Ex-Barcelona star Oleguer brands Spain a militarised state

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The former Blaugrana defender shares his thoughts on Catalan independence ahead of Sunday's planned referendum on secession from Spain

Oleguer Presas (Sabadell, 1980) is a blessing for any reporter, regardless of their thinking or beliefs. A Champions League winner with Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona in 2006, he also played for Ajax alongside a young Luis Suarez, he has a degree in economics and is also a published author.

A former defender who was at Barca between 2001 and 2008 before spending three years at Ajax, Oleguer has long been known for his forthright views on Catalunya and while still a player, he published a book entitled 'The Road to Ithaca', as well as several articles that made waves at the time.

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After his retirement in 2011, he joined left-wing pro-independence political party CUP (Candidatura d'Unitat Popular) in 2012 and ahead of Sunday's referendum vote for self-governance and separation from Spain (which is not considered legal by the Spanish state), he spoke exclusively to Goal about his vision and that of a significant sector of Catalan society on the eve of 1-O (abbreviation of October 1).

What is happening in Catalunya?

"We find ourselves in a situation in which the majority of a democratically elected parliament has a very clear mandate to carry forward a referendum for self-determination. The Spanish state considers this not to be legal and is skipping fundamental rights and liberties of the Catalan people in order to avoid it." 

The Spanish government assure that it won't take place. The Catalan government and CUP say it will. So will the vote go ahead on Sunday?

"I'm convinced we will vote. The militarisation of a referendum is not something we can consider positive, but the Catalan people have shown on infinite occasions that the route they are seeking to resolve the conflict is peaceful and democratic, with the wish to decide what they want to do, without depending on the state for permission."

Do you believe Catalan society is fractured?

"I perceive that there is a wish to fracture it. I believe that in the moment that the referendum was formulated, there was no fracture at all in Catalan society, but obviously in the last few days we have seen situations that nobody likes. To give you an example, an officer from the Policía Nacional was detained in a bar because he threatened the customers with a gun. That is making the situation tenser. There have also been threats and aggression against people hanging posters in the street. That tension appeared in the moment when there was interest in making the situation tenser. We have had many years without incidents of any kind and where the people have expressed their desire to vote and to resolve the conflict peacefully. Aside from that, in terms of the language or in more social terms, I don't think we live in a fractured society as it is said in Madrid. Not at all. We live in a plural society with different visions about life and that is the wealth we have."

En 2007 Oleguer fue uno de los embajadores del Barcelona en la visita a Nelson Mandela.

Lately, we have heard many different arguments, both for and against the 'procés'. One of those surrounds the possibility of Barcelona and Catalan football leaving the Spanish competitions. Do you think the creation of a Catalan league is possible?

"I don't even contemplate that because I believe it has little relevance. It's an argument that has been shot down on occasions. There are Andorran clubs playing in Spanish competitions in football and basketball. In the end, when there was talk of creating a European Super League, Barcelona were always there. I understand that an elite club like Barca or like Espanyol would maintain their prestige without a problem and that the sport could continue to develop its business and I think that it is in everyone's interest that the Catalan clubs and others can participate in the competitions as they have up until now. If it is something that worries anyone, I would say they can be relaxed because there are interests that are in [our] favour." 

Do you see yourself as an example of the dialogue after passing your wish to Luis Aragones (the coach of Spain at the time) that you did not want to play for the national team?

"I don't think so because ultimately, there was no dialogue. I expressed my convictions and Luis understood them perfectly. If there was a person who didn't feel motivated to be part of that collective, there was not much point in having the conversation. Perhaps the situation is somewhat similar to that of Catalunya, because for all the police that are sent in, they cannot force the Catalans to change their convictions. The only thing they will achieve is a militarised society, a situation I hope does not arrive. But I don't think my case can be an example of dialogue because there wasn't a lot to talk about."

Oleguer fue un jugador importante para Frank Rijkaard, con quien ganó la Champions League en 2006.

Do you understand why Barcelona's stance in favour of the 'procés' is offending fans of the club outside Catalunya?

"I understand it, of course. Everyone has feelings for the things they like the most, but despite globalisation, many football clubs have regional roots and that is a good thing because each club has its own personality based on its history, that makes it feel proud and allows it to express ideas and convictions with calm and with respect."

Mixing politics and sport. Some have applauded Rafa Nadal for saying he is against the process, while Pep Guardiola has been criticised for declaring himself as pro-independence. Do you think there is fear of reprisals for elite sports stars when it comes to expressing certain convictions?

"More than a fear of reprisals, I think it's the fact that everybody wants to live calmly and anything that can cause controversy is something that people don't like. It makes me laugh when there is talk of not mixing politics and sport because it only applies when the opinion goes against the 'status quo'. But there are sportsmen and women who are emblematic of certain things, of banks that are evicting people onto the street, and nobody says those things shouldn't be mixed. But when you say things that go against the grain, they are on top of you. I don't expect everyone in football to have revolutionary ideas, but perhaps it would be good if there was less fear of these reprisals. The easiest thing is to keep quiet. And you also have to take into account the role of the press, be it in one direction or the other, they exaggerate when the sports stars speak up. I think these situations should be normalised and, as we say in CUP, living means taking part - everyone from their own stance because even though I have been excessively criticised for the things I have said, I have also been excessively praised in other sectors."

You played for Barcelona and Ajax, two clubs with important involvement at a social level for decades. Do you think the relation between football and politics is experienced in a more natural way by players in the Netherlands?

"I don't think so. I didn't feel that during my time in the Netherlands. The footballers expressed themselves with the same desire to swerve problems as they do here. Both Ajax and Barcelona have positioned themselves at an institutional level, so I don't think there is much difference between both worlds."

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Would you have signed for a club that wasn't in line with your convictions?

"That is a question with a trick. They didn't come in for me and it's not something I even contemplated. As a footballer, you choose where you are going to play from the options you have and in my case, those were the ones I had. I was lucky enough to grow up at Barcelona, a club with political and historical convictions that are very close to mine. And after that I played for Ajax, another club where I felt very comfortable."

In a certain way, there are some similarities in politics and also journalism with the world of football, like talking about winners and losers and the analysis of sensations instead of reason. What do you put this lack of nuance down to?

"It's a product of the capitalist system in which we live, where the benefit takes precedence. We see that in the world of football and in the journalism that covers it, looking to sell the maximum number of newspapers possible and to reach the maximum number of visits. In that situation, what is prominent is controversy, and the search for winners and losers. Deeper conversations like the one we are having are not given space and that makes for a human loss where the only winner is the system itself, which continues to accumulate benefits."

What scenario do you see come Monday?

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"The one I see or the one I would like?" (laughs)

Do they not coincide?

"Not totally. Perhaps because it's very difficult to predict. The state has already said it will try to avoid the vote and a lot of police have come in for that, so the vote may not take place with normality. But us Catalans are stubborn and conscious of what it is that we want, and that is to express our democratic right to vote and to self-determination. I foresee a great mobilisation clamouring for that right, and voting. Then we will see what the response is from this militarised state and whether the vote goes ahead with normality, with tranquillity. If more tension is generated, it won't be from the Catalan people."

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