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Joanne O’Riordan: Spain’s violence just fanned Catalan fire

Silence of an empty Camp Nou as Barcelona played a poignant sign of disturbing crisis

Barcelona taking on Las Palmas in front of a deserted Camp Nou. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters

When I agree with a protest or cause, I would generally smile whenever I see peaceful protests in its name. When that cause is under attack, your instinct is to want to defend it.

In 2014, I was granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Of course, it was cool to have your activist work acknowledged by a president. On any given day, this is enough to bring a smile to your face.

But before I met with our president on my 18th birthday, my parents brought me to Barcelona and organised a stay in the hotel beside the Camp Nou. Our window faced the extraordinary stadium, and I was over the moon when we secured our tickets to go see Barcelona play.

When I arrived in the Catalan capital, the hospitality and sheer joy we were greeted with was enough to already make you wish you could stay there forever. From the concierge, bell boy to hotel receptionist everyone greeted me with a smile.

The concierge and I particularly got on, regularly talking football and politics, specifically Catalan independence, how much he admired Ireland for its historical revolutions.

He reminded me of the time Catalunya declared days of mourning after hunger striker Terence MacSwiney died after his arrest. He went into great detail on how he was inspired by 1916 and the events thereafter. Eventually, he asked me what my 18th birthday wish was.

“I’d love to see the team, but honestly, I’m grateful just to be here,” I said.

“I’ll see what I can do”, he replied with a wink.

That Saturday, my mother was pulled aside by a hotel worker and arrangements were made while I was completely oblivious to what was going on. The following afternoon, before the game against Athletic Bilbao, the concierge and other workers greeted me with that familiar smile, but this time it was different. Eventually, the hotel worker pulled me over.

“Joanne, are you ready for your surprise?”

The concierge in that hotel had friends in high places I learned afterwards, and he made my dream come true.

During the violence that occurred on the streets of a city I hold dear, I thought of that concierge over in Barcelona. He loved his team and his region and spoke with great pride when detailing how Catalunya pays 20 per cent of overall tax and how some day his dream will come true.

Tough decision

Independence at that time was a long way off. An uphill struggle they told me in Barcelona back in 2014 as activists hijacked the notion and used it for political gain. The money that was given to the Catalan region for health, education, and welfare was now used to fund this referendum or costly survey . . . depending on how you see it.

Chances are they would have voted no if the brutal assault by the Rajoy government had not taken place. My brother described the whole situation as chicken and egg scenario, but for the people in Catalunya, it was so much more.

To the average Barcelona fan, it was so much more. And when the national police came storming in, the people turned to their respective clubs, as if it was a disguised God that should guide people on the right path.

It was at that moment FC Barcelona faced a tough decision before a Las Palmas side, who weirdly seem to only play Barcelona on historic occasions. So, while elderly women were being thrown down stairs and voters getting hit with batons, Barcelona walked out to the famous Cant del Barca. The song invites fans to yell Barca, Barca, Barca while also stating one flag unites us as brothers.

This time, no singing fans were greeting them, just silence and 98,000 empty seats. The flag that united them all was now being used to destroy them while democracy was being eradicated completely.

Gerard Pique, a vocal opponent of the PP-led government, described the experience as strange and bizarre. He also called out Spanish prime minister Rajoy and said he was proud of the Catalan reaction to the violence. But to Mariano Rajoy, Spain was an example. Example of what, I’m not too sure. Police brutality, maybe. Democracy, probably not.

In the end, the Catalans, who love telling you about how referees are bribed to not give Barcelona penalties, can now add a new conspiracy theory to their list. But, this time it’s more than a conspiracy.

The whole world watched in horror as the batons were being swung, heads were cracked open and for what? To cancel a referendum that was already null and void or to allow the PP to puff its chest out. The only thing they have enlarged is the Catalan fire. The independence rallies have already been given a new lease of life but time will tell how this will all pan out.

At the end of the game, players shook hands but never swapped shirts, and the three points which were used as a threat by the LFP if Barcelona cancelled were now safe and secure, as well as a proposed further three-point dedution. But nothing is now safe or secure. Nothing has come to an end. In fact, this whole thing has only just begun.