More than a game: How politics and football interplay in Spain

FC Barcelona has said it will 'continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people' following Catalonia's latest referendum on independence from Spain [Miquel Llop/NurPhoto/Getty Images]
FC Barcelona has said it will ‘continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people’ following Catalonia’s latest referendum on independence from Spain [Miquel Llop/NurPhoto/Getty Images]

Usually, when FC Barcelona go three-nil up at home, tens of thousands of football fans rise to their feet in the Nou Camp, cheering their beloved Catalan team.

On the night of October 1, 2017, however, not a single supporter stood to celebrate a third Barca goal against Las Palmas in the famous 99,354-capacity stadium.

Why? Because not a single supporter was there.

Earlier in the day, Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia had held a controversial referendum on independence during which several violent clashes between police and voters took place.

FC Barcelona, in response, elected to shut their stadium to the public in condemnation over the alleged use of brutality by national security forces against citizens.

FC Barcelona closed the Nou Camp to the public for the match against Las Palmas on October 1 [Alex Caparros/Getty Images]

League authorities had rejected an earlier request by the club to have the game postponed.

“It was so strange that [Barcelona] were playing a game while just some miles away outside the stadium people were suffering,” Victor Bolea, a Barcelona fan since birth, in 1994, told Al Jazeera.

“The situation was terrible on October 1 … even if the stadium would have been open, I don’t think many supporters would have gone that day,” Bolea, who voted in favour of independence, said.

FC Barcelona’s decision to close its doors on that Sunday evening, however, was only the most recent evidence that football and politics are closely linked in Spain.

Politics has shaped the identity of a number of Spanish football clubs, including Real Madrid, Barcelona’s main rivals.

Originally founded in 1902 as Madrid Football Club, Real Madrid came into being in 1920 when Spain’s then-King Alfonso XIII granted the team the right to use the term “real” – meaning royal – in its title and a royal crown in its emblem.

Real Madrid fans don’t want the club to be involved in politics

Luis Camps, Real Madrid supporter

Almost a century on, the club’s historical link to the royal family continues to shape how it is perceived, particularly among rival Barca fans, according to Jimmy Burns, journalist and author of La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football.

“FC Barcelona and a lot of its supporters live in Catalonia, a region in which many people regard themselves as politically and culturally different from the rest of Spain … they see Real Madrid as the team representing the rest of Spain,” Burns told Al Jazeera.

In 1920, Spain’s then-King Alfonso XIII granted Madrid Football Club the right to use the term ‘real’ (meaning royal) in its title and a royal crown in its emblem [Power Sport Images/Getty Images]

Additionally, just hours after the final whistle at the Nou Camp on October 1, thousands of Real Madrid supporters appeared to denounce the latest Catalan referendum by waving Spanish flags during a home fixture against Espanyol.

Some Real Madrid supporters, however, deny the club is wrapped up in political symbolism in Spain.

“Real Madrid fans don’t want the club to be involved in politics,” Luis Camps,…

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