The Dutchman has agreed to coach Catalonia’s “national” side as they seek wider approval within the world game.
Are you a nationalist?” asks Jordi Casals with a smile. For once the Catalonia Football Federation (FCF) president does not require the services of a translator.
Casals is responding to the question of why Catalonia are not prepared to settle for just playing matches with other Spanish regions and why the homeland of Barcelona needs Johan Cruyff as its head coach.
The FCF was founded in 1904 but Catalonia games were very sporadic until the death of General Franco. The demise of the Spanish head of state in 1975 led to the establishment of 17 autonomous regions, with each allowed to set up their own “national” team – and the FCF embraced the idea with more enthusiasm than most.
However, until Catalonia is a member of the United Nations it cannot apply for membership of FIFA or UEFA and that means no European or World Cup qualifiers. Instead, the Catalans are restricted to a couple of friendly games a year at best. Fixtures – which can only be arranged when there are no La Liga games or Spain internationals – are usually played in late May or during La Liga’s Christmas break. Nevertheless, stars such as Xavi and Carles Puyol of Barcelona, and Sergio Gonzalez of Deportivo La Coruna, have been only too happy
to turn out in Catalonia colours for well-attended games at Camp Nou.
In December 2008, Catalonia beat Colombia 2-1 after losing to Argentina’s Olympic team in May. However, neither of these sides are now deemed big enough opponents.
In 2008 the Catalans agreed to play the Basques and the Galicians in a deal known as the San Mames Accord, but this was not signed by Casals, who only took over as FCF president last summer – and on a mandate to seek even greater international recognition.
“A three-way tournament [with the Basques and Galicians] would be possible,” says Casals as he sits flanked by two of his press team in the FCF office near Barcelona Nord transport terminus. “But what’s really important is to promote the Catalan team and we want teams in the FIFA top 10.”
Securing the sort of high-profile games that Casals desires is why he was desperate for Barcelona legend Cruyff to return to management. Thirteen years after the Dutchman’s last coaching post, he was unveiled as Catalonia’s new boss in November and, despite the short notice, a prestigious friendly against Argentina was arranged for December 22.
The 62-year-old Cruyff – who was a European Cup winner as a player and coach, and appeared for Catalonia during his playing days – still lives in Barcelona and is on good terms with Barca’s president, Joan Laporta.
“For this reason we have Mr Cruyff as manager,” says Casals, who has realistic plans for Catalonia to mix more regularly with football’s elite.
“If we have a manager that is not known, it is not so easy. But he can phone up [Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger] about Cesc [Fabregas] or speak to [FIFA president Sepp] Blatter and [UEFA president Michel] Platini.
“We will try to bring some countries here before the World Cup next year and play against them.”
Barcelona benefited from massive investment to stage the 1992 Olympic Games and the city is not short of top-class training facilities.
With these and the Camp Nou available, Catalonia would be a popular venue for a pre-World Cup training camp for many nations. Quite how Cruyff would secure the release of those Catalans in Spain’s World Cup squad is not yet apparent. Even so, having got his first-choice manager, Jordi Casals can but dream.