Catalan protests hits football

Pep Guardiola has worn a yellow ribbon earlier, in support of jailed Catalan politicians.

The arrest of nine Catalan separatist leaders on Monday and subsequent jail terms announced by the Supreme Court, for their roles in an illegal referendum and subsequent failed independence bid, sparked protests and clashes across the region. And football isn't untouched.

Clasico to be moved?

Spain's top football division has asked that this month's El Clasico match between Barcelona and Real Madrid be moved from Barcelona to the capital amid growing protests in Catalonia. It means the reverse fixture, scheduled for March, will take place in Barcelona.

The match is due to take place on October 26 at Barca's Camp Nou stadium but La Liga has asked the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to reverse the fixture, citing 'exceptional circumstances beyond our control.'

Barcelona and Real Madrid are often seen through a political prism. Real has long been seen as an emblem of Spain’s establishment and the Clasico in Madrid is often awash with Spain flags. When Barcelona, Catalonia's capital, play their matches at Camp Nou, fans traditionally chant for “independence” at 17 minutes, 14 seconds into the game, signifying the year “1714” when Catalonia first lost its independence following a Madrid-based court ruling.

Lionel Messi with Sergio Ramos, the two club captains. (Source: Twitter/@LaLigaEN)

On the day of the Clasico, more protests are expected in the city. Barcelona and Real Madrid have not been involved in La Liga's request. Both clubs will be asked by the RFEF to give their opinion, with the Federation's competitions committee to make its decision in the next few days.

Pep takes a stand, again

Manchester City’s coach Pep Guardiola, under whom Barcelona enjoyed their most successful spell in recent decades, was among the first ones to speak up after the arrests took place.

He simultaneously released a short video to Catalonia’s public broadcaster TV3, BBC and AFP, condemned the decision, saying it was an 'attack on human rights' and lamented Spain’s “drift towards authoritarianism”.

Guardiola was quoted as saying by El Nacional: “This non-violent struggle will not stop until the repression is over and the right to self-determination is respected, as has been done in Quebec or Scotland. We demand a political and democratic solution from the Spanish government. What we ask is. Spain: sit down and talk.”

Guardiola has been a poster boy for Catalan separatism, which has led to criticism. In March last year, England’s Football Association fined Guardiola £20,000 for wearing a yellow ribbon on his jacket during matches. The ribbon is the symbol of solidarity with Catalonia's political prisoners

Guardiola has called for international intervention: “We ask international civil society to press their governments to intervene in this conflict and find political and democratic solutions. We call on the international community to clearly position itself through a conflict resolution based on dialogue and respect. We reiterate, in this framework, there is only one way: sit and talk. Sit and talk.”

Guardiola has received flak from pro-Spain politicians, with Ines Arrimadas – one of the most prominent voices – condemning him.

“I admired Guardiola as a player and a trainer but I must condemn his lies as ‘political’,” she wrote on Twitter. Then, pointing at Guardiola’s role as an ambassador for 2022 World Cup in Qatar, she added: “He is very brave slandering Spain but not one word about Qatar where he makes money.”

Players' backing

Gerard Piqué, who has won three Uefa Champions League titles with Barca, is more nuanced than Guardiola in his support of Catalan independence. He has stressed he’s in favour of a referendum, but he never specified whether he’s a separatist or not.

On Monday, Piqué tweeted he was “proud to be part of this club”. His former teammate Xavi was more forthright. The retired midfielder posted an Instagram story bearing the names of the imprisoned politicians, underneath the word “shame”, which appears in English, Catalan and Spanish.

Sergi Roberto, a graduate of La Masía, also backed the jailed leaders, tweeting: “All my support and solidarity.”

Barcelona, too, released a strongly-worded statement on its website, headlined 'prison is not the solution'. “Now more than ever, the club asks all political leaders to lead a process of dialogue and negotiation to resolve this conflict, which should also allow for the release of convicted civic and political leaders. FC Barcelona also expresses all its support and solidarity to the families of those who are deprived of their freedom,” it said.

Rakitic stranded

Amidst all this, Barcelona's Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic became an unintended casualty. The announcement of the jail terms triggered mass protests across the region, with chaos at Barcelona’s El Prat airport leading to the cancellation of dozens of flights as well as clashes between police and protesters. Local media reported that 51 arrests were made while 125 people had been treated for injuries. Rakitic flew back to Barcelona on Monday after playing a Euro 2020 qualifier against Wales in Cardiff on Sunday.

He was unaware of the clashes at the airport between police and protestors, who had blocked road access to and from the airport.

Marooned at the airport because he couldn’t get a taxi, Rakitic was flummoxed. According to El Pais, Rakitic called someone at the airport and reportedly said: “The road is blocked. What am I going to do?”

Ultimately, he set off on foot and was pictured walking along the road, dragging a bag and a small backpack strapped across his shoulders.