This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
Over 24 hours in July of 2010, the streets of Barcelona were full of flag-waving angry protesters, who – following Spain's 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in the World Cup final – soon turned into happy fans waving flags. At the time, the basic idea of an independent Catalan seemed as much of a pipe dream as Spain being crowned "FIFA World Champions". As the recently removed Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, likes to say, "I like Catalans because they like to do things." Between the 10th and 11th of July, 2010, Catalans did many things.
Firstly, on the 10th, more than a million Catalans demonstrated in Barcelona against a constitutional court's decision to reject a law that would have given Catalonia more autonomy – legislation that was supported by 74 percent of voters. Under the motto, "We are a nation, we should decide," Catalonia experienced what many now consider to be its first major independence demonstration in modern history.
A day later, Spain won its first ever World Cup. In Soccer City, Johannesburg, the Barcelona midfielder Andrés Iniesta scored the winning goal in the 116th minute to beat the Netherlands. Massive celebrations broke out across Spain, but also back in Barcelona – the largest Catalan city – where thousands of people had gathered to watch the final. Plaza Espanya square was filled with Spanish flags, replacing the independence flags from a day earlier. Car horns blared in celebration for hours, as people partied in the streets until the morning.
Eight years later, the Spanish team will try to repeat their success at Russia 2018. But a lot has changed since then, especially in Catalonia, where the push for independence became violent on the 1st of October, 2017, when Catalonia's regional government held a referendum on autonomy – a vote that the Spanish government and a Spanish court ruled unconstitutional. To stop the vote, Spanish riot police closed off polling stations and used batons and rubber bullets to prevent voters from casting their ballots. By the end of the day, 844 people and 33 officers had been treated for their injuries.
Since then, separatist politicians have been imprisoned, while Carles Puigdemont – who was the region's leader at the time of the referendum – was forced to flee the country. And now, amid all this distrust and resentment, another World Cup has kicked off, where rampant nationalism pretty much drives the entire tournament. But in Catalonia at least, many are struggling to forgive and forget.
I spoke to four Catalans to understand whether, after the events of the past year, they can actually bring themselves to support their own country.
Javi, 30, is a Barcelona fan. Last October, he witnessed the police's brutality firsthand when they stormed the school building he was voting in and tried to take the ballot boxes.
He has always felt a bit indifferent towards the Spanish national team, but this time there's clarity in his emotions: Javi's supporting Argentina because of Barcelona star Lionel Messi. "If these were normal times, I wouldn't really care that much about whether Spain won or lost," he tells me. "But this time I want them to lose so that the government can't politicise their success."
The importance of football to the people of Catalonia goes beyond sport, Javi adds. This is epitomised by Barcelona's famous motto: "Més que un club" (More than a club). "Barça has always been more than a club, and Catalonia has always been more than a region," he says. "We're a country that is not a country."
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Unlike Javi, Antonio will celebrate every single Spanish goal. The 57-year-old is part of a generation of Spanish fans who remember when the phrase "We're playing like never before, we're losing like always," was a common chant among La Roja fans. But Spain's luck seemed to change when they lifted the European Championship in 2008, and then the World Cup two years later. "I was so happy in 2010," Antonio says. "But I can understand why some Catalans were not so up for celebrating."
Antonio did not vote in the independence referendum, but he thinks the Spanish and Catalan government are equally to blame for everything that has followed. "Both sides have made mistakes," he tells me. "And now all that's left is anger."
Carlota, 28, is happy to watch the World Cup as a neutral, only stretching to support the occasional underdog. She didn't really care much either way for Spain's big win in 2010, but was surprised by the number of people who celebrated it wildly in Barcelona. "I wasn't very comfortable with the amount of fans who rushed to the streets to wave their Spanish flags," she says.
Carlota voted in the referendum and admits that what happened that day has made it hard for her to actively support Spain. "I feel torn, because it would be nice if Spain won, but I don't think I can bring myself to celebrate it, not after the way the Spanish government has treated us," she says.
The players can't get away from the politics of this, either. "I think someone who is pro-independence could play for the national team," said Barcelona and Spain's Gerard Piqué in a press conference shortly after the referendum. Piqué has long been a vocal defender of Catalonia's right to decide. The defender voted in October, and afterwards was highly critical of the police. For his trouble, he's now constantly booed by a section of Spanish fans when he plays for his country.
Like Piqué, Luis not only voted in the referendum, but also wants Spain to win the World Cup. "I was in the Plaza Espanya with my colleagues when Spain became world champions," he smiles. "We celebrated by drinking out of home-made cups shaped like a trophy and jumping into the city's Montjuic fountain. It was an amazing night."
According to a 2017 survey by the Centre for Opinion Studies, Luis is one of the 55 percent of Catalans who support the Spanish national team. But from that, 67 percent would switch to supporting a Catalan team if it existed. "If one day we become independent, I will happily continue cheering Spain on, but I'd also support the Catalan side," Luis adds.
But until that happens, Catalans like Luis, Carlotta, Antonio, Javi and even Gerard Piqué will see where their hearts take them, one tournament at a time. Then again, I guess nobody can know for sure how they will react to a World Cup-winning goal scored deep in injury time.
"During the World Cup, they will put up a giant screen in Barcelona, and some people will celebrate Spain and others won't," Luis tells me. "But the most important thing is that there's peace."