In what was perhaps the strongest display of Catalan nationalism at any recent El Clàssic, I was lucky enough to attend Sunday’s match and experience it among local Catalans.
The ambiance was familiar, just like going to watch your local 5th division team. The same people always attend, everyone knows each other. People greet one another as they take their seats. But this was no 5th division game, this was El Clàssic at the Camp Nou, the legendary match up of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Although I’ve watched four matches at the Camp Nou before, including a previous El Clàssic, this was a new experience for me. I managed to get a seat among mostly season ticket holders. If you’ve ever been to the Camp Nou, you know more often than not you’ll be sitting among tourists, eager to catch the entire match with their cameras, euphoric about the experience and amazed by what is happening on the pitch. Sitting surrounded by Catalans, it’s a bit different.
To start with, there are no cameras. Someone may snap a photo with a phone of the mosaic at the start of the game, but that is all. What the Catalans do bring to the stadium however are headphones, so that they can follow the game commentary on the radio. Their dress is more casual, with only a few wearing Barça shirts. Support for Barça is shown with accessories, such as a blue and red scarf or something similar, and of course, the Catalan flag.
During the match, the people around me were intently focused on the game, shouting or applauding based on the action on the pitch. For example, when Valdés was put under pressure to clear the ball, it was met with frustrated shouts of “what the hell is he doing?” by those around me. Not even Messi escaped from this crowd, as dissatisfaction swelled when he lost the ball in the middle of the field. When anything magical happened, it was met with applause. While the responses of the home crowd are nothing new at the Camp Nou, what was new on Sunday was the chants.
This was a special El Clàssic, even among so many other memorable Clàssics. Not because it was the 222nd game between the giants or because Messi and Ronaldo were facing each other yet again. No, this was a special El Clàssic because of the non-football aspects, the political reasons.
El Clàssic is often said to be more than a football game. This time it really was. The game that was played at Camp Nou on Sunday is said to have been the most politically-charged meeting between the two sides since 1975, when Real Madrid visited Camp Nou just a month after the death of Franco, and the previous banned Catalan flags were allowed again in the stadium.
Catalans have long prided themselves on being different from the Spanish. They are clear about their identity as Catalans, and for many Catalunya is a separate entity from Spain. A number of Catalans have been content without independence as a nation, as long as their identity, culture, language, and traditions were accepted and respected. This was until the Madrid-based Spanish government decided to slowly reduce Catalunya’s power as an autonomous region. Though it’s still there on paper, many Catalans feel like their autonomy is being gradually taken away. Also, with the economical crisis in Spain, Catalunya, a relatively healthy region financially, with some of the highest taxes in Europe, feels burdened to bear the economic weight of the rest of the country.
These are some of the reasons why 1.5 million people took to the streets of Barcelona on the 11th of September (Catalunya’s national day) to wave the senyera and call for independence. These cries were continued at the Camp Nou when Barça faced Spartak Moscow in the Champions League, as shouts of “IN INDE INDEPEDENCIA” rang around the stadium. Never before have so many Catalans wanted independence from Spain. This is also why Sunday’s mosaic in the yellow and red of the Catalan flag held special meaning.
With the political context going into the latest FC Barcelona – Real Madrid match-up, it felt great to be among the Catalans themselves. As the players walked out to the pitch, each person stood up, held their yellow or red piece of paper up towards the sky, and sang the Barça anthem from their hearts. In an instant Camp Nou had transformed into a giant Catalan flag, perhaps the biggest one that has ever been made. It was an indescribable moment that even impressed the regulars at Camp Nou. Goosebumps erupted on my skin as the stadium vibrated with 95,000+ people singing the hymn.
With the game underway, when the Madrid players either cleared a ball or failed with a move, the locals around me would chant: “TONTO TONTO TONTO” (stupid, stupid, stupid), or “Mourinho sal del banquillo”. That was until 17 minutes and 14 seconds had passed. The significance of the timing is important. On the 11th of September in 1714, Catalunya lost its independence to Spain in Barcelona. Almost 300 years later, the Catalan people want it back. At that moment in the match, as Barça fought for the 11 point lead over Madrid, Camp Nou sang for independence.
Thousands of Catalan flags erupted through the stadium, and letters spelling INDEPEDENCIA were held up by fans as the crowd chanted the same message. The whole episode only lasted for a minute, but it’s a minute that will be remembered. Just like with the mosaic at the start of the game, this moment also gave me goosebumps, even more so than before.
Spain’s senior national team has never played at Camp Nou, but in 1992 Spain’s Olympic squad did play the final there in front of 95,000 spectators. That day, there were Catalans present who waved the Spanish flag and even a few who cried out: “Pujol nos engaña, Cataluña es España” [Pujol deceives us, Cataluña is Spain]. Times have changed. Throughout the years, the group bold enough to hold signs reading “Catalonia is not Spain” at the Camp Nou has grown. It’s now a majority.
This might be the beginning of a new era for Catalunya, a change that the Camp Nou on Sunday showed that it so desperately wants!
All images are Alexandra’s. Follow her on twitter: @AlexandraJonson.