Each Real Madrid v Barcelona Clasico is about more than just football, with both superclubs having deep roots within Spanish and Catalan society. But this week’s two Clasicos in four days have even wider resonance than usual, given the current mix of legal and political issues directly and indirectly involving both clubs.
Most serious is the ongoing trial at Spain’s Supreme Court of 12 Catalan politicians and activists, who face charges of rebellion, sedition, disobedience, and misuse of public funds, arising from a failed attempt to secure independence for Catalonia in autumn 2017.
The issue of Catalan independence puts Barcelona as a club in a difficult position, but how many blaugrana fans feel was clear at 2019’s first Clasico, a 1-1 Copa del Rey semi-final first leg draw at the Camp Nou in early February.
‘Self Determination is a right, not a crime’, said a banner [in English] unfurled pre-game, while the 90 minutes brought many chants of ‘independencia’ and much waving of pro-Catalan independence ‘Estelada’ flags.
The mix of football and politics was even clearer with a banner unfurled at the Camp Nou that night saying ‘Justice and Liberty, now! Let Sandro come home.’ This was in support of former Barca president Sandro Rosell, who has spent the last 21 months in preventative custody charged with laundering €20m and personally receiving €6.5m during a previous job organising international friendlies for the Brazil national team. Coincidence or not, the one-time Nike executive’s trial began this week, meaning he faced a judge on Wednesday, the day of the Copa semi-final second leg in Madrid. “I was told that if I became Barca president, they would come for me,” Rosell said in court. “They were not wrong. But I am innocent of these charges.”
Madrid president Florentino Perez has not commented publicly on the Catalan issue, but the millionaire construction magnate is close to former Spanish prime minister and Mariano Rajoy, who cracked down on the independence movement in 2017. Lifelong Blancos fan Rajoy was also in a Madrid court on Wednesday, giving evidence against the 12 accused separatists, and reportedly asked for an early time slot to ensure he could make that evening’s 9pm kick-off at the Bernabeu.
Perez’s supposed position as a pillar of the Spanish establishment has not stopped Madrid from regularly ‘going to war’ with the country’s football authorities, with the noisiest battle in recent months coming over the implementation of VAR to help referees. Spanish FA chief Luis Rubiales has even confirmed that Perez had called him personally to complain about Blancos starlet Vinicius Junior being denied a penalty during January’s 0-2 defeat to Real Sociedad.
There are also long-running tensions between Perez and LaLiga president Javier Tebas, with Madrid having previously taken legal action against Tebas’ plans for a more equal distribution of TV revenues and division of international broadcast revenues. The more conspiratorially-minded around the Bernabeu [not a small group] even believe fixtures are set each season to favour Barca’s chances of winning both Liga and Copa, as the firm controlling its broadcasting rights Mediapro is based in Catalonia.
Amid all this, there was surprisingly little non-football talk at the Bernabeu last Wednesday night. Some in the Madrid hardcore started provocative chants of nationalist slogan ‘Viva Espana’, but they fizzled quickly out. There was a deathly quiet among the 81,000 crowd by the end, with Barca striker Luis Suarez’s second-half double helping bring a 4-1 aggregate progress to the final.
But then Barca president Josep Bartomeu used his post-game interviews to praise a judicial decision to allow his predecessor Rosell out of prison while his trial continues. “I believe Sandro is innocent and I’m going to see him now,” said Bartomeu from the stadium. “This is good news for all Barca fans.”
Barca defender Gerard Pique also waded into the debate over the trial of the separatists. “If all these Spanish cameras spent more time covering the trial of political prisoners, which is super unjust, then the people of Spain could see a little more of what’s going on,” Pique said. “Instead of talking so much about VAR. That would maybe be better for the country.”
“Gerard is a good centre-back, but he understands little about justice,” retorted Tebas, an admitted supporter of both Real Madrid and new political party Vox, who are using the trial as a platform for their right-wing ideas. “There are no political prisoners in this country, but there are people who are on trial for rebellion.”
Which all sets things up nicely for Saturday’s next Clasico at the Bernabeu, where Madrid’s need for a win — given La Liga leaders Barca’s nine-point advantage at the top — will be secondary for many observers.