Catalan independence protests kick off at El Clasico match

Protesters threw bottles and police opened fire with foam bullets as tensions boiled over in Barcelona.

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    Barcelona, Spain - Police have shot foam bullets at protesters in Barcelona on Wednesday night as thousands of Catalan independence supporters staged a demonstration before the widely anticipated El Clasico football match between the country's biggest sporting rivals.

    Carrying Catalan separatist flags and posters which said "Spain, Sit and Talk" in English, protesters brought the streets around the Camp Nou stadium to a standstill before the game between Barcelona and Real Madrid. As the night progressed, large waste containers were set on fire by hooded protesters.

    Inside the world-famous stadium, the game was brought to a brief halt as pro-independence fans lobbed inflatable balls onto the pitch.

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    But as the Mossos d'Esquadra, the Catalan police, attempted to separate the separatists from hardline Barcelona fans known as the Boixos Nois ("Crazy Ones"), tensions boiled over, with protesters throwing glass bottles at police - and officers returning fire and charging those who had broken through a security fence outside the stadium.

    At least one man was arrested for throwing a bottle.

    Democratic Tsunami, the online group behind the protest, called on supporters to gather outside the stadium four hours before kick-off.

    "Hello, world! Tonight Tsunami has a message for you," the group said in a message on social media.

    The group, which is the subject of a judicial investigation after it called demonstrations which closed Barcelona airport and blocked the border between Spain and France, sought to use the world's most-watched league football fixture to call for political talks with Madrid over independence for Catalonia.

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    The match, which has an estimated global audience of 650 million viewers, was postponed from October due to violent protests in the wake of the jailing of nine Catalan politicians over their roles in the staging of an illegal secessionist vote in 2017.

    Security plans

    Around 3,000 police and private security personnel were drafted into Barcelona on Wednesday amid fears of clashes breaking out at the match, where Barcelona and Real Madrid will fight it out for the top spot in La Liga.

    Police, the clubs and the nation's football authorities all drew up elaborate security plans.

    Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates travelled from the same hotel as the Madrid players in unmarked coaches, two hours before kick-off.

    The players had to gather at the hotel at midday, eight hours before the match.

    The Royal Spanish Federation of Football (RFEF) warned any pitch invasion would lead to the match being suspended, but the game was paused for a couple of minutes after protesters threw yellow inflatable balls onto the pitch. 

    'Oppressed by Spain'

    Democratic Tsunami called on supporters to bring their "Sit and Talk" posters into the stadium for a display of solidarity before the first whistle.

    "I am here tonight because, while we have the eyes of the world on Catalonia for this match, we can show them how we are oppressed by Spain," said Jordi Farre, an engineer from Barcelona who took time off work to join the protest.

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    Democratic Tsunami claimed more than 25,000 had signed up to join the protest - but police put the number of demonstrators outside the stadium at around 5,000. About 100,000 spectators were expected to attend the game.

    Security officers removed face masks from fans which depicted Messi supporting independence. The player has never become involved in politics.

    'A festival of football'

    Most fans were just hoping the game would go ahead without a hitch.

    "I have flown in from Britain with my son who has been so looking forward to this," said Derek Small, a businessman from Birmingham, who travelled with his nine-year-old son, Ryan. "Messi is his hero. I hope it all goes smoothly and it is not cancelled again."

    Barcelona called for calm before the game.

    "The game between Barca and Real Madrid is a festival of football and yet it is without doubt also compatible with a civil and peaceful demonstration of opinion, given the exceptional circumstances faced in Catalonia in recent times," the club said in a statement.

    The independence issue has split the 7.5 million population of Catalonia, a wealthy northeastern region which accounts for nearly 20 percent of Spain's gross domestic product.

    FC Barcelona, which styles itself as "more than a club", has always seen itself as a Catalan national institution which has trod a fine line since support for independence rose in recent years.

    The club allows separatists to display banners in the stadium during matches but some believe it stops short of supporting independence as it is conscious this could alienate its millions of fans outside Catalonia. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News