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Soccer rivals play out Spain's simmering regional divide

Eternal soccer enemies Real Madrid and Barcelona will meet four times in the next three weeks. One of the factors driving their rivalry is Catalonia's ambition to increase its autonomy from the Spanish capital.

Real Madrid and Barcelona players clashing during a football game

Real Madrid and Barcelona are longstanding rivals

Luis Figo may not be Spanish, but he knows as well as anyone how fierce the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona soccer teams can be. When playing for Madrid against Barcelona in 2002, the Portuguese was taking a corner kick when a pig's head thrown by an opposition fan landed on the ground next to him. Having left Barcelona to play for Real Madrid, he was seen as a traitor by the Catalan team's supporters and this was how they expressed their disgust.

"Barcelona is our rival from so long back that this is definitely the biggest game we ever see," said Real Madrid fan Juan Frances.

Frances described the encounter as an "historic collision" and between April 16 and May 3 it will be played out four times as Real Madrid plays Barcelona in the Spanish league, the final of the King's Cup and a two-game Champions League semi-final. This alone has sports fan barely able to contain themselves. But with political tensions between Madrid and Barcelona's Catalonia region running high, the rivalry has an extra edge.

People in Catalonia with flags at a rally calling for independence

Catalans have in a series of referedums backed independence

Catalonia is one of Spain's 17 regions, or autonomous communities, each of which has a slightly different relationship with the central government in Madrid. Catalonia has more autonomy than most other regions, with control over areas such as transport and trade, and its own police force. It also has a unique culture, as reflected by its own language.

Many in Madrid worry that Catalonia already has too much autonomy, but Catalans frequently complain that the capital is meddling in their affairs. One example was in 2010, when the Constitutional Court in Madrid ruled that a number of new powers devolved from the capital to Catalonia were unlawful, even though the articles in question had been approved by a referendum, the Catalan regional parliament and the Spanish Congress. The region's nationalists were enraged.

"Without a doubt there will be a political, social and cultural response to this," was the reaction at the time of Oriol Pujol, a Catalan nationalist politician.

Big vote, low turnout

One of the consequences of the swell in nationalist feeling of the last couple of years has been a series of non-binding referendums on Catalan independence staged since September 2009 across the region. The last of these was held in Barcelona on Sunday, where 90 percent of votes cast backed independence. Only one in five voters in Barcelona took part, although organizers said this was nonetheless a sign that their independence drive enjoys popular support.

But on Wednesday, a proposal by radical nationalists for Catalonia to attempt to move formally toward independence was roundly rejected by the regional parliament.

"About 15 or 18 percent of people tend to want Catalonia to at least have a chance to vote on becoming an independent state," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an expert in Spanish politics at King's College, London.

As one of Spain's wealthiest regions, a determination to have more say over their finances fuels Catalan nationalist feeling, according to Pacheco Pardo. He also identified historical and cultural factors, such as the Catalan language.

Recession versus nationalism

But while tensions with Madrid encourage Catalans to wear their region on their sleeve, the economic climate seems to have prevented pro-independence feeling from flourishing as much as its advocates would like. Spain was particularly hard hit by the world recession and is still struggling to recover, with an unemployment rate of 20 percent, the highest in Europe. While the city of Barcelona has coped relatively well, Catalonia as a whole has suffered, like the rest of the country.

For most Catalans, the economy and employment are more pressing issues than increased autonomy or independence. Some politicians agree.

Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas holds up the World Cup trophy after the World Cup final soccer match

Spain's 2010 World Cup win was a uniting force people across the country

"Independence is all very well, but all people talk about in the street is unemployment," said Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, a senior figure in the nationalist CiU, which governs Catalonia. Duran i Lleida did not vote in Sunday's referendum, although many of his party colleagues did back the motion. The party abstained in Wednesday's parliamentary vote.

When Real Madrid and Barcelona line up to face each other for the first of their four games on Saturday, issues such as last year's political frictions and the recent independence votes will be part of the background to this fierce sporting rivalry.

But soccer can also unite Spaniards. Last year, Spain won the World Cup with a team made up of players from regions such as Madrid, Andalusia, the Canary Islands, the Basque Country and, most notably, Catalonia.

"The Spanish football national team has helped to build bridges among different regions, because of the players coming from all around Spain," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo.

The bridges between Madrid and Barcelona may still need plenty of work, but in the meantime, Catalonia still seems to be a long way from independence.

Author: Guy Hedgecoe, Madrid
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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