The thinking – at least part of it – was to prevent any sort of political demonstration spilling out on to the pitch. Of course, the Camp Nou has been used as a political arena many times before, with Barcelona fans making a point of making the stadium a symbol of the region in recent years, but this was different. Catalonia was effectively at war on Saturday and Barca took the decision to play behind closed doors to prevent their fans from being part of it.
And yet, the sight of a completely empty Camp Nou – 99,000 vacant seats – as the setting for Barcelona’s La Liga clash against Las Palmas was the perfect emblem of all that had engulfed the region. Images of the famous old venue made the front pages of newspapers around the world. It hit home just how exceptional these times are in Catalonia and Spain.
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There are some who claim politics and football should be separate, never to be mixed. They say football is the people’s sport and so it should be treated as a pastime for all, making sure not to isolate any one faction. But that’s precisely why politics and football are entwined so tightly – it is the sport of the people and people have their own politics.
Everything in Spain, including Spanish football, is now political, such is the broad scope of the discourse. Las Palmas embroidered Spanish flags into their shirts for Saturday’s game against Barcelona, with an official statement from the Gran Canarian club explaining how they believe in the “unity of Spain.”
There is one fixture that raises the political stakes in Catalonia and Spain, even at the most serene of times. El Clasico is for many the purest epitome of the battle between the two regions, with Barcelona and Real Madrid political institutions by their very nature. The fixture that pits them against each other is always heated, but the current situation on the Iberian peninsula could raise the stakes even higher.
The first suggestion of this was in Real Madrid’s home match against Espanyol just hours after Barcelona had played to an empty stadium, beating Las Palmas 3-0. While the Santiago Bernabeu is often adorned with Spanish flags, being the capital club and all, there was a very deliberate display and red and yellow in the 12th minute of the game. ‘Viva Espana’ rang round the ground. That very rarely happens.
There’s still some time to pass before the first Clasico of the 2017/18 Liga season, with Real Madrid hosting Barcelona on December 23, but the issue of Catalan independence certainly won’t be solved before then. In fact, it seems likely that the rhetoric will only be cranked up further following the barbaric conduct of the Guardia Civil and national police in stopping Saturday’s vote.
That game in just over two months’ time could feasibly be the most bitter and most politically-charged on record, with Barcelona very much the club of the separatists and Real Madrid the club of the loyalists. Just because it’s being played around Christmastime doesn’t mean there will be much goodwill on offer.
It’s in the nature, and the remit, of these two clubs, particularly in the case of Barcelona, to reflect the discourse of their people. Barca are, after all, mes que un club, revelling in their identity as a reflection of the region they call home. Just look at Gerard Pique’s reaction to Saturday’s attacks for an illustration of how Barca’s socio-political character as a club trickles down into the dressing room.
It’s the same, to a certain extent, at Real Madrid, with the debate over Catalan independence only adding another dimension to a rivalry already charged with so much electricity. To those who say politics and football shouldn’t miss, it would be perhaps best if you found something else to do on December 23.