Football & Freedom of Expression: Whistling the National Anthem

Spain is waiting. The media is speculating, the social networks are boiling, many political circles are alarmed, others campaigning and lobbying, and it’s all because of a football match, but it has nothing to do with sport.

Tonight, FC Barcelona and Athletic Club de Bilbao will be playing in Barcelona in the presence of the King of Spain: it’s the Spanish King’s Cup final (Copa del Rey) and the King will hand the cup to the winner, but this is not why everyone is Spain is waiting.

FC Barcelona is a Catalan club, Athletic de Bilbao a Basque one. Catalans and Basques have a track record of whistling the Spanish national anthem in the presence of the king, any king. They have their reasons: some do not identify with the Spanish flag/anthem/politics, they do not consider themselves Spanish; others are separatists and would not miss a chance to express their strong desire for independence. They consider whistling the Spanish national anthem as an exercise of freedom of expression and an opportunity to voice their objection to Spanish politics and to the monarchic system in an event followed by the whole world.

On the other side of the battlefield (I mean the football field) are those who decry this attitude and describe it as an act of defiance to any code of conduct, mixing sport with politics and insulting the national icons of Spain. To them, whistling the flag (and in the presence of the new King) is an unimaginable and unacceptable lack of respect towards the rest of the Spanish people that love their ‘patria’ (homeland).

The debate acquired a new momentum following an unexpected (and unprecedented) twist: the authorities announced that both clubs would be sanctioned if their fans whistle the anthem. Other official opinions had called for suspending the match should this behavior persist. There is no lack of people from both sides of the argument that would gladly fan the flames.

The heated debate is already a trending topic in Spain, and once more, football proves it’s more than just a sport: football, politics, business and culture, they all mix despite the superficial arguments that claim otherwise. The big question, like always, is: where is the line between freedom of expression and abuse of other people’s freedom and rights? ‘The Law’, you might think. Well, not always.

I don’t know whether the fans would whistle and boo the national anthem or not tonight (most probably they will), but one thing I know for sure: after exactly 17 minutes and 14 seconds (17:14), Barcelona fans will sing ‘We want Independence’, like they always do at their stadium, the Camp Nou. The year 1714 is the year in which Barcelona fell to the Bourbon-supporting French Army. It’s a year that marked the destiny of Catalonia ever after, and it still hurts.

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