Spanish passion play becomes homage to Catalonia
A gigantic mosaic in the colours of the Catalan flag 'La Senyera', spread out over Barcelona's Camp Nou, left Real Madrid players in no doubt that Sunday's El Clasico was more than just a football match.
Although a vital league game between Spain's top two clubs, the clash represents a fierce political tradition between the centralism of Madrid and the rights of the autonomous region of Catalonia.
One banner amongst the 98,000 fans read simply: "Freedom for Catalonia".
Calls for greater rights and independence have been claimed since the death of Spanish dictator Franco in 1975 who suppressed the Catalan language and culture but recently it has come to a head with the financial crisis gripping the country.
Inside the region, the feeling persists that Catalonia is funding the poorer areas of the country, especially in the south.
"Real Madrid face a Camp Nou where the atmosphere will be exceptional and the stimulation will not only be sporting but also social and political," said Catalan daily La Vanguardia on Sunday.
"The dream of barcelonismo is to leave their opponents eleven points behind but also that catalanismo demonstrates it is motivated to show its identity."
It is not the first time that sentiments like that have been made by fans and more extreme political pundits, but the difference this year is that it is an opinion expressed by a large section of the middle ground.
"We are fed up with being dictated to from Madrid and discriminated against. We want the right to decide for ourselves whether to stay in Spain or be independent," one fan, Jordi, told AFP on the way to the stadium.
An estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets of Barcelona in a nationalist march held on September 11 this year, the Catalan national day.
The date symbolises the fall of Barcelona in 1714 during the War of Spanish Succession and where Catalonia was brought under the control of Madrid.
At 17 minutes and 14 seconds into Sunday's game, shouts for independence rang out around the arena.
Levels of local autonomy have fluctuated since the 18th century, hitting a low point under Franco while FC Barcelona, formed in 1899, gradually became intertwined with the local culture and aligned with the Catalan cause.
For many Catalans, Barcelona is the equivalent of a national team.
Under the presidency of Joan Laporta, the club became its most politicised.
On standing down in 2010, Laporta set up his own political party calling for independence.
"Barca is the national team of Catalonia and my objective as president was to promote our interests and fight for our rights," he said.
"With the problems that Catalonia has, the solution is to allow us to take our own decisions and create better lives for ourselves.
"The present structure isn't working and so we want to see Catalonia as an independent state in Europe."
The current president Sandro Rosell is more of an integrator, seeking to bring together people of different opinions but he has been swamped by the strength of public feeling and says that the club will reflect the mood of the people.
Former coach Pep Guardiola sent a message of support for independence from his current home in New York on September 11, but current trainer Tito Vilanova has tried to concentrate on football ahead of what is the most politicised el clasico yet.
"There are always Catalan flags and mosaics a lot of the time and this is all part of football. If you want to talk about politics then there are other places for that," he said.
Sunday's El Clasico was also encompassing another political dispute with the news that the club had given a ticket to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who spent more than five years as a hostage in Gaza after being captured by Palestinian militants in 2006.
It was following a request from Israeli officials, but when Palestinian groups heard about the invitation, it created a huge storm.
Barca then announced that they had also invited Palestinian representatives.
One of those was a footballer, Mahmoud Sarsak, who had been held by the Israelis for three years without charge after being linked to a militant group.
He turned down the request, refusing to sit in the same stadium as Shalit.
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