Free Catalunya!

Pep’s fight for independence

The Man City manager has been proudly committed to the idea of a Catalunyan state, independent from Spain.

By Luis Martin

If Josep Guardiola has remained loyal to the idea of playing passing football in a country accustomed to long balls and knock-downs, it should not surprise anybody that he is prepared to assume the consequences of defending Catalunya’s right to be a free country.

Thanks to the yellow ribbon that he has worn proudly on his chest at various Premier League grounds these past weeks, he has managed to bring further international attention to the region’s quest for independence from Spain, and in the process infuriating many in the country, starting with the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and his government.

Attacks against Guardiola in the Spanish press have become a common occurrence. People may think he is crazy, or worse, but he believes in what he defends. It is his way of understanding football and his country.Guardiola’s commitment to the idea of a Catalunyan state, independent from Spain, is not new, but just like the secessionist movement itself, it has intensified in recent years, and particularly in the past few months.

The Manchester City boss has proven to be a protagonist in the dispute, just as he was on the pitch for Barcelona as a player and off the pitch in enforcing his own style of football as a manager.

Right now, it is his obsession to make City champions in the same manner as his Barca and Bayern Munich sides; by playing well, being easy on the eye and earning praise. He wants to make it clear that there is a universal way of playing football, a way that transcends borders, to prove that winning is (or should be) intrinsically linked to attacking and passing the ball. "It's what I believe, it's what I feel,” he says.

He also believes and feels that it is justice for the people of Catalunya to choose their future. It is not a side hobby, or a casual interest.

On July 11, 1961, at a time when the Catalan language was banned by General Francisco Franco’s Spanish government, various members of Catalan culture came together to create Òmnium Cultural. The movement brought together a large number of people from every social, cultural and political background; those who saw the entity as the best instrument with which to defend the Catalan language and culture. The sheer popularity of Òmnium Cultural attracted the attention of the Francoist authorities who, in 1963, closed its headquarters and prohibited its activities.

The group continued working from the shadows for the next four years, fighting against the Franco dictatorship in favour of democracy, the restoration of the political institutions of Catalan self-government such as the Generalitat de Catalonia, and the social use of the Catalan language both in the media and in social, cultural and administrative life. After a long legal battle, it was once again legalised in 1967.

Pep and his family have been members of Òmnium Cultural for more than 10 years. He never hid his political beliefs during his playing days, either; in 1992, at the age of just 21, he stood on the balcony of the Generalitat Palace in Barcelona and, with the Senyera - the official Catalan flag - tied around his neck, he held the European Cup aloft and declared: “Citizens of Catalunya, you have the cup here now”. It was a clear reference to Catalan politician Josep Tarradellas’ declaration upon his return to Barcelona in 1977 after more than 20 years in exile.

Guardiola also made it clear that he represented Spain because there was no other option, but if he could have, he would have played for Catalunya.

But his role in the independence movement has only increased since he hung up his boots.

September 11 marks Catalunya’s national day. It is the anniversary of the "Diada"; when Barcelona surrendered before the Troops of Philip IV, King of Spain, signifying the loss in 1714 of Catalunya’s national identity. And on that day in 2012, as more than one million people came together on the streets of Barcelona, a video was projected in which Guardiola, iconic and emblematic, albeit appearing from his temporary lodgings in New York, was presented as "one more Catalan" in favour of secession from Spain.

In 2015, at the most recent regional elections, the man from Santpedor recorded a campaign video in support of ‘Junts pel Si’ - ‘together for Yes’ - an unequivocally independent party.

Just a few months ago, on June 12, 2017, thousands of people gathered - despite the suffocating Barcelona heat - in the area that separates the Montjuïc fountains from the Plaza de España. It is an iconic and political spot; it is in the shadow of the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, itself named after the president of the Generalitat who, during his exile in 1940, was arrested by the Gestapo in France and returned to Spain. On his return, he was shot by General Franco’s firing squad.

There, beside the world-famous fountains, Pep Guardiola spoke for himself and for millions of Catalans in an event called by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), Òmnium Cultural and l'Association de Municipis per la Independència. He did it firstly because he was asked - as was his friend, the musician Lluis Llach - but crucially because he believed in what he read.

In three languages ​​- Spanish, Catalan and English - he denounced the action of the Spanish Government, presided over by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and explained that the Catalan political institutions had tried to agree a referendum as many as 18 times, and that the answer had always been a resounding "No". The Spanish government’s stance ignored the will of 80 per cent of the Catalan population and of the Catalan Parliament, legitimately chosen by the people.

In an impassioned speech, Pep said Catalonia had "no choice but to vote", because the Catalans are victims of a state that has launched "a political persecution that is improper for a democracy in 21st century Europe", and he warned that the Spanish state has, in his words, "An interior minister who conspires to destroy healthcare, and political police units that create false evidence against our governors and pursue the judicial disqualification of the president of the Generalitat". He declared that the Spanish state intended "to end the model of Catalan school, a pillar of social cohesion" and decried the blocking of investments in the area’s ports, airports and public transport.

