Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Barcelona, Soccer Wins Mean More ; the City's Team, Headed to Paris Wednesday to Play Europe's Best, Is a Potent Symbol of Catalan Identity

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Barcelona, Soccer Wins Mean More ; the City's Team, Headed to Paris Wednesday to Play Europe's Best, Is a Potent Symbol of Catalan Identity

Article excerpt

They waited for hours. Decked out in their winning soccer team's red and blue stripes and bursting spontaneously into loud renditions of the team's anthem, more than a million citizens of Spain's independence-minded region of Catalonia lined the parade route in Barcelona earlier this month.

Finally, a confirmation rippled through the massive crowd: "They're coming!"

Parents hoisted children onto their shoulders, teenagers began chanting, elderly women jockeyed into position. As an open-air bus bearing the players inched its way past the Plaza de Catalunya, the crowd roared with a fervor once reserved for the pope.

But the fans were cheering not only for Ronaldinho, Oleguer, Samuel Eto'o, and other star players on Barcelona's heralded soccer team, known simply as "Barca." As the team prepares to compete at the Champions League final in Paris Wednesday - when Europe's best teams will face off- it's never been clearer that local fans' fervor for Barca is about more than just sports.

For all its international fame - the team is considered by many to be the best in the world - Barca is a potent symbol of Catalan identity. And with a critical referendum that would greatly augment the region's autonomy only a month away, the team's success has only increased the sense that Catalonia's moment has come.

"The club is a vehicle for the Catalan community's values and identity," says Angels Pinol, who writes about the Barcelona team for the El Pais newspaper. Indeed, ever since a group of British, Swiss, and Spanish businessmen founded the club in 1889, the Barca - whose slogan is "more than a club" - has promoted Catalan culture, which is based on a distinct language and a history of autonomy from Spain. And the team's democratic structure - the club is owned by 135,000 members or "socios," rather than a single wealthy individual - only increases the sense that Barca represents an entire people.

Even when it was illegal to speak Catalan during the nearly 40- year Franco dictatorship that overshadowed 20th-century Spain, cheering for Barca was a way to express support for Catalan national identity.

"Under Franco, you couldn't say anything in Catalan," says Rosa Murell, a senior citizen who spends her Sunday afternoons handing out brochures advocating Catalan independence. "But you could go to a soccer game and yell 'Visca el Barca!' [Viva Barca!] and everyone knew that you were really saying 'Visca Cataluna!'"

These days, Catalans are free to express their cultural identity in many ways: The region's public schools are bilingual, the vertical-striped flag hangs from all official buildings, and local TV stations broadcast in Catalan.

And although the Generalitat - the regional government - already has significant authority, the administration is set to gain more political liberties. …

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