Want to know why Barcelona keep chasing Cesc Fàbregas, despite Arsenal’s apparent unwillingness to sell? You’ve got to begin at the beginning.
Més que un club, the Cataláns say, and they mean it. More than a club. It’s not just about the stylish play or the (supposed) sportsmanship; it’s not about the UNICEF affiliation or the sparkling history—important as these are—it’s really about something at once more parochial and universal.
Start with the parochial: It’s about Catalanisme. Community connections pull at most human heartstrings, but FC Barcelona isn’t about representing the duties of solidarity in a general sense. It’s about a specific version, a particular iteration of community. It’s about Catalunya.
FC Barcelona begins with a bloody hand on a yellow shield, 1100 years ago. It begins well back in the mists of time. Fittingly, it begins on a (battle)field. The legend of Wilfred the Hairy may not be true—frankly, it doesn’t have to be. Symbolism doesn’t stand or fall according to its empirical veracity; it depends upon whether or not it still strums the community’s collective heartstrings. Internal coherence is quite enough. Symbolism matters simply because it matters to so many. It’s tautological. Did a grateful Charles the Bald really wipe four fingers across Wilfred the Hairy’s shield? The historical truth has become irrelevant. The symbolism stands on its own.
So: FC Barcelona has its roots in a symbolic mountain, a slain dragon, and a slew of melting clocks. The club grows from myths and magic, an enchanted collective past too capacious even for the Camp Nou’s massive confines. It is nothing static—like castellers rising above a Penedès plaza, it grows and changes, but it never fully diffuses. Barcelona’s medieval Jocs Florals are just Joan Manuel Serrat’s ancestors. It’s all linked.
And that’s what so many observers only vaguely understand when puzzling over Barça. You can’t understand the team without a look to the solidarity forged by blood and loss and cultural domination. The Cataláns have a knack for winding up on the wrong side of history. Their national holiday commemorates the end of the Siege of Barcelona in 1714, a defeat which left Catalunya firmly beneath the heel of the Spanish throne. Look further back in history and you’ll find mostly misfortune. Communities form around tragedy just as well as triumph.
Really want to understand? Talk long enough with Cataláns about Barça and they’ll tell you about Josep Sunyol.
President of the club and a firm Catalán nationalist, he was captured by Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War (in 1936) and was summarily executed. And sure, there were atrocities on both sides, and yes, Sunyol was a political figure as well, but that’s precisely the point. There’s no separating the club from Catalán nationalism, and that’s especially because Franco went on to win the war, because Sunyol wasn’t the last Catalán martyr. When Hitler’s occupying troops caught the exiled President of Catalunya, Lluis Companys, in France, they were all too happy to turn him over to Franco (Hitler’s erstwhile ally). Franco was happier still to have Companys executed. The first years after the Civil War were brutal times for Catalunya.
Their language banned, their cultural currents driven underground, their nation officially subsumed under Franco’s corporatism-cum-fascism, Cataláns were short on forms of community expression. Being that they were expressing Catalán hopes, though, things often got rocky. Take the most famous example:
After Barça went up 3-0 in the home leg of their 1943 Copa matchup with Real Madrid, they found a surprise waiting for them for the away leg. Armed police met them at the stadium with a warning: This was not Barça’s year. Go easy today, boys. Oh, look at that—it’s kickoff time! See you after the match! Have a nice time!
Madrid dismissed the gun-shy Cataláns 11-1.
Real Madrid wasn’t Franco’s “team” in any serious sense, but FC Barcelona were a threat to his linguistic and cultural reconquista, a crackdown aiming at the hegemony of Castilian Spanish, Roman Catholicism, and broadly conservative social values. What with the still-active Catalán leftist tradition and their stubborn insistence on speaking their maternal tongue, Franco couldn’t help but see them as belligerents. Real Madrid were their rivals. The enemy of mine enemy is, well, you know the rest.
None of that matters in Catalunya, still smarting from forty brutal years under Franco. Real Madrid continue to stand in for centralized Spanish political power, for Castilian armies. If they were busted down to the third division next year, some other Castilian team would rise to take their place. Just ask former Barça left-back Oleguer Presas: “When Barcelona win the league, we become the Army of Joy finally able to face up to [Franco's troops]. We imagine ourselves halting that pack of tanks, responding to their bullets with song, laughing in the face of the fascist ire.” It was true under Franco’s regime, but it still animates the team today (Oleguer’s lines are from 2007). When Barcelona plays Madrid, the ghosts play too—and on both sides.
For many Barça fans, this is the core of the problem. If Barcelona is a team for Catalán hopes, it must be a team with obvious links to Catalán history. When these fans see Fàbregas over at Arsenal and wonder: “What’s that world-class Catalán talent doing over there? Isn’t he part of our community? Wasn’t he in our youth system? Something about this seems wrong…” It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t fit into the starting XI—Who would sit? Xavi? Iniesta? Messi? Pedro?—Fàbregas belongs on this team because he was born to be part of it, because he was groomed to be part of it. That’s why Barça grows their own players from such a young age. That way, those who aren’t part of the community by birth can grow into it by instruction. They can come to know it intuitively, to believe that it matters because it matters.
And see, the famous “La Masía” curriculum is the parochial-universal link driving Barça’s “Operation Cesc.” If Barcelona are a team defined by—and built to sustain—their identity, they cannot accept just any sort of players for just any sort of game. For the nation that gave the world Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Ferran Adrià, and plenty more, only the most stylish athletes can serve their cause.
In other words, Catalán solidarity is tied to a certain universal fashion sense. FC Barcelona plays to oppose themselves to the hegemon, to the metropole that would consume their distinctiveness. If their cause is parochial, their aesthetic sensibilities are cosmopolitan. They appropriated Dutch elegance and brought in glittering verve from Argentina and Brazil. They built a footballing style that stands alone on the global stage. By blowing past Spain’s borders with their beyond-question brilliance, Barça have found a way to link their parochial identity with the highest and best of the sport. By defending their cultural particularity, by defining themselves as a nation apart from their political state, they’ve won the world’s hearts (with plenty of exceptions, of course).
That’s why they just have to have Fàbregas. He’s not “just Catalán;” he’s another iteration of that brisk, attacking, silky style that they covet above all else. He’s talismanic to the Barça project. Forget where he’ll play. Forget the money (or Barça’s lack thereof). Forget Alexis Sánchez’s imminent arrival (and the even-more crowded midfield where Cesc would slot in). Forget Barça’s thin back line. Forget David Villa. Forget timetables: he’s coming back, whether it’s this year or next or a far-off someday. Forget Barça’s embarrassment of midfield riches. Forget the youth team players who stayed.
Forget all of this…but the next time Barça’s persistence seems inexplicable, remember Josep Sunyol. Remember that bloody shield.
 I have no idea why this is usually Anglicized to “Catalonia.” It’s phonetic enough in Catalán. No tricky rolled “r’s,” etc.