There was nothing normal about Sunday's Primera Liga game, except the result, writes Andy Mitten in Barcelona
Messi's Barcelona deliver typical result in a highly unusual Camp Nou setting
At first, the thud of hooves on sand. Life at the Real Club de Polo, where the some of the richest, elite Catalans spend their leisure time, appeared to be continuing as normal on a day of chaos in Barcelona.
Normally, you cannot hear the horses at the Polo club one kilometre from Camp Nou before a Barcelona game because of the hubbub of heavy traffic and thousands of fans making their way to Europe’s biggest football stadium, with its 99,000 blue and carmine seats.
It was different on Sunday. Before Barcelona kicked off against Las Palmas, messages circulated that the game had been cancelled because of the severe unrest all over the city on a day when Catalonia held a referendum on independence, a referendum Spain’s government judged illegal and sent police to prevent people voting.
That did not stop hundreds of thousands voting including Barca’s Gerard Pique.
There was no confirmation from anybody, not Barca or Primera Liga officials, as to a change in the status of a mere football match, but Barca, as they are never shy to extol, are far more than a mere football club.
Bobby Robson, their former manager, said, perhaps without realising how powerful his words could become said: “Catalonia is a country and FC Barcelona is their army.”
An air of confusion pervaded the dank autumnal afternoon that followed a week of sunshine.
You do not normally see fans walking away from Camp Nou, but more were walking away, past the Polo club, than towards the 60-year-old venue.
Many diehard fans stayed away in the first place: “I’ve been at the voting station since 5am,” Jordi Camps told The National. “Today Spain has lost Catalonia forever. It is unbelievable what I have lived today. We will never forgive or forget.”
Behind the south goal, thirty coaches carrying Barca penyes (supporters’ clubs) were lined up as usual. From Banyoles and Sant Pol de Mar, from Tarragona and Girona. Barca, the chief Catalan standard bearer, have long drawn their support from the seven million strong population. Football’s globalisation means they now draw fans from around the world.
Live updates: Catalonia referendum turns violent
By the gate 11, the Schnepf family waved their printed tickets in the air.
“What is happening?” asked Lisa Schnepf, a hotelier, to anyone who would listen. “We’ve come from Melbourne, Australia.”
Her son, Rudy, seven, wore a Barca shirt. “We’ve booked this trip three months ago. We fly back tomorrow.
"We are so unlucky," said mother Lisa, who did not know whether to laugh or cry. "We bought tickets for Brazil against Argentina in June in Melbourne because Rudy really wanted to see Neymar. We went to the game...but Neymar was in Japan doing promotional work.
"I have friends in the United States and they suggested that we travel to Miami to see the friendly game between Real Madrid and Barcelona in July. I told them that we'd booked tickets to fly to Barcelona to see Neymar. We had a holiday in Europe and booked it around the Barcelona game - we booked it as soon as the fixtures were announced. We couldn't change the flights after Neymar moved to PSG - airlines don't let you change flights because football players move clubs.
"But we were still looking forward to seeing Barcelona - that's why we booked to fly back to Australia on the Monday after the match.
"We even booked a hotel outside Camp Nou and we could see some of the seats in the stadium. We couldn't understand why, when we left the room before the game, all the seats were empty in the stadium."
There were thousands of upset fans.
“We’ve just seen a young Argentinian boy crying his eyes out on the metro as his father explained that the game wouldn’t be happening,” says Gaz Boyd, who had set off from Manchester at 4am and was going to the Barca game.”
A steward explained all to the Australians. “Absurd” was the word he used, “only the journalists can watch the game.”
The National was accredited for the match and picked up a pass as normal. Thousands of people waited around, unsure what to do. There was still no official news until 5.50pm UAE - 20 minutes before kick off when the club issued the following statement.
“FC Barcelona 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.
“Given the exceptional nature of events, the Board of Directors have decided the first team game against Las Palmas will be played behind closed doors following the Professional Football League’s refusal to postpone the game.”
The club president Joan Bartomeu then said: “We lament the lack of freedom expression that's taken place in Catalonia today, which we take very seriously.
"We are very affected by the situation and we decided, instead of cancelling the game, as we wanted, to play behind closed doors. We want to show the game being played but that things are not normal. It's an exceptional situation. We give our support to those who have suffered from a lack freedom.
“We talked to the executives, the coaches and the players and we decided to play, but behind closed doors, as a protest. The important thing was not to lose the points”.
Bartomeu continued: “It wasn’t done for security reasons. The safety was fine. We did it because of the exceptional circumstances. In order that the whole world could see what's happened here”.
The directors’ box remained empty but the game started, with Las Palmas wearing a special shirt featuring the flag of Spain. That would have been viewed as provocative by fans had there been any fans inside the stadium.
Instead, 330 journalists, 30 pitchside stewards and four Catalan police officers watched the game, plus the coaching staff and substitutes of both teams.
High up in the media box, it was possible to hear the thud of the football as some of the world’s best players controlled the ball.
But Barca’s players did not look like the best in the world. Some of them, like Andres Iniesta and Ivan Raktic, started on the bench.
Las Palmas, under new manager Pako Ayestaran after Tuesday’s dismissal of the Catalan Manolo Marquez, were better than any other team at Camp Nou this season.
Three minutes after half time, Sergio Busquets jumped above Borja Herrera to head a corner in. The noise of the celebration came only from the players.
In the media box, the enthused raised voices of radio commentators could be heard. They rose again 25 minutes into the second half when Lionel Messi walked the ball around goalkeeper Leandro Chichizola to make it 2-0.
‘Gol! Gol! Gol!’ the commentator screamed. He was soon silenced by confusion, unsure whether to reveal what was happening on the pitch, where a fan had broken into the stadium and onto the field waving what appeared to be a voting paper.
He was quickly escorted off and into the tunnel where the away team coach is usually parked. Messi scored again seven minutes later. 3-0.
‘Gol! Gol! Gol!’ punctures the silence. It was surreal.
The game finished. Nine wins in a row for Barca and another two Messi goals. That, at least, was normal.
A Barca communications chief spoke with Sergio Busquets before he was interviewed on television, as per the club’s contractual obligations. The loudest noise was the lawnmowers on the pitch.
In the media room, past the food servers with nobody to serve and the hospitality hostesses with nobody to host, Las Palmas' manager tried to speak about football and Barca’s coach Ernesto Valverde said: “Sadly, I grew up somewhere where things [like this] have been seen. We don’t live in a bubble."
By then, word spread that Pique was going to talk and journalists had rushed out to hear his thoughts. An emotional Pique began to cry as he talked about the situation in Catalonia, adding that if the Spanish international teammates thought his support for the referendum was a problem, he would quit as a Spanish international.
By the Polo club there was the thud of hooves on sand, the clink of the hockey stick, the thwak of a tennis ball, normality for a minority, if not for the majority. A long convoy of police vans positioned nearby, just as they had been all day. It had been a long day and, with thousands still waiting to vote, it was set to be a long night.