‘Why does the Spanish national anthem have no lyrics?’ a joke went before the 2015 Spanish King`s Cup final between Athletic Bilbao and FC Barcelona. ‘Because it’s whistled!’ Jeering the Spanish royal family and the national anthem at soccer games catalyses spectacular debates over sovereignty, state–region relations, and the freedom of expression.

CBS professor Mariann Vaczi, who has published about sport and nationalisms in Spain, was interviewed by the New York Times for a report about the upcoming King`s Cup (Copa del Rey) final between Sevilla and FC Barcelona, and the championship`s whistling controversies in a tense political climate of Catalan secessionism. See the report here:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/19/sports/barcelona-copa-del-rey-final.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fsports&action=click&contentCollection=sports&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=4&pgtype=sectionfront

The report also drew from Vaczi`s research article titled “Football, the Beast and the Sovereign,” from which the following are excerpts:

Tension was palpable as we were roaming the streets of Madrid in May 2012 before the Spanish King’s Cup final between the Basque Athletic Bilbao and the Catalan FC Barcelona. This championship always represented Spain’s centralist powers, and now it would be played between two teams from regions of marked Republican and secessionist aspirations. King Juan Carlos himself was not going to show up for the final that bore his name, as he was resting off the hip injury he had procured at a safari in Botswana. Instead, his son Prince Felipe represented the royal family. Fifty-five thousand Basque and Catalan football fans packed into Madrid’s Calderón stadium. The Spanish national anthem was reduced to a mere 27 seconds to mitigate the embarrassment of its furious whistling, but that was not the only highlight of the anti-monarchy protest. Basque and Catalan fans were jumping and waiving pro-independence flags, savoring the moment as they sang together the well-known children’s song to mock the king’s wild game hunt:

“An elephant was balancing

On a spider’s web

And as he saw he didn’t fall

He called another elephant.

Two elephants were balancing

On a spider’s web

And as they saw they didn’t fall

They called another elephant

Three elephants…”

It went on and on, insistently, all the way to 15 elephants. With the seventh, I almost pitied the future king Felipe, who endured the insult with unimpassioned face. With the 10th, the elephants turned into a haunting specter:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quf8AjhX0gs#action=share

The first notable football game whistling goes back to 1925 to the regime of Primo de Rivera, who had just overthrown the constitutional government in 1923 with a military coup d’état. The military dictatorship suspended the 1876 constitution, dissolved the Spanish Parliament, and banned political parties and regional governments. The friendly match between FC Barcelona and C.E. Júpiter took place in June 1925 in Catalonia. At half time, when the Royal Marines played the Spanish Marcha Real, fans whistled the anthem so furiously that the Marines, confused as to why the ‘Spaniards’ whistled ‘their own anthem’, switched to their God Save the Queen. To their further bafflement, the British anthem met with enthusiastic applause. The event had major political repercussions. The stadium was shut down for three months, and the president of FC Barcelona was exiled from Spain. According to anecdote, the Les Corts stadium would be re-opened only after 12 religious practitioners blessed it in order to exorcise the ‘malevolent separatist spirits’ that had contaminated it

The post-dictatorship tradition of king jeering started in 2009, when Athletic Club and FC Barcelona qualified for the King’s Cup final. As King Juan Carlos emerged in the VIP booth of Valencia’s Mestalla stadium, the Spanish national anthem would be played, but it was not heard: 55,000 Basques and Catalans were standing, holding innumerable Basque and Catalan national flags high, whistling the anthem and the royal family. The state-owned Radio Televisión Española reduced the sound of the whistling and amplified the anthem to audible levels, which stirred a political controversy over censoring an act of free expression.

 

In spite of the National Court decision that declared that whistling fell within the category of free expression, pro-monarchy voices continued to call for the criminalization of whistling each time the Basque and Catalan teams qualified for the Cup Final. ‘Eighty-seven years later’, an article went before the 2012 King’s Cup final, ‘[Madrid province president] Esperanza Aguirre evokes the ghost of the dictator Primo de Rivera, who shut down Barcelona’s Les Corts stadium’, as Aguirre called for the cancellation of the final if fans whistled.

 

‘Where shall we put these 70,000 pigs, because pigs they are, these Basque and Catalan football fans who attend the King’s Cup final to insult and profane the symbols of Spain?’ a TV show host of La Ratonera declared in March 2015. ‘I would not even call them Basques and Catalans’, a caller added in a tone symptomatic of the tensions the game generated. ‘They are separatists, separratas “separatist rats”, there is no other way to call them’.

By 2015, whistling the national anthem was anticipated as the great subversive moment of the year. Ninety-five thousand Basques and Catalans packed in Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium and produced a decibel that the press called ‘monumental’, ‘stratospheric’, and ‘thunderous’. Spain’s ruling conservative People’s Party qualified the incident as ‘horror’ that ‘offends us’, declared that the whistling demonstrated ‘the disease part of the society suffers’ and reiterated the proposition that insulting Spain’s symbols should be punishable. The State’s Anti-Violence Commission issued a fine of 123,000 Euros for the clubs, and the General Attorney launched an investigation about whether the whistling constituted punishable offense to the monarch, and insult to national symbols.

For more, check out the essay here:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00141844.2017.1321564