Those who are somewhat aware of Spanish politics know that the country is made up out of several autonomous regions. Catalunya, Basque Country, Galicia, Valencia, Asturias, Andalucia, … to name just a few. Some of those regions strive for more autonomy or even total independency, a debate that often leads to a lot of argueing. For now, while still part of Spain, some of the autonomous regions have theiw own football selection, or "national team". While the teams of Basque Country, Valencian Community etc only play now and then, mainly the Catalan selection is quite active. It has become a tradition for the Catalan selection to play 1 or 2 games every year, usually during the New Years period (when the Spanish Liga is having a very short break) or right after the conclusion of the Spanish league season. Catalan players, even stars like Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué and Cesc Fabregas, tend to take these games quite seriously as it is a way to express their Catalan sentiments. Hence the Catalan team tends to be amongst the strongest non-FIFA teams in the world, having regularly beaten FIFA-sanctioned national teams. The USA and last year even Argentina (4-2 victory against Messi and co) fell victim to the strong Catalan selection. The coach of the Catalan team is no one less than living football legend Johan Cruyff, the Dutch former star of FC Barcelona and still residing in the Catalan capital.
With a 1 week winter break in La Liga and thus the players of Barcelona and Espanyol (the main two sources for the Catalan team) available, it was the excellent opportunity to host another game. A few exceptions aside, the Catalan football association usually chooses Latin American national teams as opponents. The reason is simple: there is a huge immigrant community in Barcelona and surrounding towns and a lot of those immigrants come from South America and Central America. The Brazilian, Argentinian, Mexican, Bolivian, etc communities in Catalunya are large. Hondurese immigrants are plentyful as well, so hosting a game against Honduras was a logical choice: the ticket sales would go smoothly with guarantee, the opponent team would also have some fans in the stadium, and Honduras (even when they did not leave a great impression in South Africa) was a World Cup participant after all. Ironically, Honduras was in the group of Spain and was beaten 2-0. For those Catalan players that were part of the Spanish selection, Honduras for sure was not an unknown opponent.
Unlike the game versus Argentina last year, which was at Camp Nou, the Olympic Stadium Lluís Companys was the scene for the encounter with Honduras. This stadium is on top of the Montjuic mountain which looks over the Mediterranean Sea and the cityscape. Until the season 2009-2010, Espanyol Barcelona used to play its home games here. The stadium is quite nice and, even when it is modern, it is not a very common one. Along the sidelines on both sides are all-seater stands in two floors, but despite the fact that they are all-seater, a part of these stands still have crash barriers. Behind both goals were uncovered seats, on one side very nicely decorated with a sort of arc and two statutes (one on each side). Very classy. Those two stands behind the goals were however unused today since they are a bit far off the pitch because of the athletics track. Nonetheless, I liked this stadium. Pity no team uses it today, it is now mainly used for athletics competitions and concerts.
The crowd was very decent. The scoreboard indicated approx 28500 fans but apparently there were over 30000 in total. It was not a sold out but there were not too many empty seats neither in the stands opened for the crowd. One part of the stadium, quite close to my seat, was reserved for the Honduras fans who were all dressed in blue and white and waving Hondurese flags. There must have been at least 1000 or 1500 fans of them, because I spotted blue and white shirts and Hondurese flags as well between the Catalunya fans. Most noticeable were of course the countless Catalan flags, most of them the separatist ones with a triangle and star on the left (as opposed to the "official ones" with only yellow and red horizontal stripes without the triangle and star on the left). In terms of crowd it was clear from the start that this was not a common game, but a game with a very political undertone. The number of football songs sung was very small, but the number of times the approx 30000 Catalan fans singing "Independencia" in large numbers were countless. Mexican waves with Catalan flags rising high while singing songs pro-independency made the crowd look very political. I generally don’t like it when politics and sports interfere with each other, but this time I wasn’t bothered by it because I expected it like that. And when a 10 euro ticket gives the opportunity to add the Olympic Stadium to my list of visited grounds, see stars like Puyol and Sergio Busquets in action, and add my first non-FIFA international game to the list … then the benefits were simply too large to let the political undertone stop me from going to the stadium.
A sidenote on the crowd: there were a lot of Hondurese fans amongst the Catalan fans, and on the streets of the Montjuic fans of both teams were not separated from each other. The atmosphere was very friendly, and that’s how I like it. It still is a mystery to me why there were quite a lot of policemen on the athletics track between the stands and the pitch, because the atmosphere was very friendly and tensions were inexisting.
With Piqué and a few other Barcelona regulars unavailable and Cesc Fabregas not released, the home team counted mainly Espanyol players in the ranks (Sergio Garcia, Javi Márquez, Verdú, Coro, …) with 4 Barcelona regulars (Victor Valdés, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets and Bojan Krkic) and a very few from other teams (eg Damià, playing for Osasuna but a native Catalan). Honduras played with more and less their best line up apart from a few players missing, but World Cup participants such as the player with the epic name Welcome were in the starting line-up.