Guardiola regularly sugarcoats his true feelings at his Manchester City press conferences, but on that day in Barcelona he spoke from the heart; he branded Spain a "democratically unsustainable" country, and appealed to the international community to help Catalunya in its right to defend the freedom of political expression and vote, to realise “the abuses of an authoritarian state".

"We will vote", he said, with the same faith with which he has inspired his Manchester City players to become the best team in England, playing a style of football that has gone against the grain of the country’s history.

He proclaimed that the Catalans would go to the polls on October 1 to comply with the democratic mandate.

It was on September 30 that Guardiola took those City players to Chelsea, the defending champions. They played, and they won. Kevin De Bruyne was the hero of the night and in the visitors' dressing room at Stamford Bridge the Belgian’s name was chanted so loudly that it was heard clearly by the defeated home players as they stepped into the showers.

There was no drama, unlike at Old Trafford, even if some Chelsea players, especially Cesc Fabregas, hated the manner of their defeat. And it is not as if Cesc and Pep get along well.
For City’s players, the next day was unremarkable; the majority joined up with their national teams for another set of World Cup qualifiers and friendlies.

For Catalunya and Spain, October 1 marked a turning point. Things will never be the same again following that bloody day in the polling stations of Catalunya, where the Spanish state tried, via police brutality, to prevent the people from deciding whether or not they wanted an independent Catalunya.
According to regional health officials, 844 people were injured during the chaos. The government’s forces were unsuccessful in stopping the election; two million Catalans voted despite an atmosphere of intimidation and terror on the streets.

It is questionable whether the president of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, managed the fall-out sensibly, though it is evident that Mariano Rajoy, president of a bankrupt country, who can hardly afford to pay the pensions of his retirees, could not conjure a reasonable agreement to calm the euphoria of the Catalans.

Puigdemont, rather clumsily and without the legal recognition of his own government, declared Catalunya’s independence from Spain. It has proven to be very costly.

The Spanish state has subjected the Catalan people to a state of absolute democratic asphyxia. It abolished the legitimate powers of the government chosen by the people and put the Generalitat in the hands of the Vice President of the Spanish Government.

Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, presidents of the Asamblea Nacional de Catalunya and Òmniun Cultural, respectively, and leaders of the independence movement, have been in preventive detention awaiting trial since October 16.

Madrid judge Carmen Lamela holds them responsible for calling several rallies on September 20 and 21, not to peacefully protest but to prevent the Civil Guard and a judicial committee from carrying out a series of arrests and searches as part of an investigation against pro-Catalan infrastructures.

On September 20, a lead investigator was forced to leave the Ministry of Economy of the Generalitat from the roof, while three of the Civil Guard’s SUVs suffered damage estimated at €135,600.

The imprisonment of "los Jordis" kick-started a movement of solidarity, symbolised by the yellow ribbon. A friend posted one to Guardiola ahead of City’s game against West Brom on October 28, and he has worn it ever since.

After a landmark win in Naples, he said: "There is no greater civility than ideas. Both Òmnium and the ANC have always acted with civility, expressing ideas, peacefully. Currently the situation is what it is. I hope they can leave soon because right now the truth is it’s a bit like we're all there, in prison.”

Days later the President of the Generalitat, Puigdemont, along with four members of his government, went into exile in Brussels, seeking legal guarantees. Last week, 45,000 Catalans demonstrated in the European capital. Meanwhile, Oriol Junqueras, Vice President of the Generalitat and head of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, one of the parties which will contest local elections on December 21, is still detained in a prison near Madrid.

Francesca Guardiola i Sala, Pep’s older sister, is one of the 600 officials of the Generalitat affected by the political purge of the Spanish state. Serving as ambassador of the Generalitat for the Nordic countries from Copenhagen, she was fired on the day Pep first wore the yellow ribbon at the Hawthorns.

You may wonder why Guardiola is one of the only prominent independistas to wear the ribbon; the Spanish government has prohibited its use in any public and institutional act in Catalunya. Yes, it is banned.

Guardiola wears it not only because he can but because it is something of immense importance to him.

While trying to repay the trust of Txiki Begiristain, Ferran Soriano, Khaldoon Al Mubarak and Sheikh Mansour, which never wavered despite a bumpy first season in English football, Guardiola is trying to collaborate in the cause of his country, and to show solidarity with its prisoners wherever he can.

Guardiola could have joined Chelsea, Arsenal, or even Manchester United. The doors of the largest teams in England were open, but he owed Txiki, the man who put his faith in him to lead Barcelona almost a decade ago.

Loyalty is one thing, but courage also came into it. Pep saw City as the most difficult option. Despite what they say, any of those clubs would have paid him the same money, and no shirt, historically, is heavier than the blue of Manchester.

But Pep is faithful. That’s why he maintains friendships for so long, that's why he was with Cristina Serra for 20 years before they married in 2014, by which time they had already had three children. That is why he is so obsessed with football. That is why he wears the ribbon.

You can call him weird, or you can call him loyal. It depends on your point of view.

Last week, he exercised his right to vote by post in the Catalan elections of December 21. He will vote from Manchester, where he lives in the centre of the city with Cristina and their three children. Sometimes Pep speaks English, especially with his two girls. But generally at home the family speaks Catalan.