FC Barcelona forward Ferran Torres (11) celebrates with FC Barcelona defender Eric Garcia (24) after scoring a goal during the second half against Real Madrid during a 2023 friendly in Texas, | Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona extends far beyond “El Clasico” matches, which rank among the most intense and politically charged matches in world soccer.

The two La Liga clubs are also the most-followed sports franchises on social media, both well clear of third-placed Manchester United.

The Los Angeles Lakers have the most followers of any U.S. team but are outside the top 10 on the overall list.

With such extensive global fanbases, both Real and Barca choose to operate X accounts in a variety of different languages — but there was a notable divergence in their output Monday.

Barca marked Feb. 19 as the International Day Against Homophobia in Sport, an awareness day that has been particularly well supported in Spanish-speaking countries for around 15 years.

The date is the birthday of Justin Fashanu, the first out gay male professional footballer who tragically died in 1998. He would have been 63 this week.

Across their channels, Barca posted an image of their training ground and academy building, with a Progress Pride flag and club crest added to it via Photoshop.

The accompanying text read: “International Day against LGTBI-phobia in Sport. We are working for sport in which gender and sexual diversity are respected equally and enjoyed in freedom.”

The club’s women’s team had joined in with a Liga F rainbow laces initiative two days earlier, while several other La Liga clubs, such as Girona, Real Betis and Valencia, also carried Pride rainbow flag posts on their Instagram accounts.

Real Madrid did not appear to mark the day on any of its channels — but Barca went beyond the standard practice for such posts, by also publishing its image on its Arabic language account on X with 5.6m followers.

At the time of writing, that single post had accumulated just shy of 20m views, far outweighing others from recent days.

Clubs are often criticized when they carry LGBTQ-inclusive posts on all their accounts bar those targeted at fans in countries where homosexuality is illegal. A lot of Premier League teams activating the Rainbow Laces campaign have been spotted doing this in the last few seasons.

As reported by Jordan-based news outlet Al Bawaba, there was a backlash to Barca’s post.

An influential Kuwaiti imam called Mishari bin Rashid Alafasy, who has 15m followers, quote tweeted the post, saying “you’re terrible at playing and you also have no morals?”, according to Al Bawaba’s translation.

That seems like harsh criticism for an anti-discrimination message. Nor are Barca “terrible” — they’re in Champions League last-16 action this week for one thing, and considering the club is in a deep financial crisis, being eight points behind Real in the domestic standings is hardly a reason to panic.

Alafasy’s post brought similar complaints to Barca’s door but also some who took exception to his accusation of immorality.

US-based Saudi-born activist Tariq Aziz hit back, writing: “Salute to FC Barcelona, ​​which understands the necessity of combating hatred and discrimination in the world of sports against gays, trans people, and all LGBTQ+ people, which affects its broad audience.”

Aziz, who is non-binary and who has worked alongside Dr Nas Mohamed at the Alwan Foundation, concluded by asking: “How I wish Al-Nasr Club, Al-Hilal Club, or other Saudi clubs had this high humanitarian awareness!

“Will we see a similar tweet from a Saudi club soon?”

That seems highly unlikely — but we can say Barca’s social media strategy represents a step forward in showing a recognition that anti-LGBTQ discrimination in sport impacts on everybody, everywhere.

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