The Spanish Inquisition: The Football Column
It’s time to write something fun, so I’m going to explain soccer to you all. However, because it’s “football” everywhere in the world except the United States and Australia, even in non-English speaking countries like Spain where the words “foot” and “ball” do not exist (¡that’s “pie” and “pelota” to you!), that’s what I’m generally going to call it. Let’s face it, it just sounds manlier than “soccer.” I hope all you “American football” fans will understand. (Isn’t it ironic that the only men who actually touch the ball with their feet, the punter and kicker, generally aren’t considered “real football players”?)
Soccer/football is the world’s most popular sport, and it’s not hard to understand why. People typically follow the sports they played in their youth – tennis fans, for instance – and everybody in the world played football when they were kids. You can pick up the rules within 30 seconds, and most importantly, the only equipment you need is a ball, or even something that can function like one, such as a pair of rolled-up socks. Any landmark can be a goal. Thus football is the sport of the poor, i.e. most of the people on the planet, and they stay devoted forever. Every time I walk past a beach or a playground, I see a group of people playing, be it 5-year olds who are too short to run or 40-year olds who are too fat.
Why isn’t the sport as popular in America as it is everywhere else? I can only conjecture, but I’ll lead with this: we’re a peculiar sort of people, isolated from Eurasia and Africa by water and from Latin America by language. We’re never even had to learn the metric system. The countries most similar to us in this regard are Canada and Australia, and oddly enough, soccer isn’t big there, either. Soccer didn’t take off in Europe and South America until after the first World War, and by that time baseball and American football had already entrenched themselves in our culture. In the north, hockey was a more natural climactic fit. Basketball became popular after the Second World War, and it was a more natural fit for our poor, who reside predominantly in our cities. So when soccer arrived here, its rivals already had entrenched positions. The strong went to American football; the tall to basketball; the quick to baseball. The world’s beloved football was a “sport for pussies.”
Soccer is growing in the U.S. now, but it’s doing so among a different set: the cosmopolitan middle class, especially kids with European exposure (like, um, me). It’s by far the most popular youth sport, largely because you can throw 22 kids out there and be pretty sure no one’s going to break the rules or will get hurt. When we talk about mothers as a voting bloc, we don’t call them “baseball moms.” Some of these kids are going to be really good when they grow up. The other group in America that’s pushing the game is the immigrants from Latin America. For now, many of the children from these families can’t play for their school teams because they have to work to support themselves, but when Latinos are integrated into our society and raise their economic status, we’re going to have a bounty of footballers and fans on our hands. I have high hopes for our national team over the next twenty years.
Many American spectators think that football is boring, and given the natures of our favorite sports, this is a perfectly understandable phenomenon. All three of our major sports feature hundreds of short bursts of action and long breaks. Everyone knows this about baseball – they realize it somewhere between the fourth and fifth time a pitcher throws to first base during a single at-bat, or when a commercial break between half-innings is longer than the half-inning itself – but for Europeans, this is the defining characteristic of American football as well. Everyone gets together for thirty seconds to figure out what they’re going to do. Then they line up, and they do something for five to ten seconds, and then everyone has to sit through another thirty-second huddle, and so on, and so forth…not to mention the TV timeouts between every change of possession, the regular timeouts, the quarter and halftime breaks, the instant replay reviews. A regular football game takes two and a half hours to complete, and of the 60 minutes on the clock, most of that is run off in the huddle. The Super Bowl lasts four hours! Basketball is better because you can have 2 to 3 minutes of continuous action, but play still restarts after every basket; the clock is only 40-48 minutes, and every 4 minutes of play, everybody stops for a TV timeout. And furthermore, the advertisers get to tell the officials how long the TV timeouts will be.
We are conditioned to this clutter of stoppages and advertisements, but for everybody else in the world, it’s maddening. Compare this to the simplicity of soccer: two 45-minute halves of running clock, two huge chunks of time in which nobody can stop play for advertisements. Yes, play stops for injuries, but the time is then added to the end of the half (rather arbitrarily, I’ve noticed). All the commercials run during halftime, when you know you don’t have to watch them. On the field, play is always developing, with stoppages for fouls and out-of-bounds similar to those in basketball. At any moment, a goal could be scored. You can’t leave your seat knowing the ball’s only on the 20-yard line because it’s so easy to make up the other 80.
If the game’s so “exciting,” American skeptics say next, then why are goals so rare? Well, with so many people on the field who can drop back in front of the net, scoring is very hard to do. It requires either a complete defensive breakdown or a moment of offensive brilliance. The goal of football tactics is to create a situation where a goal is inevitable, as a friend of mine once said. Every one that’s scored is a euphoric moment because you never know when – or if – the next could come. Anything could be the game-winner.
