Police gird for separatist protest at Barcelona soccer match

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Thousands of police and private security personnel were deployed Wednesday in and around Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium to ensure that a protest over Catalonia’s separatist movement does not disrupt one of the world’s most-watched soccer matches.

Spanish league leader Barcelona hosts its fierce rival, No. 2 Real Madrid, and the separatists want to take advantage of the global media coverage to promote their bid for independence from Spain.

The game, known as El Clásico, was postponed from Oct. 26 because of fears that the separatists – then in the midst of a week of violent protests – would try to disrupt it.

Barcelona is the regional capital of the wealthy northeast region of Catalonia. Spain opposes any breakup of the country.

Protest organizers say that over 25,000 people have signed up to gather around the stadium and will try to get inside. Nearly 100,000 fans are expected to attend the match in what is Europe’s biggest stadium, and more than 3,000 police and security guards were on hand.

Hours before the kickoff at 1900 GMT (2 p.m. EST), police set up metal barriers around the stadium. A special police detail was to make sure the buses carrying the teams and match officials could arrive on time.

Dozens of protesters, some waving Catalan pro-independence flags, began gathering at the Camp Nou about four hours before the game.

The U.S. Consulate in Barcelona issued an alert about the demonstration and advised people to avoid the area or exercise caution if are nearby.

“These demonstrations present the potential for violence between radical groups for and against the Catalan independence movement,” the alert read. “Demonstrations this autumn led to clashes between law enforcement, protesters, and counterprotesters.”

Organizers have not said what form the protest will take, and police said they can’t rule out an attempt by demonstrators to interrupt the match.

“The important thing is that we play the game,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said Tuesday.

The Barcelona team asked its fans to behave with civility and for the match not to be affected.

A shadowy online group called Tsunami Democratic, which is behind the protest, posted a message on social media saying: “Hello, world! Tonight Tsunami has a message for you.”

Separatist sentiment grew sharply in Catalonia during the global economic recession that hit Spain hard. The 7.5 million residents of Catalonia are roughly equally split by the secession question, according to polls and election results.

Separatists have used the Camp Nou stadium as a platform for several years. They shout “Independence!” at a set time during matches and sometimes unfurl banners.

The Barcelona team has walked a fine line between supporting its fans’ right to free expression and aligning itself with the greater interests of Catalonia. Many feel it does not fully support secession so as not to anger its Catalan fans who are not separatists or its millions of supporters across Spain.

Tsunami Democratic carried out its first major action in October when it organized a large protest after several of the secession movement’s leaders were sentenced to jail for their role in a failed secession bid in 2017.

A call by Tsunami Democratic led to thousands of angry protesters gathering at Barcelona’s airpor t. A massive street fight broke out between the most radical protesters and police inside and outside the terminal, and about 150 flights were canceled as ground transport was halted for hours. Protests by separatists left more than 500 people injured, half of them police.

A bus carrying the Barcelona players leaves the Camp Nou stadium, ahead of a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Thousands of Catalan separatists are planning to protest around and inside Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium during Wednesday’s match against fierce rival Real Madrid. (AP Photo/Joan Mateu)
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