Sport as the Key to Statehood: Catalonia’s Final Piece of the Puzzle?

Erin Kwiatkowski
Vol. 43 Associate Editor

For decades, sport has been utilized for its ability to affect international change. Often, sport is inextricably linked to national identity and global politics. However, one aspect infrequently discussed is the influence sport may hold in recognizing statehood for emerging entities. I believe that international recognition of sporting federations in places like Catalonia can help fulfill the fourth factor of the Montevideo Convention and solidify statehood.

Sport as a tool for international relations and development

Sport has been a foundational part of modern society and continues to dominate the contemporary world. With sports like association football and cricket boasting over 3.5 billion and 2.5 billion fans respectively, it is no wonder that sport dominates popular culture.[1] Furthermore, it is not surprising that sports figures, events, and venues have been used as vehicles for political and diplomatic ambitions.[2] Sport has been a central tool for governments, organizations, and individuals to pursue diplomatic goals, demonstrate political protests, push propaganda, and even further goals of international development.

Sport diplomacy has come in many forms over the past century. One pertinent example is the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan which saw the first breakthrough of communication between the United States and China after a chilly Cold War relationship.[3] This moment became known globally as “ping pong diplomacy.” Soon after, wrestling in the 1990s mirrored the monumental ping pong diplomacy and curated sports diplomacy between the United States and Iran, resulting in the partial thaw of societal relations between the two nations.[4]

Sport has also been employed as a means of political protest and propaganda. During the Cold War the phenomenon of sport serving as a proxy for ‘hotter’ forms of conflict was on full display.[5] The 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games witnessed tit-for-tat boycotts in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.[6] The 1980 games were boycotted by an astounding fifty-one countries, including the United States.[7] Similarly, during the height of apartheid in South Africa, international sport federations (IFs) and country delegations united to isolate and exclude South Africa from participating in international sport competitions.[8] These instances only scratch the surface on the number of occasions sport has been weaponized for international conflicts.

Finally, sport has been widely recognized for its power to influence and encourage global development. Currently, there is an increase of praise and recognition for humanitarian programs that take advantage of sport for development in geopolitical and cultural contexts.[9] Many of these programs are supported by high level international organizations (IOs), like the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace and the International Olympic Committee. With sport reaching billions of fans across the globe, its potential to maximize the success of development initiatives and humanitarian programs is boundless.

Sport as a tool for recognition

It is evident now that sport is a major player in diplomacy and development. What is less discussed is the potential sport holds for recognizing as states entities that are seeking independence. As many groups who are eager to be nation states know, recognition by IOs like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) can bolster their claims for independence. Academics have noted that having an internationally recognized national sport federation can legitimize the existence of a state or “state-like polity.”[10]

This is exemplified by Kosovo’s campaign for international sport recognition in the early 2000s. Notably, Kosovo’s path to recognition by the IOC, FIFA, and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) was guided by strategic efforts of Kosovar political elites who understood the diplomatic power of sport.[11] Kosovo and its sporting federations were able to harness the power of sport to achieve recognition by these major bodies as a stepping stone on the way to entering the United Nations and achieving full recognition by the international community.[12] Is this blueprint to achieving independence something that future groups will turn to? One possible contender may be a region with a wealth of sporting history: Catalonia.

Catalonia’s independence movement – is sport the final piece of the puzzle?

Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeast Spain, has been eager to achieve independence for years. Their push for statehood has been struck down repeatedly by the Spanish government and international community.[13] Critics of the Catalan independence movement question whether they fulfill the qualifications required for statehood under customary international law. Currently, Catalonia likely meets three of the four factors required for statehood under the 1933 Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (“Montevideo Convention”). The power of sport can be harnessed to fulfill the fourth.

Under the Montevideo Convention, Catalonia would qualify for statehood if all four factors of the convention were met. The four factors of the convention are 1) a permanent population; 2) a defined territory; 3) government; and 4) capacity to enter into relations with other states.[14] The first factor weighs in favor of statehood as there are 7.5 million people currently living in Catalonia.[15] The second factor probably also weighs in favor of statehood thanks to the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which codified the territorial boundaries of Catalonia as an autonomous region.[16] The third factor may weigh in favor of statehood considering Catalonia’s regional government has competency in areas such as, but not limited to, education, media and public safety.[17] Because states routinely apply the Convention flexibly, Catalonia may have a persuasive claim for independence by using sport as a proxy for the final factor.

