Police gird for separatist protest at Barcelona soccer match

Catalan pro-independence demonstrators block a road as they protest outside the Camp Nou stadium ahead of a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Thousands of Catalan separatists are planning to protest around and inside Barcelona's Camp Nou Stadium during Wednesday's match against fierce rival Real Madrid. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
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Thousands of police and private security personnel were deployed Wednesday in and around Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium to ensure that a demonstration by Catalonia’s separatist movement does not disrupt one of the world’s most-watched soccer matches.

Spanish league leader Barcelona hosts its fierce rival, No. 2 Real Madrid, and the separatists want to take advantage of the global media coverage to promote their bid for independence from Spain.

The game, known as El Clásico, was postponed from Oct. 26 because of fears that the separatists — then in the midst of a week of violent protests — would try to disrupt it.

Barcelona is the regional capital of the wealthy northeast region of Catalonia. Spain opposes any breakup of the country.

Protest organizers say that over 25,000 people have signed up to gather near the stadium and will try to get inside. Nearly 100,000 fans are expected to attend the match in what is Europe’s biggest stadium, and more than 3,000 police and security guards were on hand.

Hours before the kickoff at 1900 GMT (2 p.m. EST), police set up metal barriers around the stadium. A special police detail was to make sure the buses carrying the teams and match officials could arrive on time.

Dozens of protesters, some waving Catalan pro-independence flags, began gathering at the Camp Nou stadium about four hours before the game.

The U.S. Consulate in Barcelona advised people to avoid the area or exercise caution if they are nearby.

“These demonstrations present the potential for violence between radical groups for and against the Catalan independence movement,” the alert read. “Demonstrations this autumn led to clashes between law enforcement, protesters, and counterprotesters.”

Organizers have not said what form the protest will take, and police said they can’t rule out an attempt by demonstrators to interrupt the match.

“The important thing is that we play the game,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said Tuesday.

The Barcelona team asked its fans to behave with civility and not to affect the match.

A shadowy online group called Tsunami Democratic, which is behind the protest, posted a message on social media saying: “Hello, world! Tonight Tsunami has a message for you.”

Separatist sentiment grew sharply in Catalonia during the global recession that hit Spain hard. The 7.5 million residents of Catalonia are about equally divided by the secession question, according to polls and election results.

Separatists have used the Camp Nou stadium as a protest platform for years. They shout “Independence!” at a set time during matches and sometimes unfurl banners.

The Barcelona team has walked a fine line between supporting its fans’ right to free expression and aligning itself with the greater interests of Catalonia. Many feel it does not fully support secession so as not to anger its Catalan fans who are not separatists or its millions of supporters across Spain.

With its slogan “More than a club,” it presents itself as a Catalan institution, aligned with the region’s proud cultural traditions and language, which is spoken along with Spanish in the semi-autonomous region.

Its rivalry with Real Madrid has a decades-old political undercurrent, with many Catalans — just like residents of other regions in Spain — seeing the capital’s team as a symbol of domineering, central power and a hallmark of Spanish unity and authority.

Madrid supporters, in turn, see Barcelona as representing a traitorous region that wants to break up Spain. For many years, some Barcelona fans held up a massive banner at games that read “Catalonia is not Spain.”

Players from both teams usually get along very well. The Spanish national team that won the 2010 World Cup and two European Championships was packed with players from both sides.

Security is always high whenever they play — just like at many soccer matches between fierce rivals — but there is no history of violence at the games.

Tsunami Democratic carried out its first major action in October when it organized a large protest after several of the secession movement’s leaders were sentenced to jail for their role in a failed secession bid in 2017.

A call by Tsunami Democratic led to thousands of angry protesters gathering at Barcelona’s airpor t. A massive street fight broke out between the most radical protesters and police inside and outside the terminal, and about 150 flights were canceled as ground transport was halted for hours. Protests by separatists left more than 500 people injured, half of them police.q