Written on the stands of the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, and sometimes sewn into the jerseys the players wear on the field, is the Catalonian phrase “Més que un club.”
It means “more than a club,” as the famous soccer team has been synonymous with the region of Catalonia and those who live there nearly as long as the 117 years it has existed in some form. The regional flag is in the club’s crest. Homegrown heroes have draped themselves in the flag after winning tournaments, and in years past, FC Barcelona itself has worn the colors of the flag on the field.
The team has become a symbol for the region, with many Catalonians donning a blue-and-red jersey as they march each year in the region’s day of celebration on Sept. 11.
At 17 minutes and 14 seconds into each match (an allusion to the year Catalonia joined Spain), chants of “independence” will ring out at Barcelona home games. During the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the club’s position was solidified: “Their motto, ‘More than a club,’ points to the team’s history as a symbol of pride for Catalans at a time when celebrating their region’s history and culture meant risking punishment,” Deutsche Welle reported in 2015.
On Sunday, the region attempted to hold a referendum on whether it should split from Spain and become an independent nation. The vote was deemed illegal by Spain’s constitutional court, and police forces were sent in to stop people from voting and take ballot boxes away from those who did. Clashes with police turned violent.
FC Barcelona was scheduled to play a league match against Las Palmas today. Instead of canceling the match, the club decided played the game behind closed doors. The match was played out in an echo-filled, empty stadium, filled with only the players on the field, the substitutes, team employees, and a few members of the press. With no one in the stands, it was easy to spot the club’s motto emblazoned on the seats.
“This was a measure to show our rejection of what took place today,” Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu told BeIn Sports, Reuters reported. “This is not a security issue, the police gave us permission to play, but we wanted to show that this game was different because of everything that is happening in Catalonia and the lack of liberty we have been suffering from.”
During the Franco years, fans cheered on their region, when they were ordered not to. Today, the club plays on alone as its fans face violence outside the stadium.
Bartomeu added that the club wanted to postpone the game, but the Spanish soccer league refused to let the club to do so and would dock it points if it did, the BBC reported. So the club played in private instead. “That way we show our concern for the situation and send our support to those who have been unable to exercise the right to freedom of expression.”
But even still: with Barcelona already pulling away at the top of the Spanish soccer league, perhaps a better sign of solidarity with the voters outside would’ve been to cancel the match altogether, rather than play for the TV audience.
The club’s vice president, Carles Vilarrubí resigned over the decision to play today’s game behind closed doors, Bleacher Report reported.
This post has been updated.