Catalonia may be able to argue that the success and longevity of their existing sport federations demonstrate their capacity to enter into relations with other states, thereby fulfilling the final factor. More than twenty Catalan sport federations are currently competing independently from Spain on the international level.[18] Their ability to do so stems mainly from a 2008 Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling which solidified Catalonia’s ability to compete on the international level separate from Spain.[19] This historic case held that Spanish legislation could not prevent more than one team per state from joining a sports federation if the relevant international federation permitted it.[20] The court reasoned that any Spanish law requiring only one federation to represent the territory of Spain does not pursue a goal that is internationally or universally held to be legitimate by the community of states.[21] The CAS panel additionally affirmed the importance of safeguarding the independence and autonomy of international sport federations and their discretionary competence in affiliating new members.[22]

Since the 2008 ruling, Catalan national sport federations have competed with renewed vigor in international tournaments and friendly matches with internationally recognized clubs.[23] In particular, the Catalan National Football Team has proven their worth on the international level during friendly matches boasting upwards of 80,000-90,000 fans.[24] As it stands, the national team is prevented from earning recognition by FIFA and UEFA due to policies which explicitly prohibit the participation of more than one team per state.[25] Although they lack this recognition, their success in friendly meetings and century long history of international matches as a team certainly support the notion that Catalan sport federations are capable of relations with other nations.[26] Moreover, the twenty-one sport federations that are permitted to compete internationally by their respective federations bolster this claim even further.

With the immense success Catalan national sport teams have attained on the international level it is reasonable to believe they might be able to achieve recognition in the future by the International Olympic Committee. This status and level of recognition should be sufficient for the international community to determine that Catalonia holds the fourth and final element of statehood as required by the Montevideo Convention.


[1] Sourav Das, Top 10 Most Popular Sports in the World | 2021 Power Ranking, Sports Show (July 28, 2021), https://sportsshow.net/top-10-most-popular-sports-in-the-world.

[2] David Black & Byron Peacock, Sport and Diplomacy, Oxford Handbook of Modern Dipl., 708, 711 (2013).

[3] Evan Andrews, How Ping-Pong Diplomacy Thawed the Cold War, History.com (Oct. 19, 2018), https://www.history.com/news/ping-pong-diplomacy.

[4] Karim Zidan, Pin-Down Diplomacy: How Wrestling Helped Establish US-Iran Relations, Bloody Elbow (Feb. 7, 2017 12:00 PM), https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2017/2/7/14532286/pin-down-diplomacy-how-wrestling-helped-establish-us-iran-relations-karim-zidan-wrestling.

[5] Black, supra note 2, at 711.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Juneau Gary & Neal S. Rubin, The Olympic Truce: Sport Promoting Peace, Development and International Cooperation, Am. Psychol. Ass’n (Oct. 2012), https://www.apa.org/international/pi/2012/10/un-matters.

[10] Black, supra note 2, 713.

[11]  Dario Brentin & Loïc Tregoures, Entering Through the Sport’s Door? Kosovo’s Sport Diplomatic Endeavors Towards International Recognition, 27 Dipl. & Statecraft 360, 361 (2016).

[12] Id.

[13] Catalonia’s Bid for Independence from Spain Explained, BBC, (Oct. 18, 2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29478415.

[14] Convention on Rights and Duties of States art. 1, Dec. 26, 1934, 165 L.N.T.S. 19, 25.

[15] Catalonia Population 2021, World Population Rev., https://worldpopulationreview.com/regions/catalonia-population (last visited Oct. 31, 2021).

[16] Constitución Española, B.O.E. n. 311, art. 29, Dec. 27, 1978 (Spain).

[17] Catalonia: What Powers Does the Region Have?, BBC (Oct. 27, 2017), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41754124.

[18] Esports Reconeguts, Seleccions Catalanes, https://www.seleccions.cat/esports-reconeguts (last visited Oct. 31, 2021).

[19] Federación Española de Bolos (FEB) v. Fédération Internationale des Quilleurs (FIQ) & Federació Catalana de Bitlles i Bowling (FCBB), CAS 2007/A/1424, award of 23 April 2008.

[20] Id.

[21] Id., ¶ 3.

[22] Id., ¶ 4.

[23] Black, supra note 2, at 714.

[24] Andy Mitten, Catalonia Are the Best Non-Recognised National Team in the World, GQ (Mar. 28, 2019), https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/catalonia-are-the-best-non-recognised-national-team-in-the-world.

[25] Major Step Towards Full Recognition for Catalan National Sports Teams, Nationalia (Apr. 26, 2008), https://www.nationalia.info/new/8600/major-step-towards-full-recognition-for-catalan-national-sports-teams.

[26] Mitten, supra note 24.

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