David Owen  ©ITG

On July 25, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach was in Barcelona to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Olympic Games.

Last weekend, hundreds of inhabitants of the city, whose international standing was transformed more than any other recent Olympic host by that landmark event, were injured trying to cast their votes in an independence referendum deemed illegal by the national Government.

Since then I have been wondering whether the self-confidence and regional pride instilled/reinforced by hosting such a manifestly successful global celebration played a role in sharpening the yearning for self-determination that is exposing one of the numerous fault-lines beneath the socio-political landscape of modern Spain.

Is a revitalised Catalán independence movement, to adopt the Olympic argot, part of the legacy of Barcelona 1992?

It is a complex question far beyond the scope of a weekly blog to answer adequately.

Clearly, Catalán nationalism long predated 1992.

I cannot imagine, moreover, that the Barcelona-born IOC President under whom the city’s Olympic dream was fulfilled – Juan Antonio Samaranch - had the slightest intention of in any way loosening the ties binding Spain together.

He was, after all, both a former Spanish ambassador to the Soviet Union and a Marqués, a title conferred in 1991 by royal decree.

The late IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who brought the Olympic and Paralympic Games to Barcelona in 1992, is unlikely to have favoured Catalan independence  ©Getty Images
The late IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who brought the Olympic and Paralympic Games to Barcelona in 1992, is unlikely to have favoured Catalan independence ©Getty Images

Then again, if the Olympic Games allowed Barcelona to, as Bach put it in July, “turn around and truly embrace the sea” after “living with its back turned to the beautiful Mediterranean” – and most, I think, would accept that this is the case – well, that manoeuvre also entailed turning away from Madrid.

Given the immensely enhanced international prestige garnered by the city over the past quarter of a century since the Olympics came to town, I would be fascinated to read a serious evaluation of the factors driving the present push for more say over its own affairs, and of where the impact of 1992 sits in this big picture.

The most striking sporting image of a remarkable few days in Catalonia was of Barcelona’s famous football club – the team, most notably, of Lionel Messi – playing a scheduled league match in an empty stadium.

As chance would have it, the match was against Las Palmas, the Canary Islands town from which General Francisco Franco flew back to join the Nationalist rebellion in 1936, a calamitous year for Spain, though Barcelona might conceivably have been preparing to stage that summer’s Olympic Games: it ended up second in the race to host them behind Berlin, beaten by 43 votes to 16.  

A statement by club President Josep Maria Bartomeu here - spelt out how Sunday’s decision to play behind closed doors was “one of the most difficult” he had had to make in the role, reasserted Barça’s “commitment to freedom and to the people of Catalonia” and appealed for “political solutions to be found, in full respect for the people’s wishes”.

It is worth pointing out that if the political solution found ends up being full independence for Catalonia, the consequences for the football club could be as profound as those for any other leading regional institution.

A simple question – What league would they play in? – highlights the magnitude of the conundrum.

My hunch is that there would be quite a lot of pressure for them to remain part of Spain’s La Liga: El Clásico, pitting Barça against Real Madrid is quite simply the biggest national club football match on earth, guaranteeing sizeable - hence lucrative - TV audiences all over the world.  

But would that really be possible if Catalonia became an independent country?

Barcelona's Lionel Messi - would the club continue to be part of La Liga if Catalonia broke from Spain, or be part of a new Catalan League?  ©Getty Images
Barcelona's Lionel Messi - would the club continue to be part of La Liga if Catalonia broke from Spain, or be part of a new Catalan League? ©Getty Images

Would it be any more feasible for Barça to join the league structure of another leading West European economy, such as France or Italy?

Well, money can accomplish a lot in football, but the precedent set by the unravelling socialist nations of Eastern Europe tends to suggest that Barça might be expected to become the dominant force of a new Catalonian league.

Nothing too scary about that, surely: as nailed-on certainties for the league title, Champions League qualification would be assured year after year and it should not be beyond the wit of man to arrange an annual set-piece clash with Real for a gleaming new trophy.

Actually, that is precisely the ultimate outcome I would expect that the club would wish to avoid at all costs, barring a fairly profound restructuring of European club football.

Why? The potential financial consequences.

For one thing, clubs playing in England’s Premier League and the other top draws earn considerable sums nowadays from non-domestic broadcasting rights.

But how much international demand would there be to watch Barcelona wallop a succession of Catalonian minnows?

Becoming part of a new Catalonian league might also reduce the club’s Champions League earnings.

This is because of an income distribution mechanism known as the market pool.

Under this, part of the money paid out to Champions League participants depends on the proportional value of national television markets.

In 2017-18, as I understand it, more than €500 million (£450 million/$590 million) out of around €1.3 billion (£1.15 billion/($1.5 billion) is likely to be distributed in this way.

While the most valuable TV markets are in countries which usually produce multiple Champions League qualifiers, this system has tended nonetheless to favour clubs from the big five West European economies of Germany, England, France, Italy and Spain.

Of the ten clubs which received market pool payments of in excess of €25 million (£22 million/($29.5 million) for the 2015-16 Champions League, three were from England, two from each of France, Spain and Italy, and one from Germany.

The flag of Catalonia, whose political future remains very uncertain following Sunday's independence referendum, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish Government. However, Catalan authorities seem determined to declare independence.  ©Getty Images
The flag of Catalonia, whose political future remains very uncertain following Sunday's independence referendum, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish Government. However, Catalan authorities seem determined to declare independence. ©Getty Images

For seven of these ten clubs, the market pool accounted for more than half their earnings from the competition.

At 7.5 million, Catalonia’s population is considerably smaller than equally football-mad Portugal’s, whose two representatives in the 2015-16 competition received a combined €12.25 million (£10.9 million/$14.4 million) from the market pool.

This was a bit less than half of the €25.6 million (£22.7 million/$30.2 million) paid to Barcelona.

The five Spanish representatives garnered nearly €90 million (£80 million/$106 million) from the market pool between them.

If Barcelona played its league football in Catalonia and if this mechanism for allocating Champions League cash were not reformed, I fear that the club, though perennial league champions, could gradually slip down the European rankings as other famous clubs in comparatively small countries in TV earnings terms – Ajax Amsterdam, Red Star Belgrade, Glasgow Celtic – have before them.

As things stand, you can see how the political uncertainty hanging over the region might, just might set in train a series of developments leading something like this to happen – and how deeply ironic it would be.

Sport and politics, eh.