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Keith Hickey: Catalan independence push adds extra spice to Clasico

While always a hugely important match, Catalonia's fight for independence adds something different to this edition of the Clasico.

There has never been a small Clasico. There is hardly a pair of teams, outside Scotland’s Old Firm, which so utterly dominates domestic soccer the way Barcelona and Real Madrid tower over the Spanish game. Every meeting between the Merengues and the Blaugrana is a hard-fought affair, a bitter and bloody conflict fought and re-fought via a bitter and bloodless proxy (usually, though Pepe sometimes has other ideas).

And while the sporting stakes are high - losing this game would put faltering Madrid 11 points back of rampant Barca - the on-field competition is almost overshadowed by an off-field development. The rhetoric surrounding this game has been escalated beyond even the usual standards of bombastic ridiculousness deployed whenever La Liga’s marquee matchup approaches.

The catalyst for this escalation is political, just as the catalyst for the entire rivalry was. Catalonia, the region of Spain in which the city of Barcelona is the capital and major city, and which often ties its identity up in the success and struggles of the team that bears that city’s name, is in the midst of a surge towards independence.

A recent poll by the Centre d'Estudis d'Opinio (Center for Opinion Studies), which operates under the Presidency of the Generalitat of Catalonia, found that 34 percent of Catalans favored outright independence. Nearly 29 percent wanted Catalonia to enter a further devolved Confederacy with Spain. Just over 30 percent of respondents wanted to maintain the status quo or be further brought into the Spanish nation.

Though the region has long sought increased autonomy within Spain, for the first time in years, spurred by the region’s status as an economic powerhouse in a time of debt-reducing austerity measures, more Catalans support the establishment of a free and independent state than any other option.

Last month, 1.5 million Catalans took to the streets to demand independence, followed by Catalonia’s Parliament voting, by a large majority, to hold a referendum on independence within the next four years. In response, Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaría, vowed that the government would put a stop to any move toward independence.

Joan Laporta, the former FC Barcelona club president who oversaw a renaissance at the club, bringing in Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard and signing Ronaldinho, is now a member of the Catalan Parliament, the head of his own Democracia Catalana, one of the many pro-Independence parties which dominate the local political scene.

"It's obvious that Catalan people want independence. You just have to see how many people went out on the streets," he told Goal.com in an exclusive interview. "It was a message to the politicians and they should act as soon as possible, considering dependency on the Spanish government is impoverishing Catalonia in both social and economic terms.

"Independence is our right, and it shouldn't need to be asked for - it should be directly done the democratic way."

Others see it differently.

“Catalan independence? Over my dead body and that of many soldiers.”

What sounds like a statement from a supporter of the old Franco regime, which for years sought to stamp out Catalan identity by banning the Catalan language and flag and forcing Barcelona to change its name, was uttered just last week by Francisco Aleman, a Spanish army colonel.

Calling the Catalan separatists “vultures,” he continued, “Spain is not Yugoslavia or Belgium. Even if the lion is sleeping, don’t provoke the lion, because he will show the ferocity proven over centuries."

The quote illustrates the significant opposition to Catalan independence, born from years of strife, and further highlights the divide between Madrid and Barcelona.

In 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a Barcelona squad which had already lost members to the guns of Franco’s nationalists, went on tour in the United States and was received as ambassadors of the Spanish Republican cause.

Now, with Franco dead, Barcelona is a symbol of Catalonia, of democracy, of liberalism and regional autonomy; it is opposed to the traditionalism of the military and nationalism and the monarchy, whose patronage and support of the “Royal” Madrid side is an obvious parallel for many.

Laporta, like many Catalans, conflates Barcelona’s success with Catalonia’s independence.

"Of course [we can win]," he said. "I hope we can get the victory in the Clasico. We have a better team than Real Madrid and, besides, it comes at an historic moment for Catalonia.”

It’s this outlook which promotes Barcelona’s claim of being “mes que un club” - more than a club. It’s why the Clasico will always be more than a game, and it’s why this particular meeting will be more than a Clasico.

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