Spain prepares for the World Cup at something of a moment – the king has decided to abdicate. King Juan Carlos: Franco’s king, the transitional king, democracy’s king, the consummate modern monarch, a living Borbón. Can any politically minded footballer pick up the baton from the huge Tercera Republica rallies in over 100 cities last week, and flash a bit of Republican purple when he scores?
As Joe suggested in his Sketches of Sketches Spain post, tracking the ‘politico-emotional logic of Iberian football’ is no easy task for the amateur. Clubs and the cities or regions they represent have played a considerable role in Spanish 20th century political developments – Real Madrid for example is never likely to be able to ward off the twin shitty-sticks of ‘el equipo del gobierno, la vergüenza del país’ with which rivals wield at them. Franco, said to be initially a fan of Bilbao’s more muscular approach, wised up to the potential prestige and reputational boost of backing the Merengues’ all-conquering 50s team. At the Nou Camp for City earlier this year, by far the most rousing chant in a generally drab atmosphere in the home ends was for Catalonian ‘independencia’.
The same cannot be said of the players currently at these clubs. It would then be easy to make cheap presumptions and claims about the squad, that the team’s Real players are either all clandestine Falange, with a false nostalgia for the Movimiento and the caudillo their dads have told them about, while Barcelona’s are all hardcore Catalonian separatists to a man, maybe even with a hankering for the anarchist days of ’36. Maybe the players from more impoverished backgrounds or regions are backing the Indignados and Podemos movements.
We can pick apart the cliques – the Real and Barca boys you all know, the Atlético Madrid crowd (Koke, Juanfran and Costa, as well as alumni De Gea and Torres), Valencia’s veterans (Silva, Villa, Mata, Alba, Albiol), and the Basque exiles (Martinez, Alonso and Azpilicueta) and find little, on the English-language web at least, to enlighten us on a player’s politics. [Although props to Alonso for taking part in the #DefiendeAlEibar campaign against the threat to rescind their promotion). Are they all too busy ignoring the real problem of racism in the Spanish game to give thought to their political allegiances? Maybe the chronic unemployment will be brushed away with a noble sweep of Sergio Ramos’ bullfighting cape?
These are all top-level players in the world’s top league, often more familiar to British fans than their local lower league or non-league strivers, and it would seem most dutifully play their role of performers of the spectacle, nothing more (except a pretty young wag), nothing less. Thus Spain, Spanish teams and Spanish footballing culture have made maximalist use of the ‘all about the football’ axiom to have a moment too, a 10-year glorious, luxurious bathe in the sun.
With the Primera Liga long taken over from Italy’s Serie A as the Brit’s continental’s league of choice, Spanish football’s hegemony has taken in: the World Cup in 2010 and European Championships in 2008 and 2012 for the national team; Barcelona’s European Cups in 2006, 2009 (including Spain’s first ‘continental treble’) and 2010; UEFA Cups for Valencia 2004, Sevilla in 2006, 2007 and 2014 and Atléti in 2010 and 2012; and now Real’s feted La Decima. Some even said La Roja’s 2010 triumph provided the moment when regional divisions evaporated into a benign plurinationalism, just like France’s victory eased racial tensions in 1998 (they’d be wrong on both counts, of course).
As with all hegemonies questions are being asked. Admiration for Atléti’s temporary break-up of the stifling Real-Barca duopoly comes with ongoing concerns over their tax affairs, mirroring scrutiny over Barca’s transfer practices, Real’s land deals, etc. There is a sense that they all have benefited from soft treatment at national and European level (echoes of Franco-esque backing for prestige-value here). On the field, there is ennui at Barcelona and the national team’s tiki-taka style.
Could Brasil 2014 crystallise a moment when British boredom with their pet football object syncs in with the relative waning of Xavi/Iniesta and the team’s desire to take on a more expansive style, leading Spain to the type of ignominious early exit we used to? Symbolic bloody noses like Luis Enrique’s actual smash-up are unlikely. If you have ever played with Spanish lads generally their desire is to pass you off the pitch as the bulldogs wheeze around trying to keep up. Tiki-taka, such as it is, is merely an intensification of that (Real’s different style was largely the work of Mourinho and the need to accommodate a true individual in Ronaldo). Besides, talk of tiki-taka can be a false flag – Del Bosque insists he is not a ‘Taliban’ as wedded to the style as people might think.
And the current golden generation is likely to give way to the next batch of international galácticos. As Jimmy Burns told Time a few years ago: ‘Training has something to do with it … there’s a very kind of ethical dimension to it, particularly with young kids. You don’t necessarily tell them that what’s important in life is to win. What’s important is team spirit, your creativity, to do things well and to do things nobly.’
That leaves us with hopes of one of these ‘noble’ players using the opportunity to make a political statement, maybe backing the grassroots social justice organisations, the calls for a republic in the wake of the big game hunter’s abdication or the Catalonian independence movement. But the evidence is these players don’t expose their flawless football careers to external faultlines, so, like expectations of an early upset or an eventual end to Spain’s prominence, don’t bet on it.
Posted by Murray W