Last Monday, UEFA ruled that displaying the Estelada (1) flag should not be censured nor its presence penalized. The display of Estelades is acceptable if "a reasonable person would not feel offended by its message". Therefore, sanctions should only be imposed if "most reasonable people" would deem it appropriate.
UEFA has thereby found a way to adapt its rules to suit the times and circumstances, while seeking a balance between the numerous not particularly honourable interests of the multimillion-dollar business of football. The specific circumstance to which the rules need to be adapted is the history of the FCB. Football appears to exist in an eternal present on the front pages of the newspapers, while inside the stadium the experience always has a link with history itself. The jeering during the Spanish national anthem and the Champions League anthem, together with the cries of support of independence at 17:14 are spontaneous acts by the club’s fans, often in memory of past events, such as the jeering during the Royal March (2) on 14 June 1925 and the subsequent closure of Les Corts stadium which in turn led to Joan Gamper’s resignation. Nowadays we whistle during the national anthems to recall and condemn the historical animosity of the Spanish (and European?) institutions towards the club.
The problem arises when Barça goes global and the audience is not inside the stadium but rather watching on TV. This produces a disparity between the language of the group spoken among the initiated and the wholesomeness required of a global spectacle. Due to concerns over political correctness, UEFA maintains institutional control over radical messages. This is a legitimate concern, since an individual lost among a crowd can often lose their sense of responsibility and resort to insults, contempt and threats delivered with impunity. One only need recall the racist abuse hurled at Roberto Carlos by a significant number of Barça’s supporters not that long ago. Nowadays, such jeers would result in the legitimate closure of the stadium.
One can honestly say, while aware of the dangers of making generalizations, that over the passage of time those who attend the stadium have become more reasonable and the racist slurs and insults directed at the referee’s mother chanted across the stands have decreased in number. Therefore, UEFA’s delegates need only observe the fans’ behaviour to decide as to the acceptability of the Estelada. If they were to do so they would see that there is no conflict between those who carry Estelades and those who do not. For the same reason that the latter would not wish to be forced to carry Estelades, they would likewise not wish to force the former not to carry one. This is precisely what reasonableness is all about.
Moreover, it is clear that the club is neither pro-independence nor anti-independence. As it says in the club’s statutes, the purpose of the club is to "encourage the practice, promotion and exhibition of football" besides other sports, as well as serve "its members, its citizens and Catalonia". The club’s essential Catalan identity, encouraged by its Swiss founder who saw them through some difficult times, is not associated with a particular political position. Instead it represents a wide spectrum of patriotism channelled through the country’s unarmed army.
UEFA’s rules ought to be adapted to the club’s unique experience in its stadium, distinguishing it from expressions of a racist, xenophobic or discriminatory nature. Independence is the subject of discussion and criticism, and it generates political disagreements, but its expression in the form of the Estelada is not intended as an insult or as a means of communicating a discriminatory message. Nobody is forced to express themselves one way or another, and everything takes place with the reasonableness demanded by the authorities. The club’s members appreciate that both silence and pro-independence chants are legitimate uses of the freedom of expression. The rest is just football, where irrationality and fanaticism for a particular football strip are channelled in relatively harmless ways.
Nevertheless, if the authorities decide to penalize the display of the Estelada or jeering during the Spanish national anthem, they will be doing nothing more than recognizing the significance of these acts and providing those that participate in them with even more ammunition. We must not forget that protest is a form of resistance, and that freedom of expression is all about the limits, rather than serving to reinforce the status quo. Our regulatory systems, which are largely identified with freedoms, are flexible enough to adapt and make space for new realities. The burden of proof falls on those who wish to control the freedom of expression, it is they who must prove the damage done by the Estelada. It is not up to the club’s members to prophylactically leave their flags at home in order to provide a sanitized and politically neutral global spectacle.
(1) The Estelada is a flag flown by supporters of the Catalan independence movement
(2) Spain’s national anthem