“Official” football has a couple more complicated rules, so I’ll explain them here. The goalee wears a different jersey than everyone else so the referee knows who’s allowed to use his hands. If the ball crosses the plane of the goal line, it counts. If it goes out of bounds on a sideline, it’s a throw-in; if it goes out on a back line (the one parallel to the goal line), it’s a corner kick. Unlike basketball, it’s legal to put the ball on the out-of-bounds line. You’re only allowed to make three substitutions per game, so they’re almost completely tactical maneuvers; most of the men on the field play all ninety minutes. To prevent “cherry picking,” there’s an offside rule: if your teammate passes to you while there’s no one between you and the goalee, the other team gets the ball. So precision passing is extremely important. If someone’s injured, it’s good sportsmanship, not just in FIFA but everywhere, to kick the ball out of bounds and wait for him to get better or be carted off. Afterwards, the other team then returns the ball to you.
Here’s my interpretation of the foul situation: if you knock someone down without hitting the ball cleanly, or if you use any part of your arms, it’s a foul. If it’s unintentional, there’s only a change of possession. If it’s intentional, you get a yellow card. If it’s heinous, such as breaking someone’s face (Rossi, Italy VS. USA) or stomping on his groin (Wayne Rooney, England VS. Portugal) or of course, head-butting, you get a red card. Two yellow cards in two games gets you suspended from the next contest. Two yellow cards in one game get you a red card and a suspension from the next game. All red cards are expulsions. When you are expelled, nobody can replace you, so your team plays the rest of the game a man down.
To keep track of all this madness, there are three men: the line judges, who make out-of-bounds and off-sides calls, and the main referee, who is supposed to watch all 22 men on the field while also keeping track of time, goals, and fouls. I think this is crazy.
The world governing body of football is FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. That sounds redundant, but I imagine it means “International Federation of Football Associations.” Every country in the world has a national team, and most of the self-described elites are European, so FIFA is basically the UN. They don’t just want soccer. They want social justice. The theme from this year’s World Cup was “A time to make friends.” Before every Cup game, two teams of little kids got to stand on the field with the big boys while their national anthems played. FIFA uses referees from all over the world for its games, even though many of them aren’t professionals and have never officiated elite world players before. They’ve spearheaded a movement against racism, even penalizing countries’ teams for the actions of their fans.
Of course, even if you’re trying to achieve world peace, you can make exceptions for Israel. Their team has to play its World Cup qualifiers against the superior European teams because its Middle Eastern brothers, as they do not recognize Israel as a country, refuse to play games against it. Yet this hasn’t earned the theocrats any sanctions from FIFA. The Israelis fell just short in qualifying this year. They didn’t lose a single game (4 wins, 6 ties), but they didn’t beat up the Faeroe Islands as badly as their rivals did, so it lost the tiebreaker to Switzerland on goal differential. Iran qualified and was quickly dispatched.
Anyone who watched the World Cup, I’m sure, is familiar with its terrible officiating. The most famous example is Argentinean Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in 1986. He literally punched a ball into the net in a 2-1 win over England, but the referee didn’t catch it, much to the chagrin of English fans everywhere. “A little of the hand of God, a little of the head of Maradona,” the ruffian chirped to the press after the game, though he’s later admitted he did cheat. Here in Spain, people are still grumbling about their 2002 quarterfinal loss to South Korea on penalty kicks. The game only ended in a tie because an Egyptian referee disallowed a legitimate Spanish goal at the end of the second half.
The arbiters were similarly awful during this Cup. Before the competition, FIFA ordered them to call more touch fouls than usual in order to promote the “beautiful game.” This lead to more flopping (pretending you’ve been fouled) than usual, which lead to frustration fouls, and so at the end of nearly every game both sides were ready to kill each other. Because the referees were intentionally deviating from their usual patterns to please FIFA, their calls were often inconsistent. The record for most yellow and red cards in a tournament was set during the second round.
Do you remember Zidane making an ass of himself in front of the entire world? He was upset about Marco Materazzi’s taunting but even more so about the Italian defense, who were surreptitiously pushing him around, holding him down, and pulling on his jersey the whole game. Because Zidane isn’t a flopper, the referee didn’t see it or call it. Afterward, Zidane and Materazzi would have rather forgotten about the whole thing, but UN-FIFA couldn’t. They said it was imperative to global sportsmanship that the two kiss and make up. Alas, multilateral talks haven’t achieved anything yet.
