Sparks off the pitch, tension on it as el clasico plays to a backdrop of boos and whistles

Sparks off the pitch, tension on it as el clasico plays to a backdrop of boos and whistles
Sparks off the pitch, tension on it as el clasico plays to a backdrop of boos and whistles

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - As the final el clasico of the decade wound down to its disappointing end, smoke began to envelop the upper tiers of Camp Nou. Rubbish bins were being burnt outside the stadium by protesters for the Catalan independence movement. Helicopters whirled above on a mild December evening as continual announcements were made urging fans not to leave from the north end of the vast arena.

The game between Barcelona and Real Madrid is the one that almost always delivers. In this decade alone there have been 126 goals in 37 games between the pair. It had been 17 years since a goalless match between the giants, but as both sides searched for an opening, it seems the spark would come off the pitch and not on it.

Word spread through the crowd about further protests which would see nine arrests. The original game had been put back two months because of political tension following the imprisonment of Catalan politicians. They had not gone away and perhaps fearing more obstructions on their way home, fans began to boo the further announcements.

Their walk to Camp Nou had been slowed significantly by protests and thousands holding banners urging the Spain government to sit down and talk. The protest slowed, but didn’t stop 98,000 fans getting through the turnstiles. Many had been given facemasks of Lionel Messi, which, absurdly, were confiscated despite containing the non political message of ‘Únic al món, Força Barça’ (‘Unique in the world, Come on Barça’).

Thousands of those blue banners urging negotiations were raised - in English for the global audience which el clasico attracts. And against Real Madrid, the club most associated with Spain’s capital, the tension was always going to be higher.

Madrid’s players were booed and whistled at as they always are, but it was no more fierce than for any other clasico. Luis Figo would have considered it easy by the standards of the abuse he received after moving from Barcelona to Madrid in 2000. Sergio Ramos, making a record 43rd appearance in the clasico, attracts the most enmity, but it’s a backhanded nod to the defender’s brilliance.

There was also a vast ‘freedom’ flag unfurled on a day of high security which meant the teams converged in the same hotel 200 metres from the ground and journalists started arriving eight hours before kick-off. While there was plenty going on as sport and politics fused, there wasn’t enough action where most wanted it to happen - on the pitch.

Barcelona were the superior team in the first half, Real Madrid were well organised, pressed high and enjoyed the better chances as it took half an hour for the Catalans to have a shot on goal. By that time, the game’s best player Casemiro had seen his header cleared off the line by Barça’s best man, Gerard Pique. Lionel Messi hit a stunning cross-field pass to Jordi Alba as Barça tried to force an opening on the left, but their final ball let them down. Messi also chipped the ball to Alba to set him up one on one with Thibaut Courtois, but the left back isn’t renowned for his finishing and skewed a volley wide.

Barca and Madrid maybe have both been less than their usual spectacular selves this season, but they’re top of La Liga on equal points. They’re five ahead of the chasing pack but no rivals look capable of closing that gap. And neither looked capable of breaking the deadlock in a game where chants of ‘Long live Barca! Long live Catalonia’ proliferated. A further protest came when scores of beach balls were thrown on to the playing surface in the second half.

The home crowd was silenced when Gareth Bale had a goal ruled offside after 72 minutes, five minutes after shooting wide. Messi had come closest to scoring for the home side shortly before, miskicking Antoine Griezmann’s low cross.

And it finished in a stalemate in more ways than one. The pair still have 72 league wins each and this decade has been a glorious one for both clubs.

Barca have won more league titles but Madrid boast four European Cups to the Catalans’ two. The highs have been the highest, but they were scarce on a night overshadowed by political protest.

“When you don’t win a game you feel disappointed,” said Ramos. “I felt Madrid deserved more. It’s a very complicated game - it’s difficult to come here, but we took the game to them and caused them problems. We didn’t make the kind of mistakes that have cost us so much in previous clasicos. We controlled the game quite well, especially the transitions. It’s not easy to do that in the Camp Nou.

“We had a strategy to put pressure on them high up and make it difficult to play the ball out from the back, and we did that. I think we’re having a really positive spell. We should have had two penalties but that’s football. We’re leaving here with a smile on our faces.”

Which is more than can be said for many who streamed out of Camp Nou into the continuing demonstrations.

Updated: December 19, 2019 02:20 PM

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