Barcelona visit Atletico Madrid in their first trip to the Spanish capital on Saturday since a Catalan independence referendum marred by violence, but coach Ernesto Valverde attempted to quash talk of political tension by insisting it is just “a game of football.”
In their last outing, Barca played behind closed doors as the October 1 referendum, deemed illegal by the Spanish government, took place amid chaotic scenes as police seized ballot papers and clashed with voters leaving 92 injured, among nearly 900 who sought medical attention.
That match was described by Barca captain Andres Iniesta this week as one of the “worst moments” in his career, whilst Gerard Pique, an outspoken defender of Catalonia’s right to self-determination, broke down in tears when addressing reporters after the match.
However, Valverde hopes the biggest game of the La Liga season so far is a chance for fans to escape the political tension sweeping Spain rather than indulging in it. “We are going to kid ourselves. It is a game between two teams who want to fight for La Liga and will be an intimidating atmosphere, but it is a game of football,” Valverde said on Friday.
“Football is for people to enjoy themselves. To support their team, suffer with their team and enjoy it more than anything else.” Only 250 tickets have been made available to away fans at Atletico’s new 68,000 capacity Wanda Metropolitano.
Pique was jeered when playing for Spain in Alicante last week, but he received support for his willingness to speak out from Atletico defender Filipe Luis. “I am a fan of Pique even if at times I don’t agree with what he says,” the Brazilian told El Mundo. “He puts himself out there, he doesn’t hide behind his fame to not say what he thinks. It is admirable and I wish more footballers were like him.”
Despite a series of distractions, including the loss of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and calls for Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign on top of the Catalonia crisis, Barca have started La Liga with a perfect record after seven games. “They have made an enormous effort in the absence of Neymar to continue being a competitive team,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone, whose side are six points behind Barca in fourth.
“They are in the generation of Pique, (Sergio) Busquets, (Lionel) Messi, (Luis) Suarez and what they transmit to the rest allows them to remain competitive. That is what they have shown in their start to the season.” That spectacular form has been thanks to Messi’s 14 goals in 11 appearances for Barca this season.
And the five-time Ballon d’Or winner also rescued Argentina’s floundering World Cup qualifying campaign with a stunning hat-trick against Ecuador on Tuesday to ensure their place in Russia next year.