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Catalonia beats Venezuela 2-1 in friendly in Spain

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GIRONA, Spain (AP) Venezuela followed its win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina by losing to Catalonia 2-1 in a friendly on Monday.

Javi Puado scored in the 88th minute to give the hosts the win at Girona’s Montilivi Stadium. Bojan Krkic opened the scoring in the 53rd and Venezuela equalized through Roberto Rosales in the 59th.

Catalonia was led by Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who retired from Spain’s national team after the World Cup last year. He nearly scored with a curling free kick that struck the crossbar in the first half.

Venezuela earned a convincing 3-1 win over Argentina in Madrid on Friday, but after the game Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel offered his resignation because he was not happy with the politicization of a pre-game visit to the squad.

Dudamel, who was on the bench on Monday, said his future would depend on talks with Venezuelan soccer federation officials.

Catalonia, the region which recently was in the middle of a heated independence dispute with Spain, was missing players because some non-Catalan teams didn’t release them to avoid the risk of injures ahead of the final period of the Spanish league.

Catalonia has often put together squads to play in friendly matches against other nations, but clubs are not obligated to release players to the region.

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The world’s most political game? Venezuela v. Catalonia

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MADRID (AP) There will be lots of politics to talk about when Venezuela takes on a Catalonia squad in a friendly soccer game in Spain on Monday.

Venezuela has a coach who offered his resignation over the alleged political use of his national team, while Catalonia — the region in the middle of an independence dispute with — will be missing players because some non-Catalan teams didn’t release them.

Venezuela is coming off a convincing 3-1 win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Friday, but what attracted most of the attention after the friendly was an announcement by Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel. He offered his resignation because he was not happy with the politicization of a pre-game visit by a representative of Juan Guaido, the man challenging Nicolas Maduro’s claim to the presidency in Venezuela.

Dudamel and the rest of the squad had welcomed the visit but the coach apparently did not like that images were later released to the public.

“Regrettably, they politicized the visit,” Dudamel said. “The agreement was that if there was any image or video, it would have been used internally only. But they politicized the visit, and we can’t allow that to happen. It was regrettable how they used it.”

Venezuela is in the middle of a power struggle since Maduro’s re-election last year was deemed illegitimate by several governments.

Dudamel said he will remain in charge of the squad on Monday, but his future will depend on talks with Venezuelan soccer federation officials in the coming days.

Catalonia has also undergone political turmoil, peaking recently in 2017 with an independence referendum not recognized by Madrid. The issue divided Spain at the time and remains a hot topic politically.

Although the region is not independent, Catalonia has often put together squads to play in friendly matches against other nations.

Among the Catalan players expected to play on Monday are veterans Gerard Pique and Xavi Hernandez. Both have retired from the Spanish national team and are off-duty with their clubs because of the international break.

Hernandez, a 39-year-old midfielder, currently plays in Qatar. The 32-year-old Pique, still a starter with Barcelona, decided to stop playing with Spain’s national team after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

But other players initially selected for the squad were not released by their clubs, who said their decisions were not related to politics.

Valladolid, which is fighting relegation from the top tier of the Spanish league, was the first team to keep its players from taking part in Monday’s match, and Rayo Vallecano and Huesca — also threatened by relegation — later followed suit.

“We understand the reasons why these clubs are not going to let their players play,” Catalonia coach Gerard Lopez said.

The match will be played in Girona, a Catalan city about 60 miles from Barcelona.

Report: Guardiola to accept FA yellow ribbon charge

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Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has reportedly accepted his Football Association charge for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of his home state of Catalonia’s fight for independence.

Some Catalan believers have been imprisoned for protesting Spain’s refusal to hold a Catalan independence vote, and the yellow ribbon is viewed as solidarity with the prisoners.

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Guardiola previously said he will continue to wear the ribbon regardless of the FA — “They can suspend me for doing that but the other people are in jail” —  and the report says he’s been wearing it under his coat but did not in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Chelsea.

As for the change of heart, Sky Sports says Man City’s “position is that by accepting the charge, Guardiola is not apologising for wearing the ribbon, but instead observing the rules of the FA.”

Like UEFA’s problem with the poppy for Remembrance Day, this one just seems so odd.

Barcelona’s Valverde says players not distracted by crisis

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PIRAEUS, Greece (AP) Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde insists his players have not been distracted by the events taking place in Catalonia.

Speaking ahead of the team’s Champions League match against Olympiakos, Valverde says, “We can see what’s happening but we are concentrated on our own task. That’s to win matches and make the fans happy.”

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Lawmakers in Catalonia’s parliament declared independence from Spain last week following a disputed referendum that triggered a constitutional crisis. Some Barcelona fans have been vocal in their support for independence during matches.

Barcelona is playing the Greek champion at Karaiskakis Stadium on Tuesday. Valverde received an emotional welcome from fans of his former team. He says it will be a “special game” for him.

Madrid keeps focus on soccer as it heads to Catalonia

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid is trying to keep the focus on soccer as it travels to Catalonia to play a Spanish league match this weekend.

Madrid faces Catalan club Girona on Sunday amid heightened tensions in the northeastern region, which is seeking independence from Spain.

The political crisis could reach its climax this weekend as the Spanish government is planning to take control of the autonomous region, while Catalan officials are threatening to unilaterally declare independence.

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It will be Madrid’s first trip to Catalonia since the crisis escalated.

Madrid, seen as the club of the Spanish establishment, has reportedly taken precautions ahead of its trip, including not using its official team bus, but it has tried hard to distance itself from the political turmoil.

“We’ll play our game without thinking about anything else,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “I’m not going to ask the fans for anything. We’re thinking about the game. We hope it’s a good match and nothing more than that.”

He said players are not concerned about their safety during the trip to Girona, a city filled with pro-independence sentiment just north of Barcelona.

“We’re not worried about Catalonia because security will be as it always is,” Zidane said.

Reports in Spain said there was a possibility that the game could be called off because of the situation in Catalonia, but the club was not yet making and drastic changes to its travel plans.

“It’s a soccer match and we are convinced that nothing is going to happen,” Girona president Delfi Geli told local radio stadium COPE. “Real Madrid will be welcomed and respected. It’s a historic match for us. It’s the first time that Real Madrid will be playing in our stadium in the league.”

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A referendum organized by Catalan officials on Oct. 1 turned violent as Spanish authorities tried to halt it because the central government called it unconstitutional.

There have been large public demonstrations since then, but most were peaceful.

Madrid faced Catalan club Espanyol in Madrid on the day of the referendum, when the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium was packed with fans carrying Spanish flags and showing their support of a unified country.

Madrid rival Barcelona has been deeply involved in the Catalonia issue. It has publicly defended the region’s right to choose, but it did not openly advocate independence. A unilateral declaration of independence would create problems for the club because it wants to keep playing in the Spanish league.

Barcelona played its league match against Las Palmas without fans at the Camp Nou to protest against the Spanish government’s actions during the referendum. Pro-independence flags and chants have always been present at Camp Nou, and they have intensified in recent weeks.

There were no problems when Barcelona traveled to the Spanish capital to face Atletico Madrid a few weeks ago, although the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium was also filled with Spanish flags.

Barcelona leads the Spanish league with 25 points from nine matches, four points more than second-place Valencia. Defending champion Madrid is five points off the lead, and Atletico Madrid is further point behind. Girona, playing in the first division for the first time, is in 15th place with nine points.

Barcelona plays at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.

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