When it came down to it, FC Barcelona – mes que un club, remember – could not bring themselves to go all in. The threatened loss of six points – three for the defaulted match, three more as a penalty – was enough to persuade them to stage their match against Las Palmas behind locked doors in a deserted Camp Nou, while outside the streets of the city rang with the echoes of violent confrontations between police and voters in an independence referendum ruled illegal by the national government.
The club’s decision was an important one. Barça is a powerful international symbol of Catalan identity. A refusal to play Sunday’s match would have added tinder to the fire of the independence movement. But they compete in a league where their final standing against Real Madrid has been measured in the last three seasons by two points, one point and three points. So they took the safer option, leaving Gerard Piqué who has never made a secret of his Catalan pride, to join up with the Spain squad and face uncomfortable questions about divided loyalties.
Meanwhile, fans who had voted for independence pointed to the example of Welsh clubs competing in the English league as evidence that independence from Spain would not have to mean ejection from La Liga. Few would want an entirely autonomous Catalonia to incorporate a future of Barça competing in a domestic mini-league made up by FC Girona, Gimnàstic de Tarragona and Lleida Esportiu.
Keep politics out of sport? Don’t make me laugh. Politics infiltrates sport at all levels. Think about the decision to start next year’s Giro d’Italia in Israel. For one partner in the deal, that’s obviously a matter of money – €17m, apparently. For the other, it represents valuable image-polishing. This is not quite the same as launching the Tour de France in Yorkshire, which was not, the last time I looked, surrounded by walls aimed at keeping out people from Lancashire or County Durham. Or there’s Qatar, whose appalling treatment of migrant workers on the 2022 World Cup stadiums was exposed – not for the first time – by Human Rights Watch this week. Do we really think the Qataris are investing so heavily in football, at home and abroad, out of a sheer love of the game?
The coming days might tell us whether FC Barcelona has a further role to play in the dramatic reawakening of old regional tensions and whether the events of Sunday will join the line of football matches that played a part in shaping history, a phenomenon that could be said to have begun in 1969 with a conflict between El Salvador and Honduras that became known as the Football War.
Tensions between the two countries had been heightened by the migration to Honduras of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, leaving a country one-fifth the size of its neighbour but with a population 40% greater, prompting the Honduran government to enact reforms intended to keep land out of the hands of immigrant farmers while expelling Salvadoran labourers. The fuse for open conflict was lit when the two countries met in the qualifying tournament for the 1970 World Cup.
The first match was held in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, where the visiting players were kept awake by crowds letting off firecrackers and breaking windows in their hotel. The home team won by a single goal, prompting an 18-year-old girl watching at home in El Salvador to take her father’s pistol from his desk and shoot herself dead. Amelia Bolianos was given a state funeral, her coffin accompanied by the president of the republic and the players of the football team.
When Honduras arrived in San Salvador for the return leg a week later, the welcome included rotten eggs and dead rats thrown through their hotel windows. They made their way to the Flor Blanca stadium in armoured cars, passing through angry crowds holding portraits of the dead girl. El Salvador won this one 3-0, which meant that the tie progressed to a play-off on neutral ground in Mexico City. El Salvador won 3-2 with an extra-time goal from their right-winger, “Pipo” Rodríguez, a qualified civil engineer, a few hours after their government had dissolved diplomatic relationships with Honduras in protest against further mass expulsions.
Two weeks later the Salvadoran army and air force launched an invasion which drew a swift response. The war lasted 100 hours and killed 3,000 people, the majority of them civilians, before both sides obeyed a ceasefire call from the Organisaton of American States. Three months later El Salvador beat Haiti in a play-off to reach the 1970 finals in Mexico, where they lost all three of their group matches.
Twenty years later Red Star Belgrade travelled to meet Dinamo Zagreb in a Yugoslavian league fixture in the midst of rising fervour among Serb and Croat nationalists. Rioting between the home fans and 3,000 visiting supporters continued during the match itself and the game was on the verge of being abandoned, with several players having made it to the safety of the dressing rooms, when Zvonimir Boban, the Dinamo playmaker, kicked a police officer. Although criminal charges were brought and a suspension cost Boban his place in Yugoslavia’s team at the 1990 World Cup finals, his gesture made him a folk hero to his fellow Croats during the bloody war that raged from 1991 to 1995, by which time he was starring for Milan and sending part of his salary back home to help the fight against Serbia.
Back in Mexico City, the black-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 and the raised hand of Diego Maradona in 1986 were political statements, the first an explicit protest against racial injustice in the United States and the second an implicit response to England’s victory in the Falklands War. Two years ago the flag of a notional “Greater Albania” was flown from a drone into the Belgrade stadium where Serbia and Albania were playing in a Euro 2016 qualifying match, provoking fights among players and fans that led to the match being abandoned.
Like those examples, last weekend’s Barcelona affair and Donald Trump’s continuing assault on the take-a-knee movement in the NFL show that sport cannot seal itself off from the stresses and strains of the real world. From the anti-apartheid boycotts of the 1960s to the demonstrations against holding a grand prix in Bahrain, it offers a useful theatre for protest. And those who complain about the temporary inconvenience are seldom on the side of the angels.