Barcelona game played without fans amid Catalonia vote

Barcelona's Sergio Busquets, center, celebrates his goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Barcelona's Spanish league game against Las Palmas is played without fans amid the controversial referendum on Catalonia's independence. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona joined the protests against the Spanish government’s attempt to halt Catalonia’s independence vote on Sunday by preventing fans from entering Camp Nou Stadium for its Spanish league game against Las Palmas.

The club made the decision to play behind closed doors after its request to postpone the game was denied by the Spanish league. Barcelona said playing in an empty stadium was a way to show its discontent with the incidents in Catalonia.

Barcelona won the match 3-0 with two goals by Lionel Messi and one by Sergio Busquets.

“We tried to suspend the game all day long but it wasn’t possible,” Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu said. “We could lose points if we didn’t play, so we decided to play behind closed doors as a way to show the entire world that we were not pleased with what happened (in Catalonia).”

By day’s end, Catalonia’s health services said 844 people had been treated in hospitals for injuries, including two in serious condition, as Spanish authorities tried to stop the independence vote that the central government said was unconstitutional. Thirty-three police were also injured.

Barcelona had openly backed the referendum and criticized the Spanish government for trying to impede the vote.

“Today was my worst experience as a professional,” said Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who couldn’t hold back tears as he talked about the incidents in Catalonia. “It was a tough day. I am and I feel Catalan, and I’ve never felt prouder of the people of Catalonia.”

Pique, one of the most outspoken players defending the referendum, had called Sunday’s incidents “shameful.”

“It was very strange,” Busquets said. “This game was marked by all that happened today (in Catalonia).”

Las Palmas added a Spanish flag to the shirts that the players wore against Barcelona to show its support for a unified Spain.

In Madrid, Real Madrid fans were handed cards with the Spanish flag colors and displayed them before the team’s match against Espanyol, another Catalan club. There were very few Espanyol fans at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, but they displayed at least one flag with the red and yellow colors of Catalonia.

Bartomeu said police had guaranteed the safety of fans and everyone else involved in the match at the Camp Nou, and the club could have allowed them in if it wanted.

“FC Barcelona condemns the events which have taken place in many parts of Catalonia today in order to prevent its citizens exercising their democratic right to free expression,” the club said in a statement. “Given the exceptional nature of events, the Board of Directors have decided that the FC Barcelona first team game against Las Palmas will be played behind closed doors following the Professional Football League’s refusal to postpone the game.”

Barcelona made the closed-doors announcement with less than a half hour to kickoff, with thousands of supporters already waiting outside the stadium.

“We were aware of what happened here today, we don’t live in an igloo,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “It was very difficult, a strange situation for everyone.”

The Spanish league said it was in contact with local authorities and there was no reason to postpone the game because of safety reasons.

Barcelona’s Camp Nou, Europe’s largest stadium with a capacity of nearly 100,000, is often used as a rallying point for Catalan nationalists.

Spanish media said that Barcelona vice president Carles Vilarrubi resigned after the club decided to play the game under these conditions.

Las Palmas said that the match had become more than a sporting event, especially because of the recent statements by Barcelona expressing its support for the referendum.

The Canary Islands club said the club did not want to limit itself to being a “quiet witness at an historic crossroads.” It said that by wearing the flag it was showing its unequivocal support for a “united Spain.”

Las Palmas said that even though it is based far from the mainland, it “never felt the slightest temptation to become another country.”

“We are doing this to show the world that we are hurt by what is happening,” the club said in its statement.

The Catalan soccer federation canceled all local games organized by the federation, most of them involving youth squads and lower divisions.

The Spanish league said late Sunday that the second-division game between Gimnastic and Barcelona’s “B” team was suspended because of lack of security at Gimnastic’s stadium in Catalonia.