Not mixing sport and politics is difficult at the best of times, and impossible when it comes to La Liga’s Clasico, probably the most politicised game in world of football.
So it was always likely that Barcelona would not be able to host Real Madrid this Saturday, as the first game at the Camp Nou following Spain’s Supreme Court jailing nine Catalan separatist leaders last week for their role in a failed 2017 independence referendum.
That decision has led to serious protests and clashes with police on the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities. And also to a ramping up of inflammatory rhetoric on all sides, with it not helping that a fourth Spanish general election in four years is due next month amid political deadlock all round.
“This is not Aleppo, nor Baghdad… it’s Barcelona,” tweeted Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera last week as images of the Catalan capital in flames dominated Spanish TV sets. Meanwhile, some Catalan independistas have compared their predicament to that of the Kurds in Syria.
More reasonable voices point out that while there have been lamentable cases of violence, businesses are still opening, children are still going to school and tourists are still visiting [although most avoid the nightly city centre flashpoints].
For Barcelona’s city mayor Ada Colau, playing the Clasico as scheduled would have shown how most people can rise above the intransigence on both sides. “I’d like normal life to continue in the city, that events like football fixtures take place as expected,” she said last week.
Spain’s interior minister Fernando Grande Marlaska also maintained that the game could go ahead securely at the Camp Nou. “The government has not asked for it to be postponed,” he said.
It was La Liga president Javier Tebas who first suggested the game could not go ahead as scheduled, and even his bitter rivals at the Royal Spanish Football Federation [RFEF] went along with the idea of pushing it back. Their main problem for the conservative figures in the Spanish capital appeared to be the supposed global audience of half a billion viewers seeing the Camp Nou filled with red and yellow ‘senyera’ flags and 90,000 fans chanting ‘independencia’.
Barcelona reacted to last week’s court’s decision to jail the nine politicians with a club statement entitled “prison is not the solution”, which called for “all political leaders to lead a process of dialogue and negotiation to resolve this conflict.”
The blaugrana hierarchy then went along without serious complaint with the decision to move the game, and quickly agreed with Madrid that it could be played on Wednesday, December 18. La Liga’s Tebas is unhappy with that date, as playing on a midweek evening hurts the plan to attract a big Asian TV audience. So it could yet be moved again.
It would be wrong to think that everyone at the Camp Nou wants to leave Spain. Catalan independence would cause serious issues within Barcelona’s boardroom and dressing room on practical and commercial levels. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu always walks a tightrope with his public comments on the issue.
Even conservative Spain’s least favourite footballer Gerard Pique carefully maintains that he supports the Catalan people’s right to decide their own future, but never says how he would himself vote in any binding independence ballot, and also adds how proud he was to represent the Spanish national team.
Football can even show up some of the complications for the politicians involved. Ines Arrimadas of Ciudadanos is maybe the most prominent pro-Spain politician in Catalonia, and also a Barca fan who speaks publicly of having had Pep Guardiola posters on her wall as a teenager. Meanwhile Gabriel Rufian of the independence-backing Republican Left of Catalonia party is an Espanyol supporter who has admitted to cheering for Real Madrid in Clasicos.
Spain’s current acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez could have intervened more strongly to stop the football authorities moving the game, but it seems that would not have been politically expedient. A new government should be formed in Madrid after November 10’s general election — which may or may not mean the political and social situation in Catalonia is calmer whenever Real Madrid do eventually next visit the Camp Nou.
“It is fashionable these days not to agree about anything when it comes to politics,” said an exasperated Barca coach Ernesto Valverde after his team beat Eibar 3-0 on Saturday. “I hope it won’t be too difficult to find a date to play the game before the season ends.”