El Clasico delivers powerful political message in the absence of goals

Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on prior to the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on Dec. 18, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

The entire point of rescheduling the ever-cataclysmic Clasico, the first of the season pitting FC Barcelona against blood-rivals Real Madrid, was to deny Catalonia’s separatist movement from hijacking the global mega-event for its political purposes.

Officially, the story was that the game’s security couldn’t be safeguarded on Oct. 26, when it had originally been slated to be played in Barcelona. Because 12 days earlier, nine of the 12 organizers of an unsanctioned Catalan independence referendum two years prior had been sentenced to around a decade of prison time for sedition by the Spanish Supreme Court. That had resulted in mass protests and blockades of major thoroughfares and airports around Barcelona and elsewhere.

But the principals involved — the clubs, the federation, the government, local police forces — all insisted that the game could proceed safely. La Liga president Javier Tebas, who is outspoken in his opposition to Catalan independence, nevertheless decided that the game had to be moved for reasons beyond the league’s control – and then tried to schedule it in the best possible slot for the Asian TV market, further inflaming the situation.

It was obvious that Tebas worried the game, one of the two showpiece events on the Spanish calendar, would turn into an elaborate political outcry for a sovereign Catalan state. Barca, after all, is considered the physical manifestation of Catalan identity and the independence movement, even though the club is careful not to take overt political stances — it did condemn the prison sentences.

Eventually, the game was rescheduled for the Camp Nou on Wednesday after several options for other venues had been dismissed. But, paradoxically, the situation was at least as tense then as two months earlier, if not more so.  

Thousands of police and security forces were deployed as one protest organizer claimed it had signed up 25,000 people to create blockades to the stadium. There were worries about a mass pitch invasion. Barca, for its part, called for protests to be conducted peacefully. 

Unusually, Barca and Real assembled at the same hotel ahead of the game and traveled to the stadium together, in order to shield the visitors in a convoy. Before the game, peaceful protests did indeed take place outside. And there was in fact a brief blockade, per the Associated Press.

But the real disruption came in the 56th minute, when fans threw yellow balls with messages for freedom and dialogue with the Spanish government, which has refused to even discuss Catalan demands. The game was interrupted for a spell as signs were held up and home fans chanted “Freedom for political prisoners.”

All things considered, it was brief and quite tame, and even though the world feed quickly switched to a bird’s-eye-view that made it hard to see what was happening on the field, the point had been made nonetheless, and peacefully so. 

Actual violence did appear to break out after the game, as protesters reportedly clashed with police, according to early reports.

By then, the first goalless Clasico in more than 17 years had unfolded in a predictably testy match. Even without the injured Eden Hazard, Real was the better team in the first half as Barca suffered without its midfield orchestrator Sergio Busquets, who was inexplicably benched. 

Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos saved balls off the lines of their respective goals, and Real’s Raphaël Varane had a credible but ignored claim for a penalty before the intermission. At the other end of it, Lionel Messi uncharacteristically scuffed a sumptuous chance while Gareth Bale was denied a goal. Earlier in the sequence, Rodrygo Goes had been offside by a fraction in a more open but sloppy second half.

And so the balance between these teams was preserved. They remain level at 36 points atop La Liga. And they remain even with 72 league head-to-head wins apiece. Meanwhile, Messi and Real striker Karim Benzema are still tied at 12 goals atop the scoring charts.

But Real avoided last year’s humiliation, when it lost 5-1 at Camp Nou even as Messi was injured. It still has just one La Liga victory there since 2012, but Zinedine Zidane will feel good about the display, as his team had plainly edged Ernesto Valverde’s. 

That won’t be what anybody remembers about this game though, because it wasn’t a memorable game. In fact, by the rarified standards of this rivalry, which very rarely disappoints, this game itself was instantly forgettable. Its actual legacy will be the foolhardy decision to postpone it, only to make it more politically loaded than it had been in the first place. 

Because in the absence of entertaining soccer, or even a goal, only the protests stood out. And, in the end, the separatists got exactly what they’d hoped for in the world’s most anticipated league match: visibility. 

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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