Catalunya played in black outfits with the red-yellow Catalan colours on the right side of the chest. A different outfit from their last game, and a reason for the fans to all grab their euro’s and buy the new merchandise.
Honduras immediately chose to attack and after just a few minutes Valdés already had to save twice from a Hondurese player that slipped through the defense and came face to face with Valdés. The Barça goalie saves twice and kept Honduras from taking an early lead.
After that however, Catalunya took over the command. The first big chance was for Espanyol player Sergio Garcia who shot on goal from close range but also from a sharp corner. Goalkeeper Ricardo Canales saved the ball in corner. After that Catalunya used a lot of high crosses and long balls but none of them proved any problem to goalkeeper Canales. A few shots missed the goal and Bojan tried numerous times to force an opening in the Hondurese defense, but every dribble ended with an interception of a Hondurese defender or he did not find the right position to shoot on goal. Still, it was Bojan who was capital in producing the opening goal about 10 minutes before half-time: a high cross from the right by Bojan went over the goalkeeper and defenders and at the far post, Coro headed the ball in the empty goal from close range. 1-0 to Catalunya!
That same Coro came very close to 2-0 when al almost identical cross reached him, again in front of an open goal at the far post. This time however he somehow managed to shoot the ball over the empty goal. A huge miss, Honduras escaped from a 2-0 here.
Meanwhile the Mexican waves and sea of Catalan flags on the stands continued, and the shouting of "Independencia!" was omnipresent. The Hondurese fans also were quite vocally present which gave the game a very nice, however somewhat special, atmosphere.
Honduras tried to level shortly before the break but a rather weak shot was saved by Victor Valdés in two times. 1-0 at half time.
In the beginning of the second half the Hondurese again tried to attack and seemed to be offensively slightly more powerful than in the first half. However, it did not lead to any chances. On a corner easily grabbed by the Catalan goalie, Catalunya started a very quick counter-attack. Again Bojan gave the assist as his pass put Sergio Garcia face-to-face with the goalkeeper. He lifted the ball very nicely over Canales, and the 2-0 was a fact.
With the 2-0 on the scoreboard, Cruyff started to replace all star players one by one. Victor Valdés was first, his replacement being Kiko Casilla (without -s !) who plays in the second division of Spain. Later on Puyol was replaced apparently with a small injury, and several of the Espanyol players would be replaced as well, which gave opportunity to some less famous players to wear the Catalan shirt. From the Barcelona B team playing in the second division, Fontàs and Bartra were giving playing minutes.
Meanwhile the Hondurese spirit was broken and Catalunya made it a demonstration. The Hondurese team, which somehow managed to qualify for the World Cup but left a rather weak impression today, only managed to produce some shots missing the goal, one free kick at the defensive wall and one very weak shot right at Kiko Casilla (who was mainly a spectator due to the offensive weakness of the Honduras team).
Catalunya on the other hand kept attacking and producing chances: a cross from the left side was volleyed in the wrong side of the net from close range at the second post, and a few shots only very narrowly missed the target.
In between the many substitutions, Catalunya managed to add 2 more goals to the tally. Bojan had already given two assists and it was now time to put his name on the scoreboard himself. First he went through the defense, came face-to-face with Canales, dribbled the goalkeeper and shot the ball in the empty net. A nice goal given the sharp corner he had to aim for. The second Bojan goal was again a case of slipping through the defense, face-to-face with Canales he was faster than the goalie (who was very far out of his penalty area) and then the ball was shot in the empty goal before the Hondurese defenders were back in time. 4-0 and then Bojan was replaced himself with a laud applause.
Honduras also started to replace some players. Goalkeeper Canales was replaced by Mendoza and striker Welcome (who was invisable most of the game) was also sidelined. Honduras mainly tried to limit the damage and didn’t really try to threaten Casilla anymore.
The 4-0 remained on the scoreboard. A small stage was then quickly constructed on the pitch before the entire Catalan selection and Cruyff himself were awared a medal and the second "Trofeu Catalunya Internacional". A fireworks of confetti and a real cup handed out were supposed to give this game some more official status than it in reality had. Nonetheless the game was amusing to attend: it was 11 years ago the Catalan team last played at Montjuic, and with Espanyol gone as well to a new stadium (in suburb Cornellà de Llobregat) this was a unique opportunity to attend a game here in the Olympic Stadium. It was a nice opportunity to see some of the best players of Barça and Espanyol live for only 10 euro, and the atmosphere in the stands was quite unique due to the political undertone of the crowd. I normally dislike it when politics and sports mix, but in this case I had expected this and tried to consider it folklore.
The 4-0 victory (2 goals more than the Spanish scored against Honduras at the World Cup!) was very deserved although it has to be said: Honduras was a lot weaker than I had expected. All in all though I am definitely up for more such games. Pity the Basque Country is not playing very frequently, a Catalunya-Euskadi game would be quite a special experience.