Oleguer Presas i Renom is an easy choice for centre-back in this Political Football XI. After Javi Poves quit football, I can’t think of many other current players (although he has just been released by Ajax) who take politics and their political beliefs as seriously as Oleguer.
Oleguer Presas is a remarkable footballer in many ways. As a native of Sabadell, a town about 30 kms from Camp Nou he has grown up immersed in the politics of Catalan nationalism. Unlike many other people from that region, by playing for Barcelona he became a Catalan icon.
He started playing for Barcelona in 2001, spending 2 years in the B team. He made his first appearance on the first team substitutes bench away against Club Brugge in 2002, finally getting on the pitch as a substitute for Frank de Boer at the end of another Champions League game against Galatasaray.
As well as playing for Barcelona, he enrolled in, and completed a degree in economics. While studying for his economics degree he also found time to write a book with his friend and Catalan nationalist poet Roc Casagran. The book, entitled ‘Road to Ithaca’ has been called a ‘football fairy tale and a political manifesto at the same time’ (Valgollo, 2006). Oleguer describes it as ‘an urban road movie about friendship and utopia’. Ithaca, the Greek island, is thought to have been the home of Homer’s Odysseus, to where he is trying to return after the end of the Trojan War. He is making a clear analogy between Odysseus’ search for his mythical home and Catalonian independence.
In the book Oleguer compares Barcelona winning the Spanish Championship in 2005 to the Catalonian freedom fighters and anti-fascists who defended Barcelona against Franco’s troops in 1939.
These activities already set him apart from most footballers but Oleguer doesn’t like to think of himself as different, and struggles with the idea of being an icon. “I don’t like to be adored. Of course it is nice when a 50 year old man congratulates me on the street. But I always feel like he has done so much more than I have.’ (Valgollo, 2006) He dedicated the only goal he has scored to a 14 year old boy also from Sabadell arrested for putting up posters criticising the mayor of the town (Lluch, online).
The materialistic, capitalist side of modern life holds little interest for him. Even when he was playing for Barça first team he would travel by public transport due to the environmental benefits (Lowe, 2006). Eventually he moved onto driving a grey van, a far cry from the expensive cars favoured by his contemporaries.
Aside from writing his book, Oleguer contributes to political journals, has given speeches at protests against the neoliberal EU constitution, and has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, he even paid the costs of a free Manu Chao concert.
One article in particular has been the source of much controversy in Spain. In a piece called ‘De Bona Fe’ (In Good Faith) published in the Directa journal Oleguer questions the autonomy of the Spanish judiciary and the ‘State of Law’ that exists in Spain. He contrasts the imprisonment of ETA terrorist Ignacio de Juana Chaos with other prisoners who he believes have received an easy ride and preferential treatment. Oleguer finishes by saying that the State of Law in Spain smells of hypocrisy (quoted in Lowe, 2007).
This article caused a furore in Spain and made life difficult on the pitch for Oleguer. The now-retired Levante striker Salva Ballesta stated that he has more respect for dog shit than Oleguer Presas. He was booed at various stadiums, he was vilified in the press and accused of supporting terrorists. This situation led to him being dropped by his boot sponsors Kelme, and may have contributed to him being sold to Ajax at the end of the 2007/08 season.
Oleguer will always be closely identified with Barça though. He says, ‘For me, Barcelona is genuinely special. It is the invocation of a country, representing Catalan national identity and culture. Barça was a conduit for feeling when people could not express themselves’ (Lowe, 2007). Referring back to the 1930s battles against Franco’s troops he says, ‘To support the club meant to reject the regime, and that’s why Barça will always be more than a club’ (Valgollo, 2006).
Oleguer Presas stands out from other footballers because he allows his political beliefs to inform the person he is. It appears he has been released by Ajax after a disappointing season. The wikipedia wags have been on his English language page, showing a supposed quote from the player:
‘The time has come for me to leave Ajax, and impart my knowledge of incredibly accurate passes along the back four on another, much bigger club. I’ve taught the club all I can, and I can take them no further.’
Of course there is no reference for that statement.
It will be interesting to see where the life of this Spanish, Dutch and European Champion takes him next.
Go here to read the other articles in this series: Political Footballers XI
Lowe, Sid (2006) ‘Presas strikes a blow against the regime as Barça seal the title’ in The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/may/04/europeanfootball.football
Lowe, Sid (2007) ‘Barcelona’s right-back philosopher out to make the world a better place’ in The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2007/feb/21/championsleague.barcelona
Valgollo, Damiano (2006) ‘Der Verteidiger Kataloniens’ in 11 Freunde. http://www.11freunde.de/liveticker/18829
Lluch, Isaac (online) ‘Oleguer Presas interview’ on Sportmagister.com. http://www.sportmagister.com/reportaje.asp?id_rep=3091