FC Barcelona signaled its unhappiness with the Spanish government Sunday by closing the doors to its stadium and playing a La Liga match before over 99,000 empty seats. On Monday, the team said it would join a general strike set for Tuesday in Catalonia, one meant to protest the violent crackdown on an independence vote held in that region.
Spain sent riot police to try to stop the vote, in which Catalans were asked Sunday whether they wanted to remain part of the country, resulting in hundreds of injuries and scenes of armored officers using truncheons to forcibly remove the elderly, women and children from polling stations. While the government has declared the vote an illegal act engineered by a troublesome group of secessionists, the heavy-handed approach may result in greater sentiment for a sovereign Catalonia.
With a game against Las Palmas held on the same day as the referendum, FC Barcelona officials wanted to postpone the match but were denied by the Spanish league. They didn’t want to forfeit the three points they would gain from an expected win, let alone face further sanctions, so they decided to make a statement by having Lionel Messi and his star-studded teammates square off with Las Palmas in an eerily silent Camp Nou.
In announcing Sunday that its match would be played behind closed doors, Barcelona said in a statement that it “condemns the events which have taken place in many parts of Catalonia today in order to prevent its citizens exercising their democratic right to free expression.”
“It was the hardest game to play,” Barcelona’s Gerard Pique said after the 3-0 victory over Las Palmas. “The Board tried to suspend the match, but it wasn’t possible. We debated it, and the club decided we should play.”
“We knew that an empty Camp Nou would send a powerful message,” Josep Maria Bartomeu, the team president, said in a news conference Monday. “Everybody would be asking about what was happening in Catalonia. The game was broadcast around the world. It was an extraordinary measure for an extraordinary moment.”
In a statement Monday, Bartomeu said Barcelona would “support the call for strike action tomorrow.” None of the club’s professional or youth teams will practice Tuesday, and the club’s headquarters will be closed.
In addition, two other La Liga clubs based in Catalonia, Espanyol and Girona, announced Monday their intentions to join the strike, which was called by more than 40 unions and associations in the region under the umbrella organization Democracy Board.
“In our position as a club of such global scope, we shall continue to tell the world about the reality of what’s happening in our country and our commitment to its people and their freedoms, a commitment to which the club has remained faithful throughout its 118 years of history,” Bartomeu said. “We shall be making use of our presence on international sporting bodies and shall take every opportunity we have to do so.
“We would like to express our solidarity with all the anonymous citizens who yesterday stood up for something so valuable as is our democracy. Here at Barça we also stand beside the 893 people that were victims of these aggressions, and wish them a rapid and complete recovery.”