MADRID – Barcelona visit Atletico Madrid in their first trip to the Spanish capital on Saturday since a Catalan independence referendum marred by violence, but Barca 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.
However, many Atletico fans have taken to social media to encourage supporters not to politicise the match by waving Spanish flags by using the hashtag “our flag is red and white” on Twitter.
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 World Player of the Year 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.
However, Barca are often vulnerable immediately after an international break, with the likes of Messi and Suarez only returning to training in Barcelona on Friday.
“Many of them have come from playing decisive games, and the level of tension accumulated over the break is important,” added Valverde.
“Atletico have also had players away and if it was a less attractive match, it might worry me more.
“We are aware of how difficult it will be, and the magnitude of the game helps to remain concentrated.”
Iniesta is, though, expected to be fit after missing Spain’s final World Cup qualifiers with a hamstring strain.
Fixtures (SA times)
Friday: Espanyol v Levante (9pm).
Saturday: Athletic Bilbao v Sevilla (1pm), Getafe v Real Madrid (4.15pm), Alaves v Real Sociedad (6.30pm), Atletico Madrid v Barcelona (8.45pm).
Sunday: Eibar v Deportivo la Coruna (12pm), Girona v Villarreal (4.15pm), Malaga v Leganes (6.30pm), Real Betis v Valencia (8.45pm).
Monday: Las Palmas v Celta Vigo (9pm).