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Did Barcelona betray fans with game behind closed doors during Catalan Referendum?

Rohith Nair
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Feature
1.85K   //    02 Oct 2017, 13:01 IST

Barcelona 3-0 Las Palmas behind closed doors Camp Nou Catalan Referendum
Barcelona and Las Palmas played their La Liga fixture at the Camp Nou behind closed doors

For the first time, the words Més que un club, formed by the smattering of yellow seats in a tier of blue at the Camp Nou, were clearly visible as the referee blew the whistle to kick off the La Liga match between Barcelona and Las Palmas.

It's hard to remember when this has happened before but it may have now set an unwanted precedent. 99,354 empty seats around the hallowed green pitch welcomed the players and match officials as they walked out to an eerie silence. One could even hear the players shaking hands as they went from one opponent to the next one in line.

1 October 2017 will go down in history as a dark day in Spain. Things have been simmering beneath the surface ever since the Catalan parliament approved a referendum on Catalan independence in June.

The Spanish government were vehemently against it; claiming it was illegal as the Spanish constitution does not allow it. And Catalonia is one of the country's richest regions after all.

As voters turned out in numbers, so did the Spanish police. Using brute force to prevent people from voting, they seized a few polling booths, roughed up and injured nearly 800 people (including senior citizens) and violently dispersed peaceful protesters across the city of Barcelona using batons and rubber bullets.

Barcelona police Catalan referendum
Police clash with people who turned out to vote at a polling station in Barcelona

Catalonia's president described the events as "unwarranted, irrational and irresponsible". Spain's prime minister defended the police action and claimed they had acted with "firmness and serenity".

And in the midst of it all, Barcelona were scheduled to play Las Palmas.

Also read: Barcelona 3-0 Las Palmas, As it happened

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Barcelona wanted the match postponed

A few days ago, Barcelona had released a statement in support of Catalonia's right to self-determination. they had said that they would "continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people, and will do so in a civil, peaceful, and exemplary way."

But when peaceful protests took a violent turn in the city, that was when the Barcelona board decided to postpone the game. Unfortunately, the request was not taken into consideration by the Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP). It was rejected outright.

Bartomeu Barcelona referendum
Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu says the club's request to postpone the game was denied

What's more, club president Josep Bartomeu claimed that the club had been threatened with a six-point deduction - three points for forfeiting the game and another three points as a penalty.

Play or be penalised.

“We have not been able to find a way to postpone it. From there, all together, directors, executives and players met and we decided, exceptionally, to play the game behind closed doors... Playing this way, with the stadium empty, the club shows its disagreement." - Bartomeu

The Catalan police force (Els Mossos) had claimed that the game could have gone ahead as fans lined up outside the Camp Nou. But the club's official supporters group were against the decision and threatened to invade the pitch if the game got underway.

This was no longer about vocal protests and chanting 'Independence' at the 17:14 mark in both halves (which marks the Siege of Barcelona in 1714 by King Felipe V of Spain). This was about sending a much more serious message.

But were Barcelona right to go ahead with the game after locking their doors?

Also read: Empty Camp Nou strange situation for everyone - Valverde

Gerard Pique stands his ground but gives in eventually

Gerard Pique Barcelona Catalan referendum
Gerard Pique was against Barcelona playing Las Palmas on Sunday

Most of the players wanted the game to go ahead. Gerard Pique, one of few Catalan players at the club stood his ground and initially refused before giving in. He had already cast his vote in the referendum prior to the game.

From a sporting standpoint, Pique's opinions on the matter have always been a double-edged sword. While it clearly helps keep the rivalry with Real Madrid alive, it has also seen him come under heavy criticism from the Spanish fans when he plays international football.

Translation: "From today and until Sunday, let us express ourselves peacefully. We do not give them any excuse. That's what they want. And we sing well tall and very strong. #WeWillVote"

The "boo-boys" at the Bernabeu have already had their say and it could get worse with Sergio Ramos also saying: "Pique's tweet is not the best if you don't want them to whistle."

