By Alyssa McMurtry
MADRID (AA) - Spain’s ban on flying Catalonia’s separatist flag in a Madrid stadium during the high-profile King’s Cup football final on Sunday has sparked heated debate in a country facing a strong Catalan push for independence.
The Spanish government has argued that the football match between Barcelona and Sevilla should not be “a stage for political confrontation” and cited security reasons for the ban on the Estelada flag.
Wednesday's decision came when the acting government’s delegate in Madrid also announced “exhaustive” security to search for prohibited items in the “high-risk” match in the home stadium of Atletico Madrid including the yellow-and-red striped flag, topped by a white star in a blue triangle, an emblem that is usually permitted in football matches.
The decision is based on a sports law which bans objects which “incite violence or terrorism or which include messages of a racist, xenophobic or intolerant character”.
However, while intending to take politics out of sport, the ban has stirred the political pot and faces fierce opposition from Catalonia.
Barcelona, which says it is politically neutral, struck back in a statement that expressed its “total and complete disagreement” with the ban, calling for “common sense” and a reversal of the decision to avoid “uncomfortable situations”.
“FC Barcelona considers the decision to be an attack on the freedom of expression, the fundamental right of each and every individual,” read an official statement.
Spain’s acting foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo from the conservative Popular Party, has also gotten involved. At a news conference in Brussels on Thursday he told reporters that he is in favor of the ban:
“It seems perfect to me. We all have to respect the law and the constitutional symbols are what they are… the Estelada is out of the constitutional order.”
Senior Catalan politicians are challenging that notion, by joining Barcelona in their outcry against the ban.
The leftist mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and Carles Puigdemont, the separatist leader of the region, have both announced they will boycott the match unless the ban is lifted.
“I think it’s outrageous that a flag that is completely legal, that so many people have carried in their hands in different movements, all civic and pacific, is being banned for the idea that it incites violence,” said Neus Munte, spokeswoman for the regional government told Catalan radio on Thursday.
Munte also pointed out that Madrid has permitted a rally by extreme right-wing group Hogar Social [Social Home] on Saturday.
This is not the first time politics and sports have collided at the final of the King’s Cup match -- where it is customary for the monarch to attend. In last year’s final between Bilbao and Barcelona (both from separatist regions of Spain) fans drowned out the national anthem with whistles and booed the king.
Both teams received fines and the jeering fans also briefly faced charges, which were later dropped.
Neither is this the first time Barcelona has been in trouble for the Estelada flag. Last year the team received a fine of 40,000 euros ($45,000), according to media reports, after fans flew the flag during a Champions League match; the display was considered political by UEFA.