Madrid keeps focus on soccer as it heads to Catalonia

Madrid keeps focus on soccer as it heads to Catalonia
Real Madrid players celebrate their side's second goal against Fuenlabrada during a Spanish Copa del Rey round of 32 first leg soccer match between Fuenlabrada and Real Madrid at the Fernando Torres stadium in Fuenlabrada, outside Madrid, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017. Real Madrid won 2-0. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

By Tales Azzoni, Associated Press

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 has been clashing with Spain's central government.

The political crisis reached a climax Friday, with Catalonia's regional parliament voting to unilaterally declare independence and Spain's government firing the regional leaders and calling for new local elections.

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."

"I think it's important to focus only on sports," Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. "It seems like things are changing every half an hour, you never know what is going to happen next. Let's see how it all ends. Right now my only responsibility is to try to make my team win."

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. The unilateral declaration of independence could 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.

"I think it's important to focus only on sports," Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said before the team's practice on Friday. "It seems like things are changing every half an hour, you never know what is going to happen next. Let's see how it all ends. Right now my only responsibility is to try to make my team win."

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