To many in Catalonia, FC Barcelona represent an ‘unofficial, unarmed army of the Catalan Republic,’ and that army was caught up in a horrific set of circumstances that led to almost 900 people injured by military police brutality in the coastal city and easily the most surreal match played at the Camp Nou in generations.
Barca played Las Palmas in front of an audience of only journalists, camera people, and club and league staff following the announcement just 24 minutes before kickoff that the game would go ahead, (contrary to prior reports from most outlets) but behind closed doors, behind a backdrop of violence in the city as the central government moved to crack down on an independence referendum in the region.
In total, 2,262,422 votes were cast, with about 90% cast in favour of Catalonia becoming an independent state in the form of a Republic.
Gerard Pique cast his vote in the morning before the game, and left the Camp Nou in tears reflecting on one of the ugliest days of clashes Barcelona has seen in a long time.
Pique described the central government’s actions as one of “the worst decisions in 50 years” [to respond to the previously outlawed referendum with such aggression.]
Across the city and all of Catalonia, people stayed all night in certain voting stations, to protect it from raids from the civil guard, a Spanish military police force.
Eventually the police came though, but came with much more aggression than anybody had expected.
They had arrived in their thousands from across the country for this day, to crack down on Catalonia in such a manner, and had been waiting in giant cruise ships off the Catalan coast to be deployed.
People were savagely beaten, horribly and indiscriminately as they peacefully queued and waited to cast their votes.
The official number from the Catalan government was 893 people were injured, while the central government claimed this number was a complete lie, that the truth was actually four.
Anybody who has seen images of videos of the day’s attacks can make their own mind up as to which number is closer to the truth.
Raids on voting stations started early in the morning, and set the tone for the rest of the day as news travelled around the city fast.
On the footballing side of the day’s events, visitors Las Palmas surprised everybody by taking the unusual decision to play the game with a Spanish flag embroidered on their jersey, a move clearly designed to provoke and insult the Catalans.
The club’s official statement on the decision said the move was aimed at promoting a ‘united Spain’.
Shortly after, it seemed for all the world the game wouldn’t go ahead, as reported by many reputable journalists covering the fixture. In the background, the Barca board were fighting amongst each other of what to do.
The very well-known motto of the club is Més que un club, – More than a club – as Barca’s history is inseparable with politics and the Catalan identity, and many board members felt that the severity of the situation happening in around the stadium nulled any significance that football held in such a serious time.
Other board members felt the best thing to do was to play the match, to continue with life as it were.
In the end, Barca president Josep Bartomeu made a decision that hasn’t gone down well in the majority of the city, to play behind closed doors as a sign of protest.
Win the game, pick up the points (and avoid a point deduction as La Liga threatened), but do it in a surreal atmosphere that would draw attention to the repugnant acts of the police forces.
In the fallout of the decision, two board directors, Jordi Monés and Carles Vilarrubí resigned from their positions, as they felt the game should not have gone ahead.
Perhaps one of the most lamentable aspects of this story (the football side, at least) is how preventable it all was.
The kickoff date and time for this game was announced on September 4th, while the referendum had been called for October 1st months beforehand.
There was no reason Barcelona-Las Palmas could not have been played on the Saturday, September 30th. Problems were inevitable.
The president of La Liga, Javier Tebas, is a self-confessed Real Madrid fan, who recently publicly said he wished there were a Spanish version of French far-right former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
He’s said plenty of things in the past that can easily be interpreted as taking shots at his own team’s arch rivals.
How is it justifiable to have a fan of one of the most powerful clubs in the country as president of the league, who holds such extreme views? How can the credibility of the Spanish league be held up with such a figure in charge?
Amongst this farce, some football was actually played, but played in an atmosphere that hammered home some heavy perspective, how insignificant this game was on such a day.
After a difficult first half where Barcelona struggled to find their rhythm, Sergio Busquets opened the scoring a few minutes after the break, and Leo Messi added a second and third.
Denis Suarez was given a rare 90 minutes, and he displayed incredible vision to find Messi for Barca’s second, anticipating a run that few other players would have the foresight to pick out.
Suarez has struggled to hold down a place in the team in his time at Barcelona so far, but played some of his best football with Villarreal in the attack line rather than in midfield where he’s normally deployed in the blaugrana shirt.
Against Las Palmas, he was given the chance to play in the role currently vacated by the second most expensive player of all time, and he enjoyed a prosperous evening.
In midfield, Ernesto Valverde started with Busquets and Paulinho both in the starting XI, two holding midfield players at home to a struggling opposition.
The somewhat strange decision was undone at half time though, as Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta came in for Paulinho and Aleix Vidal.
After the game, Gerard Pique, hated by fans of the Spain national team for his pro-Catalonia views, said that he may have to retire from the national team if his political views are a problem.
With less than a year to go before Russia 2018, Spain could be forced into finding a new partner for Sergio Ramos at the heart of their defence, and hoping that he slots into the position that Pique has expertly crafted for a decade or so comfortably.
In truth, nobody knows what the outcome of any of this will be.
Nobody knows if Catalonia will soon become an independent Republic like what they state, and nobody yet knows if Spain will be looking to fill gaps in their squad for the upcoming World Cup.
After being greeted with jeers and insults at the national team’s first training squad on Monday evening ahead of their final two qualifiers, Pique must surely be asking himself what the point of continuing with this, in this atmosphere, is.
Pepe Mel keeps his job, for another week at least.
The Deportivo La Coruña manager mustered up a comeback win against Getafe, but it was a laboured performance from the Galicians that could really have gone either way.
If Depor return to losing ways soon though, one could expect his to see his head on the chopping block again.
Real Sociedad and Real Betis played out probably the game of the season so far in Anoeta, with both teams sharing the spoils at 4-4, with both teams scoring in the final ten minutes.
That accolade for probably the best game of the season had some tough competition this week, with Celta Vigo and Girona drawing 3-3, where it was 2-2 just 16 minutes into the game.
Celta’s Pione Sisto is looking like one of the breakthrough players of the season already at this early stage.
In the last two game weeks, La Liga teams have scored four goals in a single game on six occasions, and three in a single game nine times.
In all, 72 goals were scored in Spain’s top division over the last two rounds of games, averaging 3.6 goals a game.
Not too shabby.
Atletico Madrid have a lot to thank goalkeeper Jan Oblak for, after his performance alone prevented what would have been a hugely embarrassing result away to Leganés.
The Cucumber-growers (seriously that is Leganés’ nickname) can take a lot of pride from their performance, their second time in a row holding Atleti scoreless in their home ground.
Goal of the Week: Aritz Aduriz’s sublime control-and-turn move to make the space to slot home against Valencia takes the award this week. Unfortunately Athletic Bilbao lost the game, rendering the goal nothing but a consolation.
Player of the Week: Cedric Bakambu got Villarreal back to winning ways with a hat-trick against Eibar. The Yellow Submarine are off to a good start in life after Fran Escribá.
La Liga Week 7 Results: Celta Vigo 3–3 Girona Deportivo La Coruna 2–1 Getafe Sevilla 2–0 Malaga, Levante 0–2 Alaves, Leganes 0–0 Atletico Madrid, Real Sociedad 4–4 Real Betis, Barcelona 3–0 Las Palmas, Valencia 3–2 Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal 3–0 Eibar, Real Madrid 2–0 Espanyol