Gerard Piqué owes his celebrity status to several things. Firstly, he’s an excellent footballer, a pillar of FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Secondly, he’s engaged to the Colombian star Shakira. Thirdly, Piqué is also a fierce Catalan nationalist, if not a chauvinistic, a foul-mouth and more.

During the famous "Clasico" match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid last spring, Piqué turned to his rivals while the players from both teams were leaving their dressing rooms and preparing to run out onto the field. “Hey, Spaniards,” he called, “with our eight-point lead we’ve already tied up the championship! All we have to do now is take the King’s Cup. Your King’s cup.”

Sporting events provide perfect setting

Piqué was just saying aloud what many players and supporters of Barça are thinking. Everyone wanted Barcelona to win its victories in the name of the Catalans, wanted the Catalan team to be able to play for the World Cup and wanted Piqué, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi and Fabregas to bring the trophy home not for Spain or for King Juan Carlos but for Catalonia. For now that’s not possible, since FIFA has refused to let the team enter international competitions.

The sport has always been an important element of national identity for Catalan nationalists. Especially under the Franco dictatorship, when Real Madrid was the favourite club of the regime, the goals scored against the "royalists" had the sweet taste of revenge for the years of humiliation and cultural discrimination.

It's the same with the Scots, who are calling more and more openly for a sovereign state [an independence referendum is planned for 2014] and who take football very seriously. They give their all to support their team, and cheer equally hard for everyone else who plays against England.

Sporting events provide the perfect setting for separatist demonstrations. The chanting, the waving flags, the highlighting of “national unity” are the fixed decor of stadiums in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Scotland and in Corsica. But this is only the backdrop to an acute political struggle over power and money. The street was, until recently, the favourite battleground for that war: in various corners of Europe separatists left bombs in department stores, killed policemen and staged hunger strikes. Often enough, fearing chaos and disintegration of the state, politicians – whether Spanish, British or French – responded with blind brutality.

Euro-enthusiast rhetoric

In recent years, though, political circumstances and customs have changed. Advocates of self-determination these days are rolling out their weapons in the comfort of ministerial offices and inside European institutions, as well as at cultural events and by promoting regional languages. It is a strategy that is more or less paying off: with elections coming up, or in order to keep a grip on a parliamentary majority, governments bend to separatist demands in exchange for their backing.

Language is also a redoubtable weapon in this battle, and the Catalans have been just as successful here as they have in football. Spanish is considered a foreign language in Catalonia, and Catalan schools are obliged to guarantee only four hours a week of Spanish. For those from Castile or Andalusia who arrive with their families in Catalonia, finding a school where all the lessons are taught in Spanish is a lost cause.

When it comes to negotiating with state authorities, the separatists are quick to bring up a tightly plotted pro-European argument. The independence of Catalonia, the Basque Country or Scotland, they claim, would do no harm to the British or Spanish nations, since the federalisation of the EU will in any case whittle away the powers of the nation states. And since the national capitals are yielding a little more power to the European Commission every year, why not also give some to Edinburgh and Barcelona?

With this Euro-enthusiast rhetoric the separatists have struck just the right tone for rubbing off the label of ‘dangerous and irresponsible fanatics’ that once stuck to their coats. Under these conditions the state finds it hard to denounce the separatist thesis, as that would bring it to attack pro-European ideas it so recently praised.

Running after the hare

The notion of "public authority" has been discredited in today's Europe. Far more pleasing to many, in turn, is fashionable talk of “decentralisation", the “defence of local languages", "protection of local products" and finally, "regional cooperation."

If Scotland, Catalonia and Padania were to become EU members, what political clout would they wield? They would find themselves somewhere between Luxembourg and Slovakia – certainly not an ideal position to defend their specific interests in Brussels very effectively. Paradoxically, these are best preserved by the much bigger Italy and much bigger Spain.

European separatists are running after the hare without really having to catch it: the bargaining tactic seems to be paying off much better. Indeed, the Northern League, while still in Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition government, managed to change the regional funding rules at the expense of poorer regions. In Catalonia, the Christian Democrats of CiU (CiU, Convergence and Union in Catalan), with their 16 deputies in the Spanish Parliament, have in turn made their support for Mariano Rajoy’s reforms hinge on concessions to Catalonia.

Gerard Piqué, it seems, has not finished making sacrifices in playing for the Spanish national team. Fortunately, last year he was spared from carrying the King’s Cup on his shoulders. It was Real Madrid who won the final.