With apologies to the English Premier League, and its last-day, last-minute thrills – few fixtures could ever match the ridiculous, sublime spectacle of Manchester City versus QPR, with its red card mayhem and flurry of late goals – we are living in the era of La Liga and Spain. (Serie A induces solemnity; the Bundesliga stolidly plods along.) No matter that Barcelona and Real Madrid failed in their bid to make it an all-Spanish Champions League final: these two fierce rivals waged a classic dogfight at the top of the Spanish league table, with Ronaldo and Lionel Messi putting on a goal-scoring show for the ages. The UEFA cup final, however, was an all-Spanish affair, with Madrid’s other team, Atletico, besting Athletic Bilbao, one of the most venerable clubs in the league.
And let us not forget Spain’s national team – winners of Euro 2008; the reigning world champions and favourite to win Euro 2012. The side begin their defence of the European Championship against Italy tomorrow evening.
Rarely in the history of Spanish football have the fortunes of the national team and club synchronised with such happy results. Club success has never been Spain’s problem; it has been national greatness that, until recently, has proved so elusive, to the dismay of this football-mad nation.
As Jimmy Burns shows in La Roja, his lovely account of football in Spain, getting all of that nation’s constituent parts – its flamboyant personalities, its fractious regional nationalisms, its political passions, its various styles of play – to work together took the better part of the 20th century. Burns is, of course, well-equipped to tell this story: born in Madrid and a long-time Financial Times correspondent posted to many football-playing parts of the world (South America, Portugal), Burns has spent decades observing La Liga. And while he may be for Barca, the subject of another fine book by the author, this account isn’t the least bit partisan, which is a major achievement in its own right.
However much it might dent national pride to say so, the Spanish game is a mongrel product. Outsiders have made their mark. The British brought football to the country in the late 19th century; Catalans and Basques perfected it in the early 20th; and an influx of foreign players – Real Madrid’s great Argentinian-born forward Alfredo di Stefano foremost among them – gave the game a much-needed spit shine in the 1950s. As Burns writes: “The engagement of foreigners with homegrown Spanish talent overcame political adversity and produced soccer of sublime skill, passion and huge entertainment value. But it proved a long road.”
Burns elegantly traces the evolution of the Spanish game from its roots in Andalusia, where British mining engineers first kicked around the football, and the Basque country, through the dreary Franco years up to the emergence of La Liga as the billion-dollar juggernaut it is today. Athletic Bilbao were one of the pioneers of Spanish football. Indeed, the Basques have played an outsize role in defining football in Spain, and have given the game a colourful gallery of players.
Basques dominated the first Spanish international selection, which shocked the world by winning a silver medal at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. Jose Maria Belauste, “210 pounds of square-shaped muscle”, scored the decisive goal against Sweden, one of the most memorable in all of Spanish football’s history. (The giant Belauste overpowered a clutch of swarming Swedes as he drove the ball into the goal, and a legend was born.) His Bilbao teammate Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, “Pichichi”, the little duck, was a prolific goalscorer and the exact physical opposite of Belauste. Yet the striker cut a devastating swath through Spanish club competition in the years leading up to the Antwerp games, scoring 200 goals in 170 matches. Catalans also contributed two decisive personalities to this first famous generation of Spanish footballers: the matinée idol handsome Ricardo Zamora – the elegant goalkeeper sported a cloth cap and white sweater on the field – and the renowned Josep Samitier, known for his ability to play nearly every position on the field. He was also later manager of FC Barcelona.
As a group, the team defined a muscular, bruising, virile style of play that became known as “La Furia” (the fury). After Spain tore itself apart during the Civil War – Burns’ chapters on football between 1936 and 1939 are sombrely trenchant – the victorious Franco exploited the resonant meanings of La Furia. He repressed the Basque language, but could still point to Basques as exponents of Spain’s warrior soul. But the tactics could only take Spain so far. The country was isolated and inward in the Franco years, but football served as a bridge to the outside world. Real Madrid emerged as a European force in the 1950s with Di Stefano leading the way as the team won five European Cups between 1956 and 1960.
Politics is an inescapable fact of Spanish football, and especially of the enduring contest that has been at its centre: Real Madrid versus FC Barcelona. This fierce rivalry encapsulates the tensions that wracked Spain’s modern history: right versus left; capital city versus regional periphery; Franco versus anti-Franco. But there has also been much mythmaking. Burns, who holds no brief for Franco, subtly dispenses with the old canard that Real was merely the generalissimo’s tool.
Unlike Barca, “the politics of Real Madrid do no not lend themselves to mottos or manifestos,” Burns observes. Burns quotes Jorge Valdano, former Real player and manager (and no Francoist): “Real Madrid is a team that only thinks in soccer terms, not political or nationalistic ones. I think this is a huge advantage it has over FC Barcelona, which thinks too much in political terms. The worst thing you can do to a soccer player is to give an excuse to justify his frustration.”
Catalans would naturally disagree. The late Bobby Robson, briefly manager of the club in the mid-1990s, once said that “Barcelona is a nation without state, and Barca is its army.” Or rather, “Barca es mes que un club" or “Barca is a more than just a club.” It’s a marketing slogan, but the phrase sharply states the profound importance of the team to the very marrow of Catalan identity.
Nevertheless, the club arguably changed the way the game is played in Spain, turning away from La Furia and towards something more poetic. Outsiders again proved influential. In the 1970s, during the run of Johan Cruyff and manager Rinus Michels, the club created a beautiful synthesis of Dutch “total football” and Spanish power that redefined La Liga.
Whatever the antagonisms between the two clubs, melding their respective strengths was a central task for the Spanish national side. The international team has consumed a platoon of coaches and there is no doubt it is a difficult vocation. But Vincent del Bosque pulled off in South Africa what once seemed impossible. Xavi and Iniesta of FC Barcelona; Casillas and Ramos of Real Madrid. It all worked.
Burns is cautiously optimistic about the future of La Roja. Euro 2012 is upon us. He thinks the team has another decade of greatness ahead of it. Still, as he admits, he could just be tilting at windmills. On the subject of Spanish football, he would not be the first.
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.