Barca coach Valverde tells fans to protest freely in 'Clasico' but show respect

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said fans can protest if they wish but must remain respectful during Wednesday’s La Liga clash with Real Madrid, which is set to be a highly-politicised encounter between Spain’s biggest rivals.

Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - FC Barcelona Press Conference - Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, Barcelona, Spain - December 17, 2019 Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde during press conference REUTERS/Albert Gea

‘El Clasico’ has always been fraught with tension -- Luis Figo, who left Barcelona for Real Madrid, famously had a pig’s head thrown at him in one match in 2002 -- and anger about the central government’s handling of the region’s independence drive is expected to be felt in the stands.

Fans’ chants and actions are set to come in for renewed scrutiny, however, after Sunday’s second division match between Rayo Vallecano and Albacete was abandoned for offensive chanting and Valverde told supporters not to cross the line.

“Fans can express themselves freely as long as they show respect to everyone,” the coach told a news conference on Tuesday.

“I don’t know what will happen after that game was suspended but football should be something that unites us, not separates us.”

The match was originally scheduled for Oct. 26 but postponed due to political unrest in Barcelona over the jailing of Catalan independence leaders and the rescheduled match will take place amid a large pro self-determination protest around the Camp Nou.

Valverde criticised the decision to call off that game and hopes the match goes ahead incident-free at the second time of asking.

“At the time I thought it was better to play the match and return to normality and I think the same about tomorrow’s game. The fans will express themselves how they wish but the game will be played,” he said.

Authorities have assembled 3,000 private and public security officers for the game in response to the demonstration and for the first time ever the two teams will meet in the same hotel before the match and share a police escort to the ground.

“It’s a small change but not a significant one,” added Valverde.

“We’re used to a lot of attention being focused on our matches and we know what everyone is saying on the outside but all we’re worried about is the match and playing well for 90 minutes.”

Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis