Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Sunday, 21 february 2016 | THE NATIONAL


Football: Homage to Josep Sunyol - the Catalan who made Barça more than a club

IMAGE: Josep Sunyol, Barcelona's 'martyr president' who was killed by Franco's troops in 1936




IN the last six months alone, Uefa have fined Barcelona 70,000 euros for the display of Catalan independence flags during their games, so it would be tempting to predict that the Blaugrana will start to toe the line when it comes to their connection with the region’s separatist movement.
On the contrary, the Champions League holders have just completed a project that only further emphasises their historic links to the Catalan cause, a reminder that their més que un club moto is still relevant. Last month marked the premier of Barça backed documentary “Josep Sunyol: A Brave Cry”, the global distribution rights for which are currently being negotiated. The release marks the end of 12 months dedicated to the former Barça president, who died 80 years ago this August.

A brief glimpse at the film’s trailer is enough to understand that it deals with more than just sport. Actor Pere Arquillué, portraying the eponymous character, stares down the camera lens and states: “My name is Josep Sunyol. Businessman, politician, president of FC Barcelona, and Catalan. Above all, Catalan.”

The message is already fairly clear, but the last line of the 46 second clip is particularly important in understanding Barcelona’s angle. “I did and was many things…”, Sunyol mouths. “Until the day they killed me”.

Sunyol was assassinated by Franco’s troops in August 1936 after straying into enemy territory in Madrid. When the Spanish civil war erupted, instead of hiding, he decided to do something about it, starting a round of meetings and journeys that would ultimately result in his death. His body has never been recovered.

That execution without trial converted Sunyol into a martyr figure for Barcelona, whose website even labels him their “martyr president”. Yet beyond the nature of his death, supporters are largely unaware of the details of his life and presidency. With their documentary, Barça are hoping to fill in those gaps.

“We don’t understand how this figure has been forgotten for so long”, current vice president Carles Villarubi explained at the premiere of the film. “With the documentary, we wanted to repair that injustice, starting virtually from scratch”.

Villarubi isn’t exaggerating about the scarcity of information on Sunyol. Between 1939 and 1962, Barça were prohibited from mentioning his name in any official documentation. The regime’s disdain for him is no surprise considering his endeavours outside of FC Barcelona: on three occasions between 1931 and 1936 he was an elected member of Spain’s congress, as part of the left-wing ERC party.

In recent years, historians have been able to piece together parts of Sunyol’s life, and the resulting picture is that of a fascinating figure whose uniqueness should now be better appreciated by the masses thanks to the documentary. A proud left-winger despite being a millionaire from a bourgeois family, growing up in the shadow of the 1920s Primo de Rivera dictatorship radicalised him, and there are several indications that his thinking was significantly ahead of its time. One of his most notable acts at Barça was pushing for Anna Maria Martinez Sagi to be named as the club’s first ever female director, back in 1934.

Above all, Sunyol proved to be a visionary in foreseeing that football was destined to become a mass phenomenon, rather than a passing trend. In 1930, he founded weekly paper La Rambla out of the ashes of the periodical he had previously written for, La Nau. La Rambla was cutting edge, allocating equal space to sport and politics, and running front page editorials on both subjects every week.

Spanish football historian Ángel Iturriaga Barco explains that with La Rambla, Sunyol sought to take advantage of sport’s growing popularity to elevate his particular message. “It basically served to teach Catalanism through sport, and was very well received”, he notes. “It was a way of getting Catalanism to a larger number of people, those who were drawn in by football”.

There are remnants of La Rambla’s popularity today, but in a sign of how Sunyol’s legacy has been forgotten, many won’t realise it. When Barcelona win a trophy, their fans traditionally celebrate at the Canaletes fountain near Plaça Catalunya. The reason? It was once the location of the newspaper’s offices. In the days before widespread telephone or radio use, supporters used to gather outside the telegraph-equipped building in anticipation of journalists shouting away scores down to the masses below. Eighty-something years later, the crowds still come, even if most don’t know why.

The other big connection between Sunyol’s days as a journalist and his time at Barça stems from the subheading that once adorned La Rambla’s front page, “Esport i Ciutadania”. Literally translating as “sport and citizenship”, it demanded that the sporting world should be involved in the social and cultural affairs of Catalonia, and is considered a direct precursor to the més que un club of today. Ángel Iturriaga cites Sunyol as “the first figure in the history of FC Barcelona who made it clear that being a Barça fan meant being a Catalanist”.

Sunyol would have likely plenty to say about Barcelona’s relationship with Catalonia in 2016. Coincidentally or otherwise, the release of the documentary coincides with a political turning point in the region, which has just elected a coalition whose goal is to declare independence before the end of its term. Several key members of that movement led the list of VIPs invited to the premier of A Brave Cry. Almost 100 years after Sunyol first demanded it, Barça remains more than just a football club for Catalonia. Whether Uefa like it or not.


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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia