FC Barcelona wins behind closed doors amid Catalan referendum chaos

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/barcelona/" data-ylk="slk:Barcelona">Barcelona</a> and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/las-palmas/" data-ylk="slk:Las Palmas">Las Palmas</a> played in an empty Camp Nou. (Getty Images)
Barcelona and Las Palmas played in an empty Camp Nou. (Getty Images)

Barcelona’s La Liga match against Las Palmas on Sunday afternoon at Camp Nou was played behind closed doors, with no fans in attendance, due to violent unrest in the city related to the Catalan independence referendum.

FC Barcelona officials wanted the game postponed, with one of the club’s supporters groups threatening to invade the pitch if the match went ahead. Several reports indicated the club might refuse to stage the match, despite Spanish league and federation authorities declining to cancel it.

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But according to reports, some Barcelona players told club officials that they wanted to play. The club confirmed the game was on precisely 26 minutes before kickoff. Barcelona won 3-0.

Violent clashes between Catalan civilians and Spanish police spread throughout Barcelona and Catalonia on Sunday as citizens of the autonomous region in the northeast of Spain turned out to vote on independence. Police brutalized peaceful civilians, and fired rubber bullets into crowds. Barcelona’s mayor estimated that at least 460 people have been injured.

The referendum, which was organized by the regional government of Catalonia, had been deemed illegal by the government of Spain, and ruled unconstitutional by the country’s court. But Catalonians pressed ahead with plans for a democratic vote. With the referendum scheduled for Sunday, Spanish police concentrated voter suppression efforts on Barcelona, the Catalan capital.

The militarized police force was captured on video assaulting voters and demonstrators:

The match, scheduled to kick off at 4:15 p.m. local time (10:15 a.m. ET), was officially given a green light by Barcelona after hours of confusion over its status. The club released a statement saying it “condemns the events which have taken place in many parts of Catalonia today in order to prevent its citizens exercising their democratic right to free expression.” It also cited “the exceptional nature of events” as the reason for the decision to play the match behind closed doors.

Barcelona had asked that the match be postponed. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu confirmed that request in an interview before kickoff. Others associated with the club pleaded for postponement as well. The same supporters group that said it would stage a sit-in on the pitch released a statement saying, “In the face of the outrageous repression that the Catalan people are suffering, we ask FC Barcelona to suspend the game.”

Barcelona turned to the Spanish football federation, which had the authority to postpone the match. Barcelona’s official statement claimed that Spain’s Professional Football League refused to do so. La Liga claimed it had been in contact with both FC Barcelona officials and Catalan police, and that the latter group guaranteed the safety of fans.

The decision then came back to Barcelona, which could have unilaterally refused to play. If it did, though, it risked forfeiting the match and taking a 3-0 loss. Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said that the penalty would have been six points – three for the defeat, and three for further sanctions.

Bartomeu said the decision to play behind closed doors was not made for security reasons. Rather, it was “a measure to show our rejection of what has been experienced today.”

“We regret what has happened in Catalonia today,” Bartomeu said, via Marca. “It is a denying of freedom of expression and we’re worried. … We want to show that this match is different because of all that has been happening in Catalonia today and because of the lack of freedom that has been experienced.”

“We do it for exceptional reasons, not for security,” he continued. “We spoke with the authorities and there was no way to move the game to another day, so we decided to play it and to play it behind closed doors so that our lack of comfortability can be seen.”

Fans were left stranded outside Camp Nou’s gates after waiting for hours to see whether they would open:

Fans outside the Camp Nou gates. (Getty)
Fans outside the Camp Nou gates. (Getty)

Around 20 minutes before kickoff, many still had no idea that the game would be going ahead without them:

The scene once the match began was surreal. Barcelona players took the field in their warmup kits that feature the same color scheme as the Catalonian flag, and posed for a pregame photo while still wearing them. However, they wore their traditional Blaugrana home uniforms for the match, as planned.

Las Palmas – which is based in the city of the same name in Gran Canaria, an island off the west coast of Africa that is part of Spain – heightened tensions surrounding the game itself when the club announced it would embroider a small Spanish flag on its jerseys specifically for Sunday. “We believe in the unity of Spain,” the club said in a statement.

Meanwhile, various current and ex-Barcelona players have voiced their support for the independence movement. Gerard Pique, a Barcelona native, is one of them. The Barca defender voted earlier in the day.

Pique had tweeted in support of independence earlier in the week. “From today until Sunday we will express ourselves peacefully,” he wrote in Catalan. “Don’t give them any excuse, which is what they want. We will sign loudly and strongly. #WeWillVote”

Pique was reportedly one of the Barcelona players who did not want Sunday’s match to be played. Afterward, he spoke about his Catalonian pride and the need to defend the people’s right to vote. He then broke into tears while discussing the day’s violence:

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, a Catalan native and former Barcelona player and manager, also publicly supported the vote after his current team’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea on Saturday.

“It’s a day for democracy,” Guardiola said at his postgame news conference. “It’s not about ‘legal’. It’s what people want to do with their lives. Hopefully the Catalan people can use the most powerful tool in society, the ballot box, and tomorrow can be a nice day for our country.”

Sign that read “DEMOCRACIA” were displayed around Camp Nou on Sunday, both before the game and during it.

The same message was displayed on the stadium’s scoreboard:

Sergio Busquets, a Catalonia native, scored to put Barcelona up 1-0 shortly after halftime.

Lionel Messi doubled Barca’s lead later in the second half, and scored the home side’s third soon after to seal a 3-0 victory.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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