Barcelona (AFP) – Hundreds of protestors blocked traffic outside Camp Nou on Wednesday as Barcelona and Real Madrid prepared to play a Clasico overshadowed by calls for Catalan independence.
Lionel Messi and his Barca team-mates arrived in their team bus just before 1800 GMT while bitter rivals Real pulled through the gates around five minutes later, after the two sides had travelled from the same hotel.
Real’s bus had been accompanied by whistles and insults from fans on its short trip to Camp Nou, where they will play Barca for top spot in La Liga.
As he entered the stadium, Real’s club president Florentino Perez gave a thumbs up when asked about the journey in.
Hundreds of supporters of Democratic Tsunami, the protest group advocating Catalan self-determination, had gathered at the four corners of the stadium from 1500 GMT, four hours before kick-off.
Many held Catalan flags and blue banners that carried the group’s slogan – ‘Spain, sit and talk’ – as well as the words ‘Freedom, rights, self-determination’.
“We must take advantage of the magnitude of this match so the world can see our situation from Europe and around the world,” said Antoni Rabull, a 73-year-old retiree.
There was a visible police presence outside the stadium but little sign of trouble as protestors stayed true to Democratic Tsunami’s pledge to carry out its demonstrations peacefully.
“To perform the action of Democratic Tsunami it is essential that the game can be played and the fans with tickets can enter the stadium,” read a message posted by the group’s official Twitter account.
Police were also stationed outside the nearby Hotel Princesa Sofia, where players, coaching staff and referees were instructed to convene, before leaving together for the match two hours before kick-off.
Around 3,000 security personnel were posted around the stadium after renewed fears of unrest. The original fixture in October had to be postponed due to violent demonstrations breaking out across Catalonia.
“We know we are living in a complex social and political situation but I am convinced that it is compatible with playing a football match,” said the club’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu last week.
– ‘Spain, sit and talk’ –
Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia claimed there were plans to throw inflatable balls onto the pitch to denounce the use of rubber bullets by police during the October riots.
“Tsunamis are like water, they adapt to and adopt ideas,” read a message posted on Twitter by Democratic Tsunami account on Wednesday morning.
“We accept the #ChallengeLaVanguardia and call on everyone to throw an inflatable ball and write a message to the world.”
Other posts from the same account added: “At 8pm, everyone will be able to see the match and the message ‘Spain, sit and talk’ will be transmitted around the world.
“The actions of today, like all of Democratic Tsunami’s, will be strictly non-violent.”
Barcelona had issued a statement on Tuesday night to fans planning to attend the game, advising supporters to use public transport, allow plenty of time and warning of “exhaustive security checks” at entrances to the stadium.
Barca also called for calm around the fixture, asking fans “to come to the game at Camp Nou on Wednesday to support the team”.
“The game between Barca and Real Madrid is a festival of football and yet it is without doubt also compatible with a civil and peaceful demonstration of opinion, given the exceptional circumstances faced in Catalonia in recent times,” the statement read.
– Catalan uprising –
Protests broke out in October after nine separatist leaders were sentenced to heavy prison sentences for their involvement in the independence referendum of 2017.
“Football has to be for everyone, all over the world,” said Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde on Tuesday. “People should be able to express themselves freely tomorrow, that is what we ask, but that there is respect for everyone.”
As well as the massive security presence in Barcelona, the numbers of private security staff in the stands will also be increased to reduce the threat of pitch invasions that could interrupt the game.
“The operation will ensure that the Clasico is played normally,” said the chief commissioner of the Catalan regional police Eugeni Sallent.
Democratic Tsunami hopes to transmit its message — ‘Spain, sit and talk’ — through the world’s most watched club football fixture, which has an estimated global audience of 650 million.
Barcelona have historically had a close association with Catalan nationalism, with Camp Nou routinely used as a setting for flags, banners and chants in support of the cause.
The club could suffer the consequences of any altercations or interruptions during the game.
At a meeting in Madrid last week, the RFEF warned it “will apply the regulations in force,” which range from heavy economic sanctions to the closure of Camp Nou to supporters.
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