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 "Barça." 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 Barça is about more than just sports.
For all its international fame - the team is considered by many to be the best in the world - Barça 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 Piñol, who writes about the Barcelona team for the El País newspaper. Indeed, ever since a group of British, Swiss, and Spanish businessmen founded the club in 1889, the Barça - 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 Barça 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 Barça 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 Barça!' [Viva Barça!] and everyone knew that you were really saying 'Visca Cataluña!'"
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. On June 18, Catalans will go to the polls to decide whether to support the Catalan Statute, a long-debated and contentious piece of legislation that would greatly increase the Generalitat's authority over areas like taxation, education, and transportation. Most controversial of all, the legislation defines Catalonia (albeit in a nonbinding preamble) as a nation.
But though gone are the days when cheering for Barça was the only way to express support for Catalonia, the team's attraction is as strong as ever - particularly when it plays Real Madrid. Under Franco, the capital city's team stood for the despised dictatorship; today, it's a reminder of the central government's power.
"Soccer is a symbolic battle in which many other social tensions are played out," says Jordi Salvador Duch, anthropologist and author of "Soccer As Metaphor for A Cold War." "The Catalan Statute only continues the war: the Catalan nation against the central Spanish state."
The battle continues on other grounds as well: Catalans have tried - and failed - to enter their own national teams in international sports competitions. "Catalonia doesn't have any legal status as a country," explains Matthew Tree, a British-born author based in Barcelona who writes frequently - in both Catalan and English - about the region. "They have to get their recognition where they can. So Barça is converted into their national team."
The team itself does all it can to emphasize that association. Corporate logos are not allowed on players' uniforms, because they are thought to violate the national symbolism of the team colors. Only Catalan Television has been granted the right to advertise on the athletes' shirts. Recently, the team added the Catalan flag to its shorts.
For all its importance as a symbol of Catalan identity, Barça has fans from the rest of Spain - including Prime Minister Zapatero. It's also gained an extraordinary international following. This may seem like a paradox, yet the club's international stature reflects the nature of Catalan identity. "Catalan identity is not like other national identities," says Mr. Tree. "It's not based on ethnicity, but rather is based on language - on the ability to learn Catalan. This means that Catalonia can incorporate outsiders. When [Barça's president] Joan Laporta brings in foreign players, he meets with each of them personally, so that he can explain what being part of this team means" - a commitment that reportedly includes taking Catalan language classes.
Carlos Jimenez knows what the team means for him. Like his father, the newspaper vendor is a Barça "socio". "When they play well, you feel more pride," he says. "Between the championship and the Estatut, it's a good moment to be Catalan."