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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Barcelona, united by football, are divided by politics

Expect Barca to win in Saturday's Primera Liga game. Also count on political chants and flags inside Catalan club's stadium

A desire for independence in Catalonia has long been significant, but in recent weeks it has become a global news story. Albert Gea / Reuters
A desire for independence in Catalonia has long been significant, but in recent weeks it has become a global news story. Albert Gea / Reuters

The big flag would be unfurled from the second tier of Camp Nou for two decades at big Barcelona games. “Catalonia is not Spain,” it read, in English, for the international audience to see.

Similar flags would hang in San Sebastian’s old town, telling tourists that the Basque Country was not Spain.

Few objected. A desire for independence from Spain in Catalonia and the Basque Country has long been significant, but in recent weeks Catalan independence has become a global news story.

A so-called "silent majority" has ceased to be silent, too. People who consider Catalonia to be very much part of Spain have also taken to the streets. Between 300-900,000, depending on whose figures you believe, marched against the prospect of independence on October 8.

Spain flags have started to appear all around Catalonia, though not in the same numbers as independence flags. Big business and neighbouring countries have said they either have no appetite for independence or will not recognise it.

As with Brexit in the United Kingdom, families and friends have become divided on a very divisive issue – or issues, since thinking that Catalans have a right to ask for a referendum on independence is different from actual independence.

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Barca, by a distance Catalonia’s biggest sporting institution, has long maintained it is "more than a club". That is especially true right now, while their former hero and manager Pep Guardiola is also unafraid to voice his opinions on a political matter after Manchester City games.

Had Barca’s home game against Las Palmas on October 1 not been switched at the last minute to being played behind closed doors, the cries for independence would have been at a fever pitch. Those chants regularly aired after 17 minutes and 14 seconds of each half (Barcelona fell to a Franco-Spanish army in the 1714 Spanish war of Succession).

They are likely to continue on Saturday night when the team play bottom of the table Malaga, if anything with more gusto given the tense climate in Catalonia, especially after the Spanish government announced on Thursday that it is to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and impose direct rule after the Catalan president refused to abandon the move towards independence.

Camp Nou has long been a haven for independence chants, especially when the Catalan national team play friendlies there, but Barca are in a tricky position. Millions of the international fans they court have no interest in Catalan independence. They are interested in Lionel Messi and his other brilliant teammates.

Nor can Barca possibly claim to speak for all their club members, 78,000 of whom regularly attend games either. Some are hardliners and separatists, others against independence. Home crowds are well down so far this season, though there has been a dearth of the best teams visiting so far with Barca enjoying as unchallenging a start to the season as new manager Ernesto Valverde could hope for.

Their seven-match opening winning streak was ended in a draw at Atletico Madrid, their first opponents from the top six, last Saturday, a game played in front of more Spain flags and pro-Spain songs than usual.

At Camp Nou, there have been resignations at director level over the club’s actions this month, while the club has generally taken a conciliatory line as the Catalan and Spanish governments fail to find agreement.

“The club called for the start of a process of dialogue and negotiation to find political solutions to the problems in Catalonia based on absolute respect for the wishes of the majority of Catalans on their future,” a club statement read on Thursday.

On Wednesday, in the rain before the 3-1 Uefa Champions League win against Olympiakos, a 45 x 46 metre flag made by the club was unfurled to call for “Dialogue, Respect, and Sport”.

“In such a complicated, difficult situation in Catalonia, Barcelona has to take a stand and our position is very clear – we want dialogue,” Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu declared. “We also ask for respect for everyone involved in such a complex situation in Catalonia and respect for Barca.

“And finally sport because we are a sporting club, not just in football but basketball, hockey, handball and we will continue to compete on the field.”

Supporters display a banner in support of Catalonia independence on Wednesday. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo
Supporters display a banner in support of Catalonia independence on Wednesday. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo

Barca’s most vocal fans held up a ‘Freedom for Catalonia’ flag on Wednesday, though which league the team will play in the event of independence is far from certain.

For now, they are top of the table in the Primera Liga and expected to beat winless Malaga with ease on Saturday. But while expected magic moments from Messi et al which will go viral, the political angle remains acute.