The Real Madrid soccer fans wore red-and-yellow Spanish flags around their necks like capes, proudly brandishing them for photos before streaming into the stadium Saturday for the matchup between the country’s biggest sports rivals.
For some fans of the world-renowned soccer team from Spain’s capital, Saturday’s El Clásico — the name given for any matchup between Real Madrid and Fútbol Club Barcelona — was an opportunity to display Spanish pride amid a bitter separatist drive in Catalonia.
The teams faced off at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium two days after a vote in Catalonia kept its regional government in the hands of pro-independence parties, deepening the country’s constitutional crisis and vindicating politicians who want the prosperous northeastern region to secede from Spain.
“This is a game with a little bit of a political connotation,” said Zaragoza resident and Real Madrid fan Carmen Begué, wearing the red-and-yellow national flag as she walked toward the stadium. “For me, [Real Madrid] is the team that is Spanish, and that is why I am wearing the Spanish flag.”
It’s common for Real Madrid fans to wear the Spanish flag. It now has new meaning, however, as a symbol of Spanish unity.
When El Clásico is played in Barcelona, home team fans usually sing at the 17th minute of the match, to commemorate the fall of Catalonia in the Spanish War of Secession and celebrate Catalan identity. Some bring the Estelada, a red-and-yellow striped flag with a blue triangle used by separatists, to the Barcelona stadium.
While Madrid fans hoped for a win Saturday, Barcelona instead came out on top with a 3-0 victory. The loss put Madrid in fourth place in Spain’s soccer league, La Liga.
The two teams are consistently among the top — and richest — in the world. Each has a player who has made a claim to being the best on the planet: Lionel Messi for Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo for Madrid. Messi scored one of Barcelona’s three goals Saturday.
The Catalonia independence drive has triggered Spain’s most serious constitutional crisis since the end of the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.
A low-turnout Oct. 1 referendum held by the Catalan government and deemed illegal by the central government overwhelmingly favored independence. Weeks later, region leader Carles Puigdemont unilaterally declared Catalonia independent from Spain, prompting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to dissolve the Catalan Parliament and schedule a Dec. 21 election in an effort to quell separatism.
He lost his gamble Thursday, after a record turnout of voters gave the majority of seats in the Catalan Parliament to pro-independence parties.
Over the past few months, players and officials from Catalonia’s beloved team Barcelona FC have weighed in on the conflict.
In November, after a Madrid judge ordered former Catalonia Vice President Oriol Junqueras and several other former government ministers to jail while being investigated on treason for their role in the independence referendum, the team released a note “lamenting” the decision.
“Barcelona FC believes actions like these don’t contribute to constructing the means of dialogue and respect we have always defended,” the Nov. 2 note reads.
A defender on the team, Gerard Piqué, has argued for Catalans’ right to vote in a referendum on independence. He voted in the Oct. 1 referendum, but has not indicated whether he favors independence.
The political uncertainty in Catalonia also has brought into question whether Barcelona would remain part of the Spanish League if the region becomes independent.
Before entering the stadium Saturday, some Real Madrid fans criticized FC Barcelona for making political statements.
“Madrid has never been a politicized team,” Rodrigo Rodriguez, 34, a Real Madrid supporter, said. “But Barca is.”
Rodriguez and his friend, Manuel Alvaro, are against Catalan separatism. They brought a Spanish flag reading “Long Live United Spain” to the game.
Alvaro started carrying the flag at games because of the Catalonia conflict and because “we are stronger together,” he said.
For other fans, though, politics have nothing to do with the country’s most beloved sport.
After the game, Jose Manuel Jimeno walked from the stadium with his 11-year son, Lucas, both beaming.
The Barcelona fan thought it was a “great game, played very well technically,” but warned against reading anything more into it.
“You have to separate sport and politics,” he said.
Jaime Gonzalez, a Real Madrid fan, agreed. The 21-year-old shouted insults degrading FC Barcelona and Catalonia with a group of Real Madrid supporters before the game, but he said it’s just a soccer rivalry — nothing new.
“It’s always been this way,” he said.
Bernhard is a special correspondent.