Barcelona Separatists Postpone—But Can’t Prevent—Israel vs. Spain Water Polo Match

Spain's Paula Crespi Barriga. Photo Courtesy: USA_SIPA

When politics intrude in sports, it presents ethical and logistical challenges that transcend athletic competition. The latest example of this is in Spain, where a pro-Catalan independence organization sought to prevent an Israeli women’s water polo team from participating in an international water polo tournament match in Barcelona. Organized by FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation), the 2018 Women’s Water Polo World League European Qualification includes teams from France, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Russia and Spain competing in multiple sites.

The Israeli team had already competed without incident on November 3, when it lost 24-5 to the Greeks in Athens. As they prepared to compete against the Spaniards on Monday in the Barcelona suburb of Molins de Rei, the CUP (Candidacy of Popular Unity)-Capgirem, a leftist political group that is part of the Barcelona municipal government, joined forces with the Catalonia chapter of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) to block the Israelis from competing in that community’s municipal pool.

“[S]ports teams are tools of national construction, and in the case of Israel it is a national construction forged by blood and fire in colonized territory,” Eulàlia Reguant, President Councilor for the CUP, said in a statement.

Additionally, CUP organized a protest in support of the Palestinian people for the “level of total oppression” that the state of Israel exerts on them.

To circumvent this boycott, tournament organizers sought use of a different facility. Reguant then requested that Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau prevent the match from being moved to a municipal pool in Sant Jordi, a request that Colau agreed to.

These actions were met by a strong response from the Israelis. Miri Regev, Israel Minister of Culture and Sport, wrote on social media that: “The BDS movements are clearly anti-Semitic in nature and operate to harm the State of Israel and its citizens.”

Regev then called on the government of Spain to “take all the necessary steps” to reverse the decision to move or cancel the match.

It was suggested that the Spaniards and Israelis play without spectators so as to decrease the impact of BDS protesters, who had rallied against the Israeli women under the slogan: “You are not welcome.” The visitors balked at this, leading to a compromise, negotiated with the assistance of the Royal Spanish Swimming Federation.


High Performance Center (CAR) of Sant Cugat. Photo Courtesy: Barcelona Film Commission

The match finally took place on Wednesday, in a pool at Sant Cugat, where the Spanish team captured a 11 – 5 victory in front of a small crowd of Israeli supporters. The Israelis will now move on to a match against Russia in early December; FINA, on the other hand, will need to take a hard look at how their tournament was hijacked for political purpose.

In a statement released yesterday, FINA said it: “[S]trongly condemns the actions of any political organization aiming at disturbing the normal organization of a sport competition between two water polo national teams.”

The organization’s statement also cited Constitutional Rule C 4: “FINA shall not allow any discrimination against National Federations or individuals (competitors, officials, judges, delegates, etc.) on the grounds of race, gender, religion, or political affiliations.”

Clearly, CUP-Capgirem and Reguant were not at all compliant; it will be interesting if there is any fallout from this situation and Spain’s Olympic aspirations. FINA is responsible for all aquatics competition at the Olympic Games.

It was left to Enric Bertrán, president of the Catalan Swimming Federation, to lament a situation that has likely created a precedent.

“I do not like what has happened; we have opened a front,” Bertrán said to El Pais. “It’s a shame that politics mixes with sports.

“The players just wanted to play the game,” he added.

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  1. avatar
    Lars H. Alhaug

    I am so sorry to read this. The nation of Israel is a blessing to all of the Earth, already. The hate comes from the darkness.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Lars:

      Thank you for your comments. This is a breaking story so I hope to have updates.

      What I find most challenging is separating politics from sports—though it was pointed out to me that when you don your nation’s colors you are in fact representing that country and all that it is perceived to stand for.

      A fascinating link (IMO) is the water polo (which is what I’m focused on) and the Catalonian separatist movement (which is an enormous issue right now in Spain).

      Your correspondent

  2. avatar

    apartheid South-Africa was killed by sanctions and BDS.
    So will be apartheid (and nazi) Israel.

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Sara:

      While I respect your right to your opinion—I suspect many have compared South Africa and Israel when it comes to how they treat their citizens—I’m not sure stating that the Israelis are “Nazis” is at all helpful.

      In fact, I’m far more interested in the narrative about a team of young women who seek to represent their country—and all that it represents—and the response they received at an international water polo tournament that was not only sanctioned by the highest aquatics organization in the sport, but had been arranged in advance and a facility previously secured.

      Having said this, I am open to responses, as long as they reasonably contribute to dialogue.

      Your correspondent

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