FC Barcelona plays to empty stadium amid Catalan vote chaos

Referendum brings chaos to Spain

BARCELONA (CNN) - Barcelona's revered football club played a tense match behind closed doors on Sunday as Catalonia's disputed independence referendum descended into violence.

Its famous slogan, "Mes que un club" -- more than a club -- was spelled out across the seats of the empty Camp Nou stadium as scenes of unrest unfolded across the region.

After an emergency board meeting, the club said it had taken the decision to ban fans from the match against fellow Spanish La Liga club Las Palmas after the national league refused to postpone it.

Las Palmas indicated that it opposed the breakup of Spain, sending its players onto the pitch with small Spanish flags sewn onto their jerseys.

Barcelona's players took to the field wearing red and yellow shirts, the colors of Catalonia, before reverting to its normal strip for the match.

The club said that the extraordinary events in Catalonia warranted a postponement, and having failed to secure one, the it decided to play in an empty stadium.

"FC Barcelona condemns the events which have taken place in many parts of Catalonia today in order to prevent its citizens exercising their democratic right to free expression," the club said in a statement.

"Given the exceptional nature of events, the Board of Directors have decided that the FC Barcelona first team game against Las Palmas will be played behind closed doors following the Professional Football League's refusal to postpone the game."

More than a club

FC Barcelona's history is knitted in to the fabric of the region, its motto underlining the club's significance as a Catalan institution.

It was a touchstone of Catalan resistance to Franco's fascist regime, which ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, and has long been a strong supporter of Catalans' right to self-determination, if not specifically this unsanctioned vote.

"Throughout the most difficult of times, Barça was the standard that represented Catalonia and the Catalan people's desire for freedom, a symbolism that has continued to be closely linked to the idiosyncrasy of the club and its members to this day," the club says on its website.

Throughout Sunday's game, the scoreboard of the Camp Nou read "democracia" -- democracy. The fixture ended in a 3-0 victory for Barça, with star player Lionel Messi scoring twice.

Ahead of Sunday's vote, the Spanish league had suggested that Barcelona, along with the region's other top-flight clubs Girona and Espanyol, could be expelled from the league's top division La Liga competition if Catalonia seceded, according to Marca, a Spanish sports newspaper.

Catalan fans said that they were hopeful that the club would support the referendum.

"Barça and Catalonia have been linked historically and the club should be 100% committed to the people of Catalonia," Carles Ordiales, president of supporters group Seguiment, told Marca.

"I believe the club should have an even stronger position in favor of the right to decide."

Clubs on opposite sides

Before the fixture, it was clear that each club would be on opposing sides politically as well as on the field.

Las Palmas, from the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, said its decision to sew the Spanish flag into its players' jerseys was a "moderate" gesture.

"Regardless of how far away the Gran Canaria Stadium is, we have never felt the least temptation to be part of a country other than this," the team said in a statement.

Barcelona players have been vocal in their support of the referendum.

Star player Gerard Piqué tweeted a photo of himself voting, and said: "I have voted. Together we are unstoppable defending democracy."

Piqué told journalists that he would still make himself available for the Spanish national team as it prepared for next year's World Cup in Russia.

However, he added that "if the (coach), or any other person of the Federation, believes that I am a problem, or a bother, I'll have no problem in stepping aside, and leave the (team) before 2018."

The club's legendary former player, Xavi, who retired in 2014, condemned the Spanish crackdown on the vote. "What is happening in Barcelona is a disgrace," he said.

"It's inadmissible that in a democratic country the people are not allowed to vote. I give my full support to the people who are peacefully trying to exert their right to vote."


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