What a momentous day for Spain! Its football team won the Euro Cup for its first major title in forty-four years, and as neurotic as so many people are about “The Beautiful Game,” which is the only major sport in most countries, this title means more to the Spanish than it would to anyone else because the team practically constitutes the national identity. Phil Ball, a columnist for ESPN, has detailed this better than I ever could, but I’m guessing you don’t have his book Morbo in front of you, so I’ll give you my own version.
The classical image of Spain – bullfighting, Carmen, siestas – is really that of traditional Andalucía, the southern region. The regions of Spain are more politically autonomous and culturally diverse than even the three countries of Great Britain. Much as Mandarin passes for “Chinese” in textbooks, what we call “Spanish” is truly Castilian, the language of a region in the center of the country. Galicia in the northwest is more similar to Ireland (in looks) and Portugal (in language) than to Andalucía and its counterparts. Cataluña was a buffer between France and Islam in the Middle Ages, and it’s still half-French today. The Basques have an extra bone in the back of their heads, an inscrutable language that sounds like it came from the depths of the earth, and a coterie of citizens with such fierce feelings of regional autonomy that they have terrorized the rest of the country for fifty years as the paramilitary organization ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna: sounds real Spanish, right?).
The various regions of the Iberian peninsula were allied in resistance to the 781-year Muslim occupation and united by a series of clever political marriages during the Renaissance, culminating in the person of King Philip II, whose DNA entitled him to the kingdoms of Castilla, León, Navarra, Aragón, Granada, and Portugal, not to mention the Netherlands, Naples, and Milan. The countries you recognize slipped out of the bargain by the 18th century, but for the others, the Hapsburg dynasty initiated centuries of suffering under Madrid’s bad decisions. Only Franco was openly hostile to regional culture, but Basque and Cataluña, the first to industrialize, had seethed about paying tribute to the backwards and incompetent central government for generations before him.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is also extremely relevant. “Guernica,” Picasso’s portrayal of the Nazi bombing of a Basque town, is a cultural touchstone. The last cities to fall to the Nationalists were the Aragonés cities of Barcelona, Tarragona, and Valencia, as well as Madrid, which would be Franco’s headquarters for the next thirty-five years. Even now, the people of Spain seem to be split 50-50 on the war, and the power struggle between Madrid and the other regions, clandestine in Franco’s time, is basically the country’s foremost political issue. It plays out on the football pitch, as well, in a fashion more intense and personal than any rivalry in America. Real Madrid was Franco’s ambassador to Europe, his pride and joy, and the club benefits from shady land deals even today. Josep Sunyol, president of FC Barcelona during the Civil War, was murdered by Franco’s soldiers, and Franco’s regime pressured Barcelona to throw a league cup game to Madrid in 1943 (score: 11-1). The stadiums of Barcelona and Bilbao were long the only places in which the fans could speak their native languages.
All this makes for some cracking club football, but having a successful national team is pretty difficult when so many of the players don’t want to be a part of the nation in the first place. Cataluña and Basque have their own national teams, but the Spanish government doesn’t let them play anyone besides each other (as the United States learned when it tried to schedule Cataluña for a match this year), so the regions’ best grudgingly come out for the red and gold. International critics have called the Spanish side mentally fragile, but in my opinion, if the team fell apart it was because they weren’t comfortable playing together in the first place. The players were all technically skilled, so they made beautiful football together, but they didn’t care about each other or the cause enough to dig deep and win when rough teams like the Italians took the fun out of the game. Germans, on the other hand, very much like being German, and their national team is renowned for its teamwork and achievement. I usually hate generalizations like this, but in a game like football, which is so dependent on imagination and harmony among the players, and in a country like Spain with such a troubled history, my explanation is certainly more reasonable than the cliché that the players, all of whom were steely enough to reach the top of their profession, were cursed or neurotic.
The coach of this year’s squad, at seventy years of age, was too old to care about curses or politics. Even his name was perfect, though no one has ever noticed it before: Luis Aragonés, his surname descending from the <i>other</i> famous kingdom of Spain, contending for more than half his tenure with Castilla’s bureaucrats, scribes, and flagship club. The reason for the discord? He refused to include Raúl, the top scorer in Spanish history, and Guti, a genius midfielder, both lifelong players for Real Madrid, on the national team. Tactically, the decision was puzzling because both were brilliant this season, but from an emotional standpoint, it was a masterstroke. Spain has always had talent, but Aragonés wanted chemistry. If the players enjoyed each others’ company enough, they’d win for each other and leave politics out of it. Guti is a space cadet who can’t inspire others. Raúl is arrogant; he plays favorites, and while he is full of nationalism, it is the rah-rah Castilian kind that whitewashes the indispensable contributions of the rest of the country. This team, freed from Raúl’s presence and personality, could come into its own. By all reports, it was loose and jovial throughout the tournament, and it was notably superior to its predecessors.
The complexity of Spanish nationalism was evident throughout today’s game. The national anthem, sung before every national team match, does not have any lyrics: Franco provided his own, but the state is understandably uncomfortable about using them. The king and queen were on hand, but understandably they mean more to some people than to others. The Socialist prime minister, Jorge Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, was born and raised in Castilla but perversely supports FC Barcelona. The Spanish crowd was boisterous from the start, but it was conspicuously quiet from the seventieth minute to the end, as if it couldn’t believe that a side which had suffered from so many officiating travesties, penalty kick defeats, and inexplicable meltdowns could actually win a major tournament. I was reminded of the people I saw in the Madrid subway the night of the nation’s defeat in the 2006 World Cup: faces to the floor, flags drooping from their shoulders, the young wondering how the world could be so cruel and the old wondering if they’d ever see another title in their lifetimes.
They didn’t have to wait long, it turned out. The team is in a zone. It hasn’t lost since fall 2006 and hasn’t conceded a goal in 360 minutes of play. Its dazzling one-touch passes, mocked in defeat, are now the toast of the continent, and because the team was the second-youngest in the tournament, there’s a good chance the country could soon do something it never has before: win the World Cup. The negative energy which buzzed around every tournament is dispelled. The manager’s term is up, but his replacement, Vicente Del Bosque, had a very successful run at Real Madrid, and since the Madrid crowd has stabbed him in the back before, he shouldn’t be too beholden to them.
What makes me glow the most, however, is the way this team’s success has united the country. The last title literally came under the auspices of Franco. This was the product of an actual state in a more joyful time. These people, who have never truly been together, have seen that without the contributions of every region, this beautiful moment could have never happened. That is as important for the Madridistas as it is for everyone else. In a time when the EU security umbrella is encouraging some countries, such as Belgium, to split apart, the Spanish have a new collective memory to solder them together.