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The tension between Spanish king Felipe VI and Catalan president Quim Torra was high on Friday evening in a half-empty football stadium in Tarragona, the setting of the opening ceremony for the 2018 Mediterranean Games. Neither the monarch not Torra made much effort to hide the icy coolness of an encounter that has served to consummate the rupture of institutional relations between the Spanish crown and the Catalan government, which Torra had announced a few hours earlier. In the stands of the Gimnàstic Tarragona football club's stadium, with scarcely half its seats occupied, there were protests aimed in all directions. There were ovations as well as whistles for the Spanish national anthem, and protest banners dedicated to Catalonia's political prisoners, but there were also chants of Long live the king and a loud whistling directed at Torra, when Tarragona mayor José Félix Ballesteros mentioned his name in introductions.

The Catalan president, who did not confirm his attendance at the event until Friday at noon when he announced that the Catalan government will not attend any future event held by the Spanish king or invite him to its own events, arrived at the stadium after taking part in a protest rally held in Tarragona by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) against the king's visit. "In Spain there is no justice", he told the demonstrators. 

Next, to the stadium. The Catalan leader did not await the monarch at the door, in line with usual protocol for receiving royalty, unlike Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who did greet the king. Felipe VI and Torra did not acknowledge each other until the monarch was inside the stadium. Official photographers of the royal family and the Catalan government were the only ones who captured the moment. The president, wearing a yellow ribbon on his lapel, presented the Spanish head of state with a copy of photographer Jordi Borràs's book featuring images of the police repression of the 1st October independence referendum, along with the Catalan ombudsman's reports documenting the police excesses that day.

When both king and president had arrived in the stand, accompanied by the Spanish PM, the serious demeanor on display relfected the tension of the moment. The king went directly to his place, without greeting the public. Sánchez followed him, while Torra followed at a distance.

Protests among the public

At that moment, the stadium crowd was very small and it barely rose above the fifty per mark, even though the different sports teams participating in the games gradually took their places in the stands, and filled in some of the empty areas.

Spanish flags Games|Sets of the Mediterrani Sergi Alcazar

In the seating areas that were occupied, numerous Spanish flags were seen, with only a few pro-independence estelada flags. When the king appeared, however, placards protesting against the holding of the Catalan political prisoners were opened out, while some estelades appeared in the official stand.

These were produced by some of the authorities present - among them MPs Eusebi Campdepadrós (ERC) and Carles Riera (CUP party spokesperson) - when the Spanish national anthem was played, greeted by the mixed crowd with applause, ovations and whistles of protest.

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The curious and surprising image of the deserted seating in the stadium for the opening ceremony of this four-yearly sports event did not, however, dampen the enthusiasm of those present, the ovations given to the Spanish delegation and the chants of Long live the King that were chorused when the musical performances ended. On the other hand, when the mayor of Tarragona saluted the authorities at the start of his speech, his reference to the "president of the Generalitat of Catalonia Quim Torra" was greeted with whistles of protest.