More than a game: Austerity gives El Clasico new twist

Story highlights

Barcelona face Real Madrid on Sunday in "El Clasico"

Spain is engulfed by serious financial crisis

Many in Catalonia are calling for the semi-autonomous region to become independent

Anti-austerity measures have led to protests and violent clashes in Madrid

CNN  — 

After 17 minutes and 14 seconds of Sunday’s “El Clasico” encounter with Real Madrid, Barcelona fans will offer a vocal demonstration of why the club’s motto is “mes que un club” – more than a club.

The team’s Nou Camp stadium will erupt with the sound of the Catalan national anthem, sung in the language native to this semi-autonomous region of Spain.

It is to commemorate September 11, 1714, and the people who died when the ruling monarchy defeated Catalan troops during the War of the Spanish Succession.

It is arguably the biggest club game in the world – though all too often surrounded by a bucketload of bile between players, coaches and fans – but as austerity tightens its grip on the Spanish economy, the desire for Catalan independence grows ever deeper.

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The fixture against Real, a club so long synonymous with Spain’s rulers and its royalty, provides a poignant opportunity for the Catalonian cause to be expressed directly to the Madrid powers.

“For every Euro Catalonia gives to Spain, it only receives 57 cents,” Catalan sports commentator Ernest Macia told CNN. “There is a feeling of injustice regarding the fiscal system.”

“Also there are the constant political attacks in terms of linguistic policy. For Catalonia the language is very important. Catalan is different from Spanish language, not better or worse, just different.

“The Spanish government is trying to erode the educational system where in Catalonia you study in Catalan but also Spanish … the government is trying to regain the power in the education system.”

So on Sunday in a demonstration of national pride, 98,000 placards will turn the Nou Camp into a giant Catalan flag emblazoned with the word “Barca!” prior to kick off.

“It symbolizes the Catalan sentiment,” continued Macia. “It’s the color of the Catalan flag. People come to enjoy the football, yes, but also to make clear it is a time to be Catalan.”

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The Catalan nationalism cause has a powerful supporter in the shape of iconic former Barca coach Josep Guardiola, who led the team to 14 trophies during a glittering four seasons in charge.

Speaking from New York, where he is currently living, Guardiola delivered a video message of support to his native region on Catalonia’s national day, saying: “Here’s one more vote for independence.”

Despite the views of one of its favorite sons, the football club is less forthright in extolling the virtues of independence, reflecting that not all Barca fans are against a unified Spain.

However, Macia suggests the success of Barcelona’s football team and the views of some of the region’s other top sport stars has helped promote the idea of self governance.

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“I would say there is an increasing union around Barcelona of people who didn’t necessarily care about the independence of Catalonia but now understand the reasons through football and the club’s other sports teams,” added Macia.

“Sarunas Jasikevicius, a Lithuanian basketball player for Barcelona, said he is open to independence.

“In football, the team is less explicit. Xavi and Carles Puyol, for example are proud to be Catalan but they haven’t said openly they would play for Catalonia instead of Spain.”

Catalonia even has its own national football team, though it is not allowed to participate in World Cups or European Championships.

The team, which has been playing fixtures since 1912, are permitted to play matches but are barred from participating in competitions which Spain also contests.

Over the years, Catalonia’s best players such as Xavi, Guardiola and Puyol have pulled on the red and gold shirt alongside “guest” stars such as Johan Cruyff and Hristo Stoichkov.

But it is Barca, with its core of local players, which has come to represent Catalan footballing honor and so fixtures with Real have a tendency to become ill-tempered.

Red cards and the red mist have become the norm.

In August 2011 Real coach Jose Mourinho poked Tito Vilanova – Guardiola’s then assistant who has gone on to replace him in the hotseat – in the eye during a touchline fracas.

In 2000 Luis Figo was the subject of Barca fans’ ire after moving to Real, and when he returned to the Nou Camp as one of Madrid’s fabled “Galacticos”, the Portuguese forward was pelted with objects including cigarette lighters, cell phones and a pig’s head.

However, rather than breed contempt, familiarity seems to have begun to blunt this rivalry.

Last season the teams played each other on six occasions, after five meetings during the 2010-11 campaign.

“There have been an awful lot of Clasicos over the last few years, which really has diluted things quite a bit,” said Madrid-based Spanish football expert Tim Stannard.

“It’s not like it was even 12 months ago, when you had Mourinho and Guardiola really kicking off at each other.

“We had the two SuperCup Clasicos recently and nothing happened then. We actually had two calm and quite exciting games.”

And just as in the rest of Spain, the people of Madrid have worries which are more pressing than whether Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi is the world’s best footballer as unemployment climbed to nearly 25 percent last month.

Recent protests against anti-austerity measures taken by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government led to violent confrontations between civilians and police on the streets of the capital.

“What we saw was a situation gone bad,” continued Stannard. “Some protestors were infiltrated by those looking for a riot. Almost all the time demonstrations here go very peacefully, that’s why it made the news.

“There haven’t really been any instances since. People are just suffering at the minute.”

With Real currently trailing table-toppers Barca by eight points heading into the first league Clasico of the season, the Madrid club’s fans haven’t had much to cheer either.

Despite that start which has seen Mourinho team drop eight points in its first six matches, Stannard suggests this weekend’s match offers Real fans brief respite from a dark financial climate.

“It’s a distraction from the grim reality of life for many in Spain at the moment,” he said.

“It gives them something to smile about. This Clasico is not a massively hyped one. In recent years we have had Champions League semifinals and all this bitterness built up between the two teams. A lot of that has been taken out of it.”

And what do Madrilenos make of calls for Catalan independence? “It’s hard to speak for everyone here, Madrid is very diverse,” responded Stannard. “A lot of people simply don’t care.”

Back in Barcelona, Macia suggested Spain’s financial woes might have given the campaign for Catalan secession extra impetus.

“The feeling is that it has probably helped to create new converts to the independence movement,” he said. “In Germany, the richer states give 4% to the GDP, to the central government.

“In Catalonia, it is 8% and everyone in Catalonia is becoming more conscious of the problem.”

Macia remains hopeful he will see a day when Catalonia has true independence from Spain.

“It will be very slow,” he said. “It will take some time and some verbal violence. I’m not happy to live in this moment, because from Spain come some insults from Catalonia.

“I think both parties will reach an agreement. I’m not sure if it will be to celebrate a democratic referendum. It will probably take at least another year.”