Soccer fans in Hong Kong, for example, have for the past few years booed and turned their backs when the Chinese anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” plays before their national team matches. In France, politicians called for the cancellation of future games after Tunisian-born fans booed the French anthem before a friendly between France and Tunisia in 2008. And for the past two years in the United States, athletes inspired by the N.F.L. quarterback Colin Kaepernick have knelt silently during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality and racial injustice.
But whistling — the European equivalent of American boos — at the Spanish anthem at the Copa del Rey has become a particularly inescapable gesture precisely because of Barcelona’s unique position as a soccer powerhouse and a vessel for pro-Catalan ideals. This Saturday’s game against Sevilla in Madrid will represent Barcelona’s eighth trip to the Copa del Rey final in the past 10 years, meaning the jeers aimed at the anthem, and the king, have effectively become a fixture of the event.
The team keeps winning, the fans keep whistling, and in this way a fraught national conversation recycles itself almost every spring.
“You have this gesture of protest against these state symbols, and the centralist Spanish side picks up on it, becomes indignant and scandalized, and the whole thing escalates into a nationalist debate,” said Mariann Vaczi, an anthropologist who has studied the intersection of nationalism and sports in Spain. “So something that starts out as a gesture becomes a ghost, a recurrent monster, for the Spanish state and the royal family, all because the team has a habit of getting to the cup final.”
Amid the yearly specter of whistles, the same criticisms ring out, too. Repeating a popular refrain, Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, said this month in a television interview that “there should be punishments, including stopping the game” for disrespecting the “symbols of the nation.” On Wednesday afternoon, Tebas told reporters that whistling the anthem was “verbal violence,” citing the millions of people in Spain, including some in Catalonia, who have emotional ties to the song.
The harshest critics of the jeering regularly call for the criminalization of acts seen to disrespect the national anthem and other symbols of the government and monarchy. Others simply find it disrespectful.
Yet irreverence toward the Spanish anthem in sports stadiums has a century-old history in this city. On January 24, 1925, Barcelona fans jeered the anthem, and applauded the British anthem, during an exhibition match. In response, Miguel Primo de Rivera, the dictator of Spain at the time, ordered the stadium, Camp de Les Corts, closed for six months as punishment.
The act was revived as early as 2009, when Barcelona reached its first Copa del Rey final in a decade. That day it faced Athletic Bilbao, a team from the Basque region that has its own sizable segment of separatist fans. The result was a deafening chorus of whistles and shouts as King Juan Carlos grimly looked on. The teams have met in the final two other times in the past decade, in 2012 and 2015; each time, raucous booing drowned out the regal melody.
Barcelona, which the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán once described as the “unarmed army of Catalonia,” has walked a delicate path around the debate.
“We do not like anyone to whistle anyone, but we always respect freedom of expression,” Josep Vives, a spokesman for the club, said this week. “Freedom of expression has never scared us.”
Speaking at a book event on Wednesday, the club’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, said, “I’d like to think that when the majority of our supporters have expressed themselves by whistling, they haven’t done it to belittle any symbols, but to protest against certain attitudes against the people of Catalonia that have taken place in recent years.”
Inside Camp Nou last Saturday, at the 17:14 mark of the game (a reference to a 1714 military defeat that Catalans commemorate as their national day), a large portion of the stadium engaged in a chant of “Independencia!” and waved Catalan flags. Earlier this month during a Champions League match, the chants were accompanied by a flurry of yellow balloons that symbolized support for the Catalan politicians imprisoned for staging Catalonia’s unconstitutional independence referendum last fall. Play was briefly halted, after some balloons drifted onto the field, and the club is facing a disciplinary investigation from UEFA, European soccer’s governing body.
Independence is an issue that has split Catalonia down the middle, however, and some fans here have grown uncomfortable with the political atmosphere around F.C. Barcelona. Xavier Roig, a communications consultant and Barcelona season-ticket holder, said he stopped going to the stadium about seven years ago because he became “too uncomfortable with all the pro-independence flags and shouting, which only represents one part of Catalan society.”
“I feel the club has allowed itself to be invaded by radical Catalan nationalism,” added Roig, who once led the campaign to elect Joan Laporta as president of the club. He suggested the club was tacitly encouraging such behavior.
Fans said that the whistling happens organically, but activists have tried to latch onto it. Ahead of the 2009 final, Santiago Espot, a businessman and activist who once unsuccessfully ran for mayor of the city of Barcelona, organized a news conference in which he urged Basque and Catalan fans to boo the king and the anthem. For that, Espot was sued by the Foundation for the Defense of the Spanish Nation, a right-wing association, though a judge from Spain’s national court ultimately turned down the complaint.
Last December, however, another judge from the national court took a different stance, fining Espot 7,200 euros (almost $9,000) for publishing a manifesto justifying booing ahead of the 2015 final, when King Felipe VI visited Camp Nou a year after succeeding his father. Espot said in an interview that he was prepared to appeal his sentence to the European Court of Human Rights, which recently struck down another Spanish ruling against Catalan activists who had burned a photo of the king and his wife.
Espot brushed aside the notion that sports and politics should be kept apart. If that was the case, he argued, then “the president of Spain, France or any other country should also not be hosting receptions for sportsmen and handing awards to the winners.” On the contrary, he added, “we’re playing a match against the Spanish state in unequal conditions, so we should use every opportunity possible — whether in a stadium, a theater or on the street — to try to win.”
Still, any action seen as directed at a national anthem draws criticism from those who assert that sports and politics should remain separate.
Juan Ignacio Zoido, Spain’s interior minister, said that the potential for booing “worries us and keeps us busy,” warning that the authorities would use Spain’s anti-violence legislation to punish those who take part. “The government is without a doubt committed to eradicating violence from the world of sports,” Zoido told Marca, the Spanish sports newspaper. “Freedom of expression has to be defended, but in the context of this principle, while also respecting all those, who form the majority, who respect hymns and the symbology that they carry.”
But the notion that politics and sports must remain separate can be complicated to defend, according to Alan Bairner, a professor of sports and social policy at England’s Loughborough University.
Bairner noted that the playing of an anthem at a game itself could be seen as a political act.
“Often, when somebody says politics have no place in sport, they mean, ‘Your politics have no place in sport,’ ” he said.
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