BARCELONA, Spain – The rallying cry erupted, almost precisely, after 17 minutes and 14 seconds of soccer in the match between Barcelona and Malaga.
"In! In-de! In-de-pen-den-ci-a!"
It rolled around and around the Camp Nou stadium like a tide, from behind one of the goals into a frothing chorus of thousands of voices.
Then, as suddenly as it started, the chant faded. Red and yellow flags — Catalonia's colors — were furled. Attention returned to the Spanish league match. Eyes refocused on Lionel Messi with a ball at his feet.
But the point had been made. More vociferously than usual.
The timing of the chant spoke volumes: 1714 was the year when Spain first took away self-rule from Catalonia. For years, Barcelona's overwhelmingly Catalan fans have loudly mourned that watershed when their team plays. Rarely, however, have their cries carried as much emotion as now, with Catalonia again struggling with Madrid over how the prosperous northeastern region is governed.
A disputed Catalan independence referendum on Oct. 1 precipitated the crisis. The Spanish government deployed riot police in response and further hardened its position this weekend, announcing a plan to use previously untapped constitutional powers to reassert control over the region that has enjoyed a large degree of autonomy since democracy returned to Spain following the 1975 death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.
One voice Madrid will never silence, however, is that of the Camp Nou. With nearly 100,000 seats squeezed into a cavernous bowl, the arena is not only one of soccer's biggest and most famous stadiums, but also a tremendous echo chamber for Catalan independence sentiment.
Led by five-time world player of the year Messi, the team is a world-renowned symbol of Catalan pride. Each trophy in an almost uninterrupted streak of brilliance since 2006 has provided bragging rights for Catalans and poked the eye of the team of the Spanish establishment — Real Madrid.
"Here we get the chance to express ourselves," said 33-year-old Diana Pluma Garcia as she joined the crowd at Saturday's 2-0 victory, which kept Barcelona at the top of the standings. "We can come and show our Catalan sentiment, and the entire world gets to see it because of Barca's visibility."
To some fans, the club's business structure also serves as a model of how they would like to govern themselves. Unlike some big European rivals with rich owners, like Qatar-funded Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona is owned by its more than 143,000 "socis," or members, who democratically choose those who run the club.
"The club is an example to be followed," Barcelona member Marta Ferre said. "We, as members, have the right to decide about our future, and the residents here in Catalonia want the same thing."
Before Messi and Co. beat Malaga, Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu and his directors held one of their regular general assemblies with members, fielding questions, complaints and recommendations.
Among the nearly 600 attendees was Jose Maria Segura. He joined in 1945, with membership No. 427.
"Things have not gone well this time," the 89-year-old Segura said of Catalonia's latest push for independence. "We will need to take a step back, look at what went wrong, and three or four years from now we will try to make it happen again. And it's going to keep happening because of the sentiment of the younger people. My grandson is 16, and when he comes here for the soccer, when he chants 'Independencia,' his eyes light up."
One of those young fans, 17-year-old Julia Manera, said she and others have always brought flags to support the separatist cause, "even before what happened Oct. 1."
"And we will keep coming and will continue fighting for our cause, no matter what," she added.
Barcelona has performed a delicate balancing act, saying Catalans should be allowed to choose but not advocating independence. The club wants to avoid any risk of losing access to Spanish league revenues and lucrative European competition.
Club history also offers a sobering example of the potential dangers of Spanish politics: In 1936, Barcelona president Josep Sunol was assassinated by Franco's troops.
"We can't be manipulated by political interests, no one can take ownership of our shield and our flag," Bartomeu told members. "We know that Barcelona is more than a club, and that the Camp Nou has been a space for freedom of expression and respect. And that will continue to be the case."
While most players have not taken sides, Barcelona defender Gerard Pique broke ranks by encouraging Catalans to vote in the referendum. For that, he was booed by fans when he last joined the Spanish national team at a training camp in Madrid.
Barcelona's neutrality frustrates some of its pro-separatist fans. Others, however, value the Camp Nou as a haven from the turmoil.
"People can chant and say whatever they want, supporting independence or not," said 35-year-old Enric Sanchez, sitting behind one of the goals with his 7-year-old daughter, Nuria. "But I will never mix sports and politics. The parliament is the place to talk about politics. Here is a place to watch soccer."
Leicester reported from Paris. Follow Tales Azzoni at http://twitter.com/tazzoni