Spain's most important football match of the year went ahead amid high security as fires burned in the streets outside FC Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium as pro-Catalan independence protesters gathered for a mass rally.
Tsunami Democratic’s called the "mass concentration” hours before el clasico match against Real Madrid.
The group held demonstrations at four different locations surrounding the stadium chanting the slogan “Rights, Freedom and Self-Determination” as authorities feared that they could prevent the match from happening at all after it was postponed in October over rallies. But it still went ahead on Wednesday evening.
Outside the stadium, chaos ensued.
Buses from different parts of Catalonia took thousands of people to the stadium doors for the protest that also counts on the support of fans of the club. Around 100,000 posters with the phrase "Spain, sit and talk" were distributed among supporters to be displayed during the match.
Before the match started, Barcelona fans chanted for “independence” and “freedom for the political prisoners” and unfurled two huge banners with the words “Spain Sit and Talk” and “Freedom” visible to millions of viewers all over the world. A few moments later, both banners were removed by security guards as thousands kept defiantly chanting.
Outside the stadium, police initially charged against demonstrators and soon scenes of police violence were being shared online as officers beat protesters and fired rubber bullets as people tried to set up barricades outside Camp Nou.
Protesters set fire to bins, threw rocks and glass bottles at police who responded with foam bullets. Forty-six were lightly injured including eight who were taken to a medical centre. Five were arrested.
One of the biggest matches in world football, el clasico attracts a global audience of hundreds of millions every year.
Catalonia is facing a wave of protests in favour of independence of the region from Spain and against the conviction of regional leaders, as much as 13 years in prison, for organising an independence referendum in October 2017.
The former president of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, is in exile in Belgium, as well as other former members of his government, such as Clara Ponsati, who is currently in Scotland.
Spanish sports authorities even thought of holding the game on neutral territory as a way of avoiding protests, but finally decided against it. The Spanish federation warned of possible consequences for Barcelona if the match did not take place with "normality”.
Ahead of the game, Toni Padilla, a sports journalist with Catalan newspaper Ara, told The National that "Barcelona has a specific plan inside the stadium".
“Outside the stadium is police competence, so the club can only work with internal security. There is the fear of a possible invasion of the pitch that could cause the suspension of the match and if there are incidents inside the stadium, the club could then be sanctioned,” he said.
An invasion of the pitch could result in the Camp Nou being closed for two years and a $720,000 fine. But the game itself went off without major interruption, stopping only briefly in the second half for stewards to clear yellow beach balls from the pitch.
The call for protests was only for outside the stadium. "The intention of the Tsunami [Democratic] is not to prevent the match from taking place. It is also not intended to promote invasions on the field or to prevent the match from taking place, but only to create nuisance and to draw attention to the crisis situation in Catalonia," a Catalan activist close to the group explained to The National.
FC Barcelona's management is aligned with the interests of the pro-independence camp, Padilla said. However, they "oppose this specific protest as it puts at risk the holding of the match, so they tried to dialogue with Tsunami Democratic, which has no spokesman and is totally anonymous."
The Tsunami Democratic is an anonymous pro-independence group whose mission is to force Spain to negotiate with the Catalan government a route towards the independence of the region through peaceful and nonviolent protests.
The group is deemed by Spain to be a terrorist organisation, even though there’s no record of any violent action whatsoever. The group (or any of its members), has never been convicted by the Spanish courts –although there is a pending investigation – thus causing many to consider the Spanish action as mere censorship.
Via email, the group told The National that "the protest basically aims to reach 650 million people [watching the game] showing the need for the Spanish state to unblock the conflict with Catalonia".
“In order to do so”, they added, “Spain has to sit down and talk about Catalonia's right to self-determination, the freedom of prisoners and exiles and the full exercise of fundamental rights in Catalonia that cannot now be fulfilled such as the right to demonstrate, express oneself or meet.”
The local police (known as Mossos d'Esquadra) increased the presence of officers around the stadium. Some 5,300 police officers were deployed for the match, including at least 500 Spanish anti-riot police officers brought in from other parts of the country.
Protests during Barcelona matches are not uncommon, with songs demanding independence sung in all matches, as well as at least a large poster with the message "Only dictatorships jail peaceful political leaders”. The protest called for the match is still unprecedented.
"It is difficult to know exactly what is going to happen," Catalan journalist Josep Goded said.
For now, there are many speculations by the Spanish press, “to which I would not give any kind of veracity, since they collaborate closely with the factual powers of the state in the active criminalisation of the independence movement,” he added.
Thousands of people responded to the call of Tsunami Democratic and have gathered around the stadium before the match to peacefully protest for democracy and a dialogue with the Spanish government to solve the crisis that has engulfed the region – and all of Spain - for years amid calls for prudence and calm to the security forces.