Give us the same status as Wales say Catalan Football as they warm up for first match in three years
The Catalan men’s national football team will play their first match in over three years tonight amid calls for the country to be given the same status in world football as Wales or Scotland.
A sell-out crowd is expected at Girona’s Montilivi stadium to see the likes of Barcelona’s Riqui Puig and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin take on Jamaica in the country’s first match since March 2019.
Catalonia’s situation is in stark contrast to the challenge faced by Wales, who are preparing for five fixtures, including a crucial World Cup play-off final, in the space of just two weeks.
It’s a schedule that will stretch the limits of Rob Page’s squad but is the envy of many Catalans, who will use tonight’s match “as an act of political as well as sporting revindication”, according to Joaquín del Pino of the Catalan Football Federation (FCF).
Catalonia has the same right as Wales, Scotland or Kosovo to have a recognised international team, del Pino said at a press conference to promote the match, and pointed to games against Brazil, France and even Spain as evidence.
If Catalonia had FIFA recognition, coach Gerard López believes they would have qualified for Qatar.
“With all our players available, Catalunya would without doubt be a World Cup team,” said the former Barcelona midfielder.
López’s caveat is crucial because while Catalonia isn’t short of top players on paper, getting them on the pitch for what are, officially, unofficial internationals has been a challenge. Even under legendary former coach Johan Cruyff.
Seven of Catalonia’s last eight international matches took place during the Christmas break and clubs are often reluctant to release players mid-season in case of injuries. Six players were denied permission by La Liga clubs to take part in Catalonia’s last match, a 2-1 victory over Venezuela.
“Usually, if the clubs don’t want to let the players go, the Catalan Federation have to search for another player and, in the end, they end up with players from a lower level,” Lluis Ramon, a journalist covering the match for Catalan sports daily l’Esportiu, told Nation.Cymru.
Turnout has been improved this time by a move to an end-of-season fixture, even if Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, who hold 18 Catalan caps between them, are among absentees due to a club tour to Australia.
“There are more players available now that La Liga has finished,” added Ramon. “This time I think there’s a pretty good team, including players from the Spanish team who played in the Olympic Games.”
They include 23-year-old defender Óscar Mingueza, who is establishing himself as Pique’s successor at the heart of Barça’s defence, and 24-year-old Dani Olmo who helped Leipzig to a German Cup victory and a Europa League semi-final this season.
Along with Bellerin, they are among 14 of the 22-player squad who will be making their debut for the ‘selecció’.
Followers of the Premier League will also be familiar with Brighton defender Marc Cucurella, reportedly a summer transfer target of fellow Catalan Pep Guardiola, Southampton midfielder Oriol Romeu, and Watford striker Gerard Deulofeu, who has scored 13 Seria A goals this season while on loan at Udinese.
Players have been calling the Catalan Football Federation to make themselves available for selection since the re-arranged fixture with the ‘Reggae Boys’ was announced, FCF President Joan Soteras told a press conference at the headquarters of the Catalan government yesterday.
“There’s no obligation for the players to come, but when you see the total willingness and excitement to play for Catalunya, that’s really pleasing,” said López on announcing his squad. “You have to appreciate the squad that we have, there’s a lot of talent.”
The strong squad, along with affordable tickets distributed through local football clubs and discounted replica shirts, have helped drum-up interest in tonight’s match.
“The level of support for the Catalan national team is limited by the fact it doesn’t have international recognition,” Raimon Nadal, secretary of one of the largest FC Girona fan clubs explained. “But we’re really looking forward to seeing our national team play after such a long time.
“I really wish Catalonia was recognised in the same way as Wales and Scotland and could compete in official competitions. It would be great if other national teams could give their support to securing this very difficult objective.”
Wales have already played the Basque Country, who are continuing to campaign alongside Catalonia for recognition despite a recent knockback from football governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA.
“We will continue working to achieve the objective that we set for this legislature, which is none other than taking firm steps towards making the Basque national teams official through collaboration and consensus,” Javier Landeta, the president of the Basque Football Federation, told the Basque parliament earlier this month.
But organising a friendly match is tough enough. The Basque Country’s men’s team and Catalonia’s women’s team are also yet to play since the pandemic began.
“Even to play a friendly match you need the permission of the Spanish Football Federation,” added journalist Lluis Raimon. “You need agreement for things as simple as the referee and a date.”
“They speak about Wales and Scotland as an example to follow. But one thing is to say it and another is how to achieve it.”
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