Page last updated at 23:30 GMT, Thursday, 26 May 2011 00:30 UK

Spirit of Catalonia at the heart of Barcelona FC

Barcelona fans holding the Catalan flag
Barcelona fans display the red and yellow of the Catalan flag

By Pascale Harter
BBC News, Spain

For the fans of Barcelona FC, which plays in the Champions League final on Saturday, supporting their team is not just about football, but connects to the historical struggle to retain the Catalonian culture and identity.

The lights go down in the Camp Nou stadium.

A roar rises from the 110,000 people who fill the stands.

Two of Barcelona's star players, Carles Puyol and Xavi, run out onto the pitch, holding up a Catalan flag.

FC Barcelona, owned by its fans, became a symbol of democracy and resistance

There is a huge cheer and thousands of cameras flash like stars from the steep sides of the stadium.

It is an incredible feeling being here, and this is not even a match.

It is the end of Barca's (Barcelona's) victory lap around their city, in celebration of beating arch rivals Real Madrid to win the Spanish League.

"It's a feeling of a country," one girl tells me. "The country of Catalonia."

Franco's legacy

General Francisco Franco hated independence-minded Catalonia. During his long dictatorship, he persecuted the region.

He favoured Real Madrid, while FC Barcelona, owned by its fans, became a symbol of democracy and resistance.

With Franco long gone and Catalonia largely autonomous now, the club still plays heavily on its history, projecting an image of the plucky underdog.

It demands a degree of loyalty and feeling which other clubs probably can not.

Each of the players, when they take the microphone to thank the crowd, shouts, "visca Barca, visca Catalonia!"

Even the foreign players, like Argentinian Lionel Messi, say, "Long live Catalonia!"

The foreign players have to be just as Catalan, one fan tells me. "They have to feel what we feel, the love of a country, of Catalonia."

As the fans file out of the stadium under a sky lit up by fireworks, I stop a father and son, both wearing the Barca strip.

Barcelona's Carles Puyol (L) and Xavi Hernandez hold the flag of Barcelona as they celebrate at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on May 13, 2011 after winning the Spanish League title
Players are proud to be part of the club's Catalan ties

They are not Catalan, they tell me, but from Cameroon, like the former Barca striker, Samuel Eto'o.

"Barca is a nice team, it's my team," says the dad.

I ask him if he feels more a part of this city, by supporting Barcelona.

"Yes,' he says. "Here, everyone belongs."

I know this is true.

I first came to live in Barcelona as a 19-year-old teaching English. I had little grasp of the offside rule, and even less interest in football.

But one night, having dinner at a friend's house near the stadium, a huge cheer drifted in through the open window.

But Barca was playing away and this was the sound of people at home, watching the match on TV, and still cheering as if they were there.

The celebrations when Barca won - and they often did then, as now - engulfed the whole city. And I wanted to be a part of it.

It was a golden time to support Barcelona - the season of Johan Cruyff's so-called "dream team", when the Dutch football legend coached Barca in the unique style they still use today.

Cruyff remains a hero in the city, even though, in his mid 60s now, his coaching days are long behind him.

The Catalan language, banned under Franco's dictatorship is still widely spoken

He is the example of the kind of loyalty Catalonia craves.

In 1973, as the world's best player, he turned Barcelona's fortunes around when he chose them over Real Madrid.

Then, he defied Franco's ban on Catalan names and gave his own son the name of Catalonia's patron saint, Jordi.

When I met Cruyff, he was still bounding with energy - but a little bit incomprehensible.

He speaks plenty of languages, but his brain works so quickly - as it did in his playing days - that all you get is two words from the beginning of a story, one from the middle and then he winds up by saying, "...whatsoever. You see?"

He uses that "whatsoever" a lot.

When he shows me his legendary Cruyff turn, he says: "You stand there - he's there, balance, whatsoever, can't make him if he's not, then you can here, or whatsoever, you see?"

I have little idea what he is saying, but on the pitch I have seen it work.

Start 'em young

The whistle goes at the youth match. The boys are aged 12 to 14 and they are already playing in the Barca style invented by Cruyff.

Barcelona youth academy
Youth players are taught the club's moral principles

Barcelona's youth academy is another gift from the Dutchman.

He had seen what a strong youth academy could do at his former club Ajax, and imported the idea.

At the youth match one mother's shouts of support drown out the others.

You get the feeling she would like to tackle that defender herself and give her son a clear shot at goal.

Part of the academy's job is to protect the young players from their own parents. Some of the boys here will be the next superstars, and some of the mothers are auditioning for the part.

Right now the Gucci handbags are fake, but they know if their son has the talent, one day they will be real.

The academy trains boys from the age of 11, and not just in the arts of football.

Just as important, they are told, are the principles of humility, team work and commitment. This is another reason why the fans here are so proud of their club.

"FC Barcelona is a family," a group of Catalan girls tell me. "They train the players to be decent people."

But as anyone who has watched an important match will tell you, they can be pretty decent at diving too, when things are not going their way.

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