A top-flight match in Barcelona has blended sports with politics as Catalan activists seek an international audience. The match had been planned for October but was canceled due to widespread demonstrations.
Thousands of police and security personnel were deployed to Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium Wednesday as Catalan separatist demonstrators used one of the world's most-watched soccer games as a platform for their independence movement.
The "El Clasico" between Spanish league leader Barcelona and rival Real Madrid kicked off on time around 8 p.m. local time (1900 UTC), and both teams were able to enter the stadium without incident.
According to the Barcelona team, the game was broadcast to more than 650 million people worldwide. Nearly 100,000 fans were in attendance.
The match should have taken place in October, but was postponed due to violent demonstrations breaking out across Catalonia over the sentencing of nine Catalan separatist leaders.
The region in northeastern Spain is one of the wealthiest in the country, and a movement in recent years has called for its secession.
Protest without disrupting the game
In anticipation of unrest ahead of the match, police set up metal barriers and approximately 3,000 security personnel were posted around Camp Nou.
In the afternoon, thousands of supporters of the pro-independence "Democratic Tsunami" group had gathered near the stadium.
The group said it did not want to suspend or block the match, but rather use its international prominence to draw attention to their cause.
"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.
Ahead of kick off, groups of people chanting pro-independence slogans gathered around the stadium. Many wore red-yellow-and-blue pro-secession flags. Others carried flags asking for the release of separatist leaders convicted in October for their failed 2017 push for Catalan succession.
Many protesters carried banners that read "Spain, sit and talk," which is a reference to the government's refusal to discuss Catalan independence. The group also said it would distribute the banners to fans.
After the game got underway, there were reports of clashes between protesters and riot police outside the stadium, where protesters had set trash cans and barricades on fire.
'More than a club'
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, and the Barcelona team has been a rallying point for separatists, with the Camp Nou stadium having been used as a protest platform for years.
The team walks a tightrope between supporting its fans' right to free expression and maintaining neutrality to not alienate fans in other parts of Spain.
The team still presents itself as a Catalan institution, with its slogan, "more than a club," and it has built an affiliation with the region's cultural traditions and language.
wmr/rc (AP, AFP, Reuters)