Pep Guardiola may have played to bigger crowds but none quite like the one he addressed in Barcelona on Sunday when he presented the case for a referendum on Catalan independence.
Speaking on the steps of Montjuïc before an estimated 40,000 of his fellow citizens, and flanked by an enormous banner with the slogan “Love Democracy”, the former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager read out a brief manifesto in Catalan, Spanish and English.
“We have tried on 18 occasions to reach an agreement on a referendum and the answer has always been no,” he told the crowd.
“We have no other option but to vote. We call on the international community to support us and on democrats the world over to help us to defend the rights that are threatened in Catalonia, such as the right of freedom of expression and the right to vote.”
On Friday, the Catalan government announced that a referendum on independence from Spain would be held on 1 October. The defiant gesture met with a familiar response from Madrid: not only would such a vote be illegal, it would not be allowed to go ahead.
“They can announce a referendum as many times as they want … but the referendum is not going to take place,” said Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría. Another minister dismissed it as “a new step in a strategy that’s leading nowhere”.
The secessionists disagree, arguing that they have been forced to hold the vote because repeated efforts to engage the Spanish government have been thwarted or ignored.
Carme Forcadell, the leader of the Catalan parliament, received a huge ovation at the Barcelona rally when she told the flag-waving crowd “there is no Plan B, the only way forward is a referendum”.
Catalonia held an unofficial referendum in November 2014 in which 80% voted for independence, but barely a third of eligible voters turned out.
“I think the turnout will be higher than in 2014 because a lot of people want to have their say,” said Jesús Espinosa, waiting in the 30-degree heat for Guardiola to speak. “We’ve been striving for this for 300 years and we’re not going to stop now.”
“What I want is for us to have the opportunity to vote and to become an independent Catalan republic and to do it legally and peacefully. Madrid will respond as it’s always done because Catalonia is a source of income and they’ll fight with all they have to keep it.”
After the mass rallies in recent years that have attracted more than a million people, Sunday’s turnout of only tens of thousands, according to the Catalan government, might be viewed as disappointing. According to a poll at the end of March, support for independence is falling, with 48.5% of Catalans opposed to seceding from Spain, while 44.3% supported breaking away.
Raül Romeva, the Catalan foreign affairs minister, told the Guardian the regional government had a duty to put independence to a popular vote. “We have tried to reach a consensual agreement with Madrid but their response has always been no,” he said.
“At the end of the day – given there’s not even been the will to sit down at the table to discuss the question – the Catalan government had a democratic obligation and the mandate to put this to the people of Catalonia so that they can express themselves freely.”
Although Spain’s constitutional court ruled that a previous, non-binding referendum held in November 2014 was illegal, Romeva insisted there was nothing in the Spanish constitution to stop the new vote going ahead.
Read more: theguardian