for 25 November. This is about as political an act as I have ever known in a football stadium. It is also stupid, provocative and aimed, as clearly as can be, at raising tensions between Catalans and Spaniards, something which is clearly visible to Gerard Piqué (who will not be playing tonight) and Sergio Ramos. And Lord, has it succeeded in that, as #CuléCabrónEspañaEsTuNación trends on Twitter from the meatheads on the Castillian side while the supporters of independence cite that tag as explanation for wishing to depart.
Stupid, provocative, and cynical.
There have been better precedents. In 1976, the year after Franco's death, Athletic Bilbao played Real Sociedad and the two captains of the two leading Basque clubs jointly carried the ikurrina, the Basque flag, onto the pitch.
But the flag was illegal then, and it mattered to display it: that really was a question of freedom, in the way that neither the senyera nor Catalan independence is now. Similarly, of course, with the use of Català by Barcelona supporters while Franco was still alive, the one thing about FC Barcelona's political history that everybody knows, and one the club and its supporters have every reason to be proud of.
But that, like the ikurrina in San Sebastián, was about a statement of identity from people who were denied identity, language and recognition. In creating the senyera this evening, Barca abandon the general purpose of representing Catalan identity in sport - a good and honourable thing to do - for the specific project of supporting Catalan independence, a project with which many of their supporters must disagree. It is a narrowing of the club's identity, not an expression of it.
Even then, it would be less provocative if they had chosen another game than the clásico. It would be less cynicial if the opponent was a club other than Real Madrid. The weekend before the elections, they host Real Zaragoza, the representatives of Aragón (on whose flag the Catalonian senyera is actually based). Why not create a flag and chant for independence in that match instead? Because there would not be so much fuss. Because there would not be so many meatheads on the other side. Because it would not produce the desired reaction.
It is not, from a Catalan perspective, the point, but I wonder whether this will do Barcelona permanent damage among their many supporters and sympathisers who are neither Catalans nor supporters of Catalan independence. Working around the country, as I do (not in the Basque Country, Galicia or the south, but more or else everywhere else) I get the sense that Barcelona are more popular than Real Madrid - not by much, but more popular nonetheless.
In Madrid, obviously not, and in Castilla y León or Castilla-La Mancha, probably not so either - but in Aragón and Asturias and Cantabria and La Rioja and Navarra, and perhaps even in Extremadura, one sees, in my experience, more Barcelona shirts than Real, and in most of those comunidades, overwhelmingly so. They are not favoured because they are Catalans, as such, but because they are the team that is not Real Madrid.
Naturally it might also be because they have won the misnamed Champions' League twice in recent seasons, and because they have been more attractive than their rivals in a number of respects - Pep Guardiola having been a rather more attractive personality than Jose Morinho, Messi much more so than Cristiano Ronaldo. And while Barca are sometimes with some justice accused of diving, they have absolutely nobody in their squad who is a thug like Pepe. Though who does?
That may end, now that FC Barcelona are now, overtly and aggressively, about Catalan independence - not just about Catalan identity, a certain approach to football, and beating Real Madrid. Which, tonight, I do not hope they do.
Wanting Real to win is still, probably, impossible. But I really do hope that, at some time close to seventeen minutes and fourteen seconds of either half, Real score. I even hope it's Cristiano who does so. Just to shut up the shouting which will otherwise be sure to happen. There is too much shouting on this subject, both sides bullies posing as victims. And if the shouting continues for too long, there may be more victims, and real ones.