It is clear that Pique understands the Catalan people's sentiments more than most. Born and raised in Barcelona and now in his 10th season with the club as a senior, he is a hero to the Catalan people now that the likes of Xavi and Carles Puyol are no longer at the club.

Spanish flags Bernabeu
A number of Spanish flags were seen at the Bernabeu when Real Madrid played a few hours later

This is a man who has his sights set on playing one last World Cup before he retires. The quadrennial tournament in Russia is less than a year away and yet he is ready to throw it all away just so his people can have a say rather than be opressed by a state government who refuses to recognise their movement.

"I am proud of the Catalan people. If any directors or if the Spanish FA believe that I could be a problem or annoy the national team then I am willing to step aside." - Pique

The question now arises: would the players have taken the field if there were more Catalan voices in the dressing room? As club captains, would Xavi and Puyol have agreed to play while their own people were being crushed by the heavy boot of the Spanish government?

Probably not.

Xavi himself was very critical of the events that unfolded in Catalunya.

"To all people trying to peacefully exercise their right to vote; what is happening in Catalonia today is a shame. It is inadmissible that in a democratic country people cannot vote. Visca Catalunya." - Xavi

Whether you are for independence or against, whether you are for the referendum or against, what happened in Catalonia was wrong on so many levels. It gave the people of the region all the more reason to hate their Castilian counterparts.

It is why 90% have now voted for independence. Up from the 80% who were keen to leave Spain three years ago.

Barcelona's decision to go ahead with the game is understandable

With the threat of losing six points without kicking a ball, Barcelona were effectively cornered and forced into submission.

"The league told us we would lose six points. Three from today and three as a penalty." - Bartomeu

It was a show of force from the Spanish football federation and it did the trick. They had even allowed UD Las Palmas to embroider the Spanish flag on to their kits - a move that fanned the flames in an already volatile atmosphere in Barcelona.

On their part, Las Palmas (based in the Canary Islands that are closer to Morocco than the Spanish mainland) said: "UD Las Palmas could have been limited to being silent witness of this historical crossroads or to take sides. We settle for the second."

Barcelona had little time to weigh their options. On one hand, they were looked up to as the entity that was supposed to stand by their people in their hour of need. On the other hand, they risked losing their advantage in the title race.

"The club wanted to have a gesture to an exceptional situation that was taking place in Catalonia. It is a decision of the club at a delicate time for all and nothing more." - Ernesto Valverde

But couldn't they have at least challenged the decision? In the face of the horrors that were unfolding on the city's streets, was a football game - that could easily have been postponed - really so important to the Spanish football federation and the government?

Also read: Barcelona 3-0 Las Palmas, 5 Talking Points

A routine 3-0 win over an opponent who is yet to beat them saw Barcelona extend their lead at the top of La Liga to five points. 7 games. 7 wins. 21 points. By the end of the day, Real Madrid had also beaten Espanyol to reduce the gap.

Messi goal Barcelona Las Palmas
Messi scores for Barcelona with nobody at the Camp Nou to cheer

Had Barcelona forfeited the game and lost six points (as suggested), they would have slipped down to sixth spot - two points behind Real Madrid. They are currently seven points ahead of their Clasico rivals.

This was always going to be a difficult season for Barcelona with Ernesto Valverde taking over and Neymar long gone. In a league that is slowly becoming a lot more competitive, every single point counts.

As they say in Spain: ¡Hay liga! - "There is a league."

In the end, it was a battle between passion and pragmatism. Stone-cold logic won while ideals were discarded. And Barca's weak show of support did not sit too well with a number of fans either.

Sports and politics cannot mix. But when the institution that unites the people of the region refuses to stand up for them and fight beside them, Més que un club becomes a hollow phrase in the grand scheme of things where points matter and football can never take a backseat.

However, the circumstances that ultimately led to the decision to go ahead with the game must also be considered. This was a failure on the part of all involved - the Spanish government, La Liga, LFP, the Spanish Football Federation, Las Palmas and even Barcelona.

By the time the final whistle echoed around the Camp Nou, Barcelona may have won. But its people lost.

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Rohith Nair
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