Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks during a press conference with Uruguay's Presidente Tabare Vazquez in Montevideo, Uruguay, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Rajoy is in a two-day official visit to Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico) Image Credit: AP

Last Sunday evening, millions of Spaniards tuned into television sets in homes, bars and cafes to watch El Clasico — the biggest football game of the season, where Real Madrid hosted Barcelona. There is nothing bigger in Spain — and nothing so divisive between those who support the capital’s main team in white, with superstars Cristian Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and hard-man defender Sergio Ramos, against their bitterest opponents from Catalonia — Barcelona and its own constellation of superstars, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta.

In a brief moment of national unity before the kickoff, Spaniards cheered their most recent sporting hero, golfer Sergio Garcia, who greeted the players in the centre circle in the green jacket he won for claiming the US Masters tournament two weeks ago. For the record, Garcia gave a big man-hug to Ramos, making it clear to the 81,044 present at the Bernabeu — and to the millions tuning in — where his loyalties lay. And for many millions, there is little doubting where their loyalties lie when it comes to Catalonia and its future inside or out of Spain.

Simply put, a slim majority of Catalans want independence for the Barcelona-centric region, replete with its own distinctive language and culture.

The government in Madrid, along with many millions more Spaniards, are determined that the region remains an integral part of their unified and singular nation. And politicians on both sides of the divide are eagerly watching the United Kingdom general election, how Scotland votes, whether there will be a second independence referendum there, and how Brussels will shape its Brexit negotiations with London in the coming 23 months.

Catalonia is one of the 17 provinces or regions that make up Spain. The 7.5 million Catalans make up about 16 per cent of the overall Spanish population, while the region also accounts for a little less than a fifth of Spain’s annual gross domestic product. Each of the 17 provinces has a regional parliament with the power to set limited local laws over purely domestic issues — local taxes, education and the like.

For a while, between the 12th and 15th Centuries, Catalonia, which was ruled by the House of Aragon, was a powerful and independent Mediterranean naval and trading kingdom. It became fully integrated into the Kingdom of Spain in 1479, with the marriage of Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon. They were Spain’s first power couple and dispatched Christopher Columbus 13 years later to spread the power of their unified kingdom — and the Roman Catholic church — leading to the discovery of the Americas.

The red and yellow striped Senyara flag flown today ubiquitously from Barcelona balconies is actually the royal standard of the kingdom of Aragon. Modern-day officials from Fifa, the Federation of International Football Associations, also pore over images of stadium crowds during El Clasico games for the Senyara — waving it during a game is considered provocative, a political act and contrary to the rules and interests of the game.

But the issue of Catalan independence is far from being a game. According to a February opinion poll, 47 per cent of Catalans would vote for independence, with 44 per cent against. The rest are undecided. That compares with a similar poll taken in November, where the separatists had 44.9 per cent support to a razor-slim majority of 45.1 per cent for the nationalists; and one in December, showing 46.8 per cent of Catalans backing unity, with 45.3 per cent for independence.

There’s little to choose. What is clear from the figures is that those living in Catalonia remain deeply divided on the issue and the government in Madrid has its work cut out if it is to end the threat of a breakaway region within its borders. And it is using every legal argument and instrument at its disposal to make sure the cause of Catalan independence remains illegitimised.

Back in November 2014, the Catalan regional parliament held a non-binding referendum, asking two Yes or No questions: Do you want Catalonia to become a state; if the answer is affirmative, do you want this state to be independent?

A little over 2.3 million of the eligible 5.4 million voted, with 80.8 per cent answering ‘Yes’ — to the two questions. The trouble was the vote was declared null and void five days before balloting on November 9 by Spain’s Constitutional Court. That ruling didn’t stop Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia’s parliament from 2010 to 2016, opening schools, community centres and polling places at public offices with the help of 40,000 volunteers.

Mas, along with former vice-president Joana Ortega and former Catalan education minister Irene Rigau, were convicted by the Catalan high court in early February for defying the Constitutional Court ruling that declared the plebiscite illegal. Mas was fined €36,500 (Dh144,000) and, significantly, banned from holding public for two years. Ortega was handed a 21-month ban from office and a €30,000 fine, while Rigau can’t hold office for 18 months and was ordered to pay €20,000.

Mas, a shrewd political operator, is appealing the conviction to Spain’s Supreme Court. In December, anticipating the conviction and ban from public office, the 60-year-old lawyer and passionate Barcelona football fan who cut his political teeth on the city council, stepped aside. Modestly conservative and centrist, Mas’ move also calculatedly broke a political deadlock between his separatist alliance and left-wing lawmakers in the Catalan parliament on how best to push forward the independence agenda.

Carles Puigdemont, a former journalist, is now president of the region and is leading the alliance between the separatist parties and won the support of local unions and activist organisations with a plan to hold another independence referendum come September 17.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy isn’t having any of it and made it clear to Puigdemont when they met in Madrid that the proposed September referendum, just like the one organised by Mas, would be illegal. This time around, at Rajoy’s behest, the Constitutional Court is taking a more proactive line, issuing a warning to the new Catalan president and another regional politician, Carme Focadell, that they are under investigation for authorising the series of local parliamentary votes to organise the September plebiscite. Those threats, however, haven’t stopped the Catalan parliament from putting a new regional taxation scheme into place. From July, it plans to collect all taxes from Catalans — even those due to the central government in Madrid. In its view, taxation and representation go hand in hand.

For the record, the Catalans won Sunday’s El Clasico with the last kick of the game and a goal from Messi. Their political football, however, will be kicked around for much longer. They’re playing by their own rules and are making it up while the game is afoot.