Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Barcelona caught in storm over Catalonia’s independence vote

1 Comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Politics and soccer will merge on Sunday when Barcelona becomes more than just a football club for Catalonia’s separatists.

Barcelona’s home match against Las Palmas falls on the day when the region’s secessionist leaders have vowed to defy authorities and hold a disputed referendum on independence from Spain.

The Spanish government calls the vote illegal and has ordered a crackdown to stop any ballots from being cast, sparking protests in the streets and universities.

The dispute has increased tensions in the proud and prosperous region to fever pitch – and Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium will be no exception.

“It won’t be a normal day, it will be a historic day for the country, but we have to treat the football match like any other,” Barcelona vice president Jordi Cardoner said. “We will carry the Catalan flag’s (red and yellow) colors on the collars of our shirts and in our hearts.”

Europe’s largest stadium at nearly 100,000 seats, Camp Nou has become a rallying point for Catalan nationalists in recent years with the boom in support for a break from Spain that polls show has reached roughly half of the region’s 7.5 million residents.

Spain’s King Felipe VI met with deafening jeers at Camp Nou at the final of the Copa del Rey in 2015, and the chants of “Independence!” that are a fixed feature of every home match are set to be at maximum volume come Sunday.

Given the super-charged atmosphere, the club has called for calm and for the spirit of sport to prevail.

“We are not uncomfortable with the date of the match. It’s an important day for Catalonia and the interests of Barca have to be compatible with the majority of Catalans,” Cardoner said. “I believe that each one of our members and fans can express whatever they want, but we ask them to do it respectfully. We are focusing on the competition. We all want to win the match.”

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique is also giving advice.

“From today until Sunday we will express ourselves pacifically,” Pique tweeted on Thursday. “Don’t give them any excuse (for a crackdown). That’s what they want. And sing loud and clear.”

Pique and the rest of Barcelona’s players have good reason not to get distracted by the whirlwind of politics and police activity. The team is on an eight-game winning run, leads the league, and holds a seven-point advantage over fierce rival Real Madrid in sixth place.

Barcelona’s football club became identified as a bastion of Catalan culture during the repressive years of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939-1975, when the Catalan language, which is spoken alongside Spanish, was banned from schools and public use. Its slogan “More than a club” has come to mean for many its commitment to Catalonia.

In the past four decades Catalonia has gained a large degree of self-governance and boasts one of the strongest economies of the southern European country. Still, many Catalans feel disrespected by the central government in Madrid and complain that they pay more in taxes than they receive back in public spending.

Barcelona’s rivalry with Real Madrid carries political overtones for many, with “Barca” representing Catalonia and Real Madrid standing in for the rest of Spain.

Most of Barcelona’s players avoid talking about politics but former player and coach Pep Guardiola has led pro-independence rallies and is an outspoken proponent of Sunday’s vote.

“This isn’t about independence, it’s about democracy,” Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, said in a video posted on social media by a separatist grassroots group this week.

Barcelona has openly backed a referendum and criticized the robust steps taken by authorities to impede the vote that Spain’s government considers unconstitutional since questions of state should involve all Spaniards, not just those in one region.

Many Catalans are lukewarm supporters at best of Spain’s national team, which would lose several key players, including Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, if Catalonia separated.

Catalonia already has a regional selection that plays the occasional friendly. It got a huge boost when it was coached by Dutch great Johan Cruyff, and it has played top-level national sides including Argentina and Brazil.

Police have decreased the chances of separatists being able to hold a wide-scale vote, which pro-union parties have boycotted on grounds that it is outside the law and lacking in guarantees of transparency.

But Barcelona’s alignment with the separatist cause is in direct conflict with its desire to remain one of the world’s most successful soccer teams.

Not only would Barcelona run the risk of alienating supporters across Spain, the big fear is the potential flight of its top stars, led by Lionel Messi.

Spanish league president Javier Tebas and Spain’s Higher Council of Sport have repeatedly warned that Barcelona and the other football clubs in Catalonia would be out of La Liga if the region seceded.

Tebas recently said that Barcelona would be in a Catalan division that “wouldn’t be much better than the Dutch league.”

Newcastle linked with targets as Benitez begins transfer quest

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Newcastle United’s players have canceled their Christmas party, as manager Rafa Benitez admits he’s working on January gifts for the St. James’ Park set.

