Why the Catalan political fallout will continue to impact football

Barcelona and Real Madrid played out the first goalless Clásico in 17 years in the Camp Nou last week, on an evening where the stadium was the epicenter of a return to political unrest in Catalonia. Indeed, this was a fixture that was due to be played in October but was rearranged in the week of the game for security reasons, as a peaceful pro-independence demonstration drawing 350k people had also been scheduled for the same day.

Pro-independence protest group Tsunami Democràtic – the same group that were behind the shutting down of activity of Barcelona airport in October and the cutting of the motorway on the border between Spain and France for three days following November’s general election – had called on thousands of their subscribers to come to the Catalan capital for the day of the Clásico and take part in a secretive protest action.

Tsunami Democràtic are an anonymous protest group that formed in the build-up to the release of the verdict of the trial against 12 Catalan independence leaders. Ultimately, they were found guilty of crimes ranging from misuse of public funds to sedition, and nine of the 12 leaders were given jail sentences of between nine-13 years. They organise themselves using social media platforms, and very quickly grew to over 400k subscribers on their Telegram channel, and also have their own application after Spanish authorities attempted to shut down their websites.

On the day of the Clásico, the group had convened thousands of people from across Catalonia to gather at four strategic points surrounding the Camp Nou stadium from four hours before kick-off, after their request to both clubs to agree to display banners on the pitch and in the stands were largely ignored. Despite fears the protesters would attempt to prevent the game from taking place, Tsunami Democràtic insisted in various press releases prior to the day that it was never their intention to stop the world’s biggest football game from going ahead.

Extraordinary security measures were put in place for the match, as 1,000 police officers and 2,000 stewards worked on the game, making it one of the most heavily-policed sporting events in Spanish history. The players of both teams and the refereeing officials met up in the same hotel just over half a kilometre from the Camp Nou early in the day in order to travel together to the stadium and with a police cordon. This measure ensured safe arrival of all parties, while also reducing the possibility of vandalism to either team bus.

In the end, little happened before the game beyond gatherings of crowds and small chanting for independence. Security confiscated banners reading “Spain, Sit and Talk,” the primary motto marking Tsunami’s protests, from fans entering the stadium, as the group distributed 100k such placards to as many people as possible just outside the ground. Despite the best efforts of the ground staff, tens of thousands of the banners were still seen at kick-off in the stands, as home fans loudly roared for “independence” from Spain.

However, the anonymous protest group admitted on local radio that their biggest plan had failed. They had intended on bringing the game to a pause with drones flying onto the pitch carrying two huge signs with pro-independence messages on them. The “Spain, Sit and Talk” motto urges dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments, in order to find a political solution to the current crisis that has enveloped Catalonia in recent years. They attributed the failure of this planned protest to the police action on the day, and the officer in charge of the operation on the night considered it a “success” too.

During the game, there was some tension between demonstrators and police still gathered outside the stadium. The first violent incidents were seen shortly after the game kicked off, when some members of a Barcelona ultras group with far-right ties confronted pro-independence protesters. This led to police intervention and the first arrest of the night.

Around half-time the tension grew, with police charging against the gathered crowd and the protesters reacting in kind. Rubbish containers were pushed onto the middle of streets to create the barricades that were then burned, in repeated scenes of the week of unrest Catalonia saw in the week following 14 October’s Supreme Court guilty ruling on the Catalan independence leaders.

Inside the ground, play was halted momentarily around ten minutes into the second half, from a planned action by Tsunami Democàtic to shower the pitch with footballs and beach balls.

In the following hours, tension between the police forces and the gathered demonstrators grew and lasted hours after the full-time whistle. In total, 10 people were arrested and 64 were treated for injuries, with 39 of those being Catalan police officers. 16 people were taken to hospital. It was only around half past midnight when the surroundings of the Camp Nou returned to calmness.

With these chaotic scenes of unrest returning again once more, and with the political crisis in Spain and Catalonia only seemingly getting more layered and complex each passing day, we may have not yet seen the end of the disturbances.

La Liga - Club News