One banner amongst the 98,000 fans read simply: “Freedom for Catalonia”. -Photo by AFP

BARCELONA: A gigantic mosaic in the colours of the Catalan flag 'La Senyera', spread out over Barcelona's Camp Nou, left Real Madrid players in no doubt that Sunday's El Clasico was more than just a football match.

Although a vital league game between Spain's top two clubs, the clash represented a fierce political tradition between the centralism of Madrid and the rights of the region of Catalonia.

One banner amongst the 98,000 fans read simply: “Freedom for Catalonia”.

Calls for greater rights and independence have been claimed since the death of Spanish dictator Franco in 1975 who suppressed the Catalan language and culture but recently it has come to a head with the financial crisis gripping the country.

A feeling persists that Catalonia is funding the poorer areas of the country, especially in the south.

“Real Madrid face a Camp Nou where the atmosphere will be exceptional and the stimulation will not only be sporting but also social and political,” said Catalan daily La Vanguardia on Sunday.

“The dream of barcelonismo is to leave their opponents eleven points behind but also that catalanismo demonstrates it is motivated to show its identity.”

It is not the first time that sentiments like that have been made by fans and more extreme political pundits, but the difference this year is that it is an opinion expressed by a large section of the middle ground.

“We are fed up with being dictated to from Madrid and discriminated against. We want the right to decide for ourselves whether to stay in Spain or be independent,” one fan, Jordi, told AFP on the way to the stadium.

Not everyone shared that opinion.

“This match is not Catalonia against Spain; it's just Barca-Real. We should not mix the two things, we have come to watch a football match,” said Antonio Ponce.

An estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets of Barcelona in a nationalist march held on September 11 this year, the Catalan national day.

The date symbolises the fall of Barcelona in 1714 during the War of Spanish Succession and where Catalonia was brought under the control of Madrid.

At 17 minutes and 14 seconds into Sunday's game, shouts for independence rang out around the arena.

Regional president Artur Mas called early elections for November 25 after the central government rejected his call for Catalonia to raise and spend its own taxes, saying it has a right to “self-determination”.

Levels of local autonomy have fluctuated since the 18th century, hitting a low point under Franco while FC Barcelona, formed in 1899, gradually became intertwined with the local culture and aligned with the Catalan cause.

For many Catalans, Barcelona is the equivalent of a national team.

Under the presidency of Joan Laporta, the club became its most politicised.

On standing down in 2010, Laporta set up his own political party calling for independence.

“Barca is the national team of Catalonia and my objective as president was to promote our interests and fight for our rights,” he said.

“With the problems that Catalonia has, the solution is to allow us to take our own decisions and create better lives for ourselves.

“The present structure isn't working and so we want to see Catalonia as an independent state in Europe.”

The current president Sandro Rosell is more of an integrator, seeking to bring together people of different opinions but he has been swamped by the strength of public feeling and says that the club will reflect the mood of the people.

Former coach Pep Guardiola sent a message of support for independence from his current home in New York on September 11, but current trainer Tito Vilanova has tried to concentrate on football ahead of what is the most politicised el clasico yet.

“There are always Catalan flags and mosaics a lot of the time and this is all part of football. If you want to talk about politics then there are other places for that,” he said on the eve of the game.

After the match, which ended 2-2, Vilanova was quick to praise the fans.

“On the atmosphere, I found once again that the Barca fans behaved as they should, getting behind the team and showing their support in a peaceful manner,” he said.

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Comments (1)

Zafar
October 9, 2012 8:34 am
Barcelona vs Madrid is not just about football, nor its just about politics - in fact its a religion, a struggle against an unwanted occupation of Catalonia by Madrid and the remains of Evil Franco (Sadly, a number of them still sit on government seats in Madrid). It’s about time Catalonia gets independence as I (along with billions of Catalonia residents) am absolutely fed up of Madrid not only dictating us but also wasting our tax money on poorer (i.e. lazy habitants) regions such as Andalucía for instance. We are forced to pay extortionate amount for each facility we use. For example, if I was to drive from Barcelona to Valencia (around 340km), I will be expected to pay something around 42euros where as the same journey from Madrid would only cost 22euros. To make it worst, a number of motorway journeys from Madrid are absolutely free (Madrid to Toledo, for instance). I accept that Catalonia is the richest part of Spain and we pay the highest amount of taxes but it’s absolutely unfair that all those taxes are handed out to other poorer states and we don't even get 30% of our taxes back to fund health services, schools, emergency services, etc. etc. This kind of remind me of the same scenario we have in Pakistan with Karachi as Karachiites generate almost 70% of the country's economy but what do they get in return? Non functioning dirty Kala Peela schools, overcrowded, filthy & un-operational departments of Civil & Jinnah hospitals, it seems that all the junk from all over Pakistan is heading and getting settled in Karachi for a better life but the Karachiites themselves are struggling to survive, and the list goes on............
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