The Magpies have one point from their last eight matches, and face Arsenal, West Ham, and Manchester City in the run-up to the New Year, closing off a run of five matches in 16 days with Brighton and Stoke.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City vs. Spurs ]

Benitez says he’s begun talks with managing director Lee Charnley about the January window. The team is expected to make moves whether Mike Ashley completes a reported sale of the team or not. From Sky Sports:

“At this time it is just to talk about ideas,” he said. “You might say ‘I would like to sign this player’ and someone will say ‘£40m’ – maybe it is not realistic.

“The main thing, we had this conversation, then we have to move forward quickly. I don’t know the details but at least we were talking about that. We have to progress and it is so obvious that we have to improve things.”

Newcastle has been linked with a number of notable names a few weeks from the start of the January market, including Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, prolific Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun, as well as Liverpool’s Danny Ings and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw.

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace

Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • Leicester leads all-time 26W-18D-23L
  • Foxes 3W-1D vs. Eagles since Oct. 2015
  • Palace won at Leicester in Feb. 2015

The Claude Puel revolution at Leicester City has the Foxes surging up the Premier League table, and Saturday’s visitors from Crystal Palace are making moves of their own (Watch live Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Leicester has won four-straight matches, the latest a 4-1 beatdown of Southampton at St. Mary’s, and returns to King Power Stadium with a chance to make a dent on the five-point deficit between the Foxes and the Top Four.

 

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

After beginning the season 0-7, Crystal Palace has claimed 14 of 30 points to move from 20th to 18th on the table. Roy Hodgson’s men have two wins and four draws in their last six matches.

What they’re saying

Leicester’s Harry Maguire on the task at hand:

Palace’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek on his high-flying loan spell from Chelsea: “It’s what you aspire to be when you’re younger. Right now it’s a case of trying to improve as much as I can and to keep the performances up. As long as I’m enjoying it I think I’ll do well, so I’m really happy. The experience of playing week in week out and the physical side of things, getting my body used to playing games – sometimes three in a week – has been a massive thing for me, especially when I haven’t played for two years regularly. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to get away from Chelsea, to play regular football, get my body used to it, get more robust and I think once you have that then it’s a platform to play better.”

Prediction

This could be a fun one, with names like Zaha, Townsend, Loftus-Cheek, Vardy, Mahrez, and Gray ready to bless the match with pace and creativity. Goals have come in bunches when Leicester’s on the pitch, and we’ll call it 2-1 to the Foxes.

RBNY’s Grella heads to Columbus (through Colorado)

Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mike Grella didn’t get to pick No. 20 of the MLS Re-Entry Draft, but that didn’t stop Columbus from getting their hands on the New York Red Bulls veteran.

Colorado selected Grella with the third overall pick, then sent him to Columbus for a second round pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.

[ MLS: Ousted “blacklisted” by MLS? ]

The only other pick was made by Minnesota United, who took Tyrone Mears from Atlanta United.

Grella, 30, is a well-traveled Duke product who has played in England and Denmark. He scored 18 times with 13 assists in 89 matches for the Red Bulls, but missed most of the 2017 season with a pair of knee injuries.

It’s a good gamble for the Crew, and an extra draft pick for 2019. Second-round picks have become long odds to make MLS rosters, with Tommy McNamara and Aaron Long the last impact players to come out of the round. That was in 2014, and both needed changes of scenery before hitting their MLS strides.

John Cena makes entertaining Premier League predictions

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

We do not recommend putting any money on John Cena’s Premier League predictions for this weekend.

The actor and WWE star was the guest picker on the BBC site on Friday, and admitted his soccer knowledge doesn’t extend much further than Cristiano Ronaldo and a tour of Tottenham (he has a fondness for Spurs, it seems).

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

But his actual selections are quite amusing. From picking matches based on species to trying to anger his fiancee’s Arsenal supporting brother, Cena brought the goods.

Our favorites:

Why West Ham will win at Stoke: “Who doesn’t love a good ham? It provides you with nourishment, happiness and a sense of community. It is always served at a big family function gathering. I like West Ham. 0-1.”

Why Southampton will win at Chelsea: “From where I am from, in Massachusetts, Southampton is a pretty cool place, so I am going to have to pick them, only because of how it relates to the States.”