Stereotypes frame almost every story the football press writes. On an individual level, they are like so: the best players ever are Pelé and Diego Maradona. Pelé, a Brazilian, is a celibate football monk who travels around the world spreading love and happiness. Diego Maradona played in the 1980’s and 90’s. In the England game I mentioned earlier, he also scored the second goal, when he dribbled past every single player on the English team on his way to the net. This picture of him running is one of football’s iconic images. Maradona is in many ways the anti-Pelé: Argentina is Brazil’s arch-nemesis; he propelled Argentina to the 1986 title with a handball; he was a cocaine addict as a player, and his weight ballooned soon after he retired. But he, not Pelé, is the favorite among football players themselves, and deep down he’s a really nice guy all the same. Other players who get mentions among the pantheon of greats, often depending on the nationality of the writer, are former German defenseman and coach Franz Beckenbauer (who seems to have carte blanche to say whatever the hell he wants), French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, Italian striker Alfredo Di Stefano (also a Spanish favorite for his years of service to Real Madrid), Portuguese striker Eusebio, and English striker George Best (“I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”)
The team stereotypes are even more rigid than the others. Get ready to read these stories again in four years: Brazil plays the best kind of football, the “beautiful game,” chock-full of passing and excitement and samba. Argentina is looking for the next Maradona. Mexico is trying to finally prove itself on the world stage. Germany doesn’t have very good players, and they don’t play the beautiful game, either, but they play very well as a team and are great penalty kickers, so they always win more than they should. Italians play dirty and flop all the time. The French play a beautiful game whose epitome is their genius, Zidane. The Dutch produce the best coaches. England and Spain are both chokers, but England won a title in 1966 so Spain is the most pathetic of all. The Africans are up-and-coming and incredibly athletic, and one of their teams is going to win it all one day. The Arabs aren’t quite “there” yet (despite Turkey’s 4th-place finish in 2002). Asians are disciplined, and they never flop because it would violate their sense of honor. (It was a riot to read stories about South Korea, by the way, because it was always described as the “yellow peril.”) The United States of America is rapidly improving, but it still isn’t all that great, and its nascent domestic league is a joke.
Given this massive amount of conventional wisdom, Greece’s victory in the 2004 Euro Cup (second in prestige to the World Cup) was one of the biggest surprises in the history of world soccer. No one expected them to advance past the first round, let alone beat everyone, including host Portugal in the final game. I’m feeling great just thinking about it. The next World Cup, by the way, is 2010 in South Africa. In 2014, it rotates to South America: Argentina, Brazil, or Colombia. Brazil would need to build 12 new stadiums to be the host, but socialist president Lula, a self-avowed champion of the poor, vowed his government would do anything to bring the World Cup to his people.
This year’s World Cup Final was decided on penalties, leading some purists to grumble that it’s not a fair way to decide a champion. If everyone knows beforehand that it’s going to come to that, though, I don’t see what’s so wrong with it. Making penalties is a soccer skill that you can practice, and some teams are demonstrably better at it than others. If we really don’t want penalty kicks, though, we should either keep playing ad infinitum or simply play another game the next day. Surely the world can wait one more day to have a rightful champion over the next four years, right?
The World Cup doesn’t happen every year. The rest of the time, all these brilliant football players have to make a living, and they do so playing for their clubs in professional leagues. This part of the game isn’t well-known in the United States yet, but now that I’ve been here for a few months, I’ve absorbed it and can bring it home to you.
When you have the entire world as a talent and fan pool, you’re going to have a lot of good players and the potential for a lot of franchises. So, just about every country in the world has a domestic professional league, even impoverished communist states like North Korea and miniscule European principalities like Andorra. Many countries have several professional leagues, stratified for quality like the minor league baseball system. What connects them is an ingenious system of relegation and promotion. At the end of each season, the worst teams from each league are demoted to a lower level, and the best teams from that level replace them. So every team has something to play for, and perennial bottom-feeders like the Kansas City Royals or Arizona Cardinals would be punished for their incompetence, but then their fans could enjoy some wins against lesser competition the next year. Nor can an “expansion team” appear and suddenly play with the big boys. Rather, it has to start from the bottom and work its way up. Building a champion is a lifelong process.
The draft, in which terrible teams can improve their prospects by selecting the best young players the next year, is an American invention. This is impossible in Europe. Either you develop your own prospects inside your youth league teams (which reminds me, high school and college football are practically nonexistent), or you sign them away or even buy them. (Outright player-for-player trades are rare; usually some cash amount is involved.) One of the most common trade routes is South America and Europe. The former has the talent, but the latter has the money. Eventually, all the best players end up in Europe, just as the best players come to America for baseball and basketball. It’s not uncommon to see a Brazilian or Argentinean champion stripped clean of its players within a month of its coronation.
The best analogue for football’s salary structure is major league baseball, in which the New York Yankees ($200 million salary) and the Florida Marlins ($15 million) compete for the same championship. (The opposite model is the socialist NFL and its hard salary cap and shared TV revenues.) Take a look at the salaries for teams in Spain’s best league, “La Liga,” this year. Figures were converted to dollars and rounded to the nearest million.
Source: Marca Guía de la Liga 2006-2007
1 USD = 0.75 euros
Real Madrid – $462,000,000
Barcelona – $374,000,000
Valencia – $187,000,000
Atlético de Madrid: $134,000,000
Deportivo de la Coruña: $103,000,000
Athletic Bilbao: $60,000,000
Real Sociedad: $53,000,000
Racing de Santander: $40,000,000
Celta Vigo: $32,000,000
Mallorca: Unknown, but a middle-tier club
The best part? Celta Vigo won in Real Madrid’s stadium last night. This leads me to believe that there is a large contingent of “middle-class” players who produce results comparable to the superstars’ for much less money. My host family, however, is blaming the defeat on crooked officiating. According to them and the Madrid press, Spanish officials are for Barcelona and against Real Madrid. So now the teams everywhere I’ve lived – suburban Indianapolis, Duke University, Madrid – are victims of referee conspiracies.
Judging from the chart, it’s no surprise that the most popular American sports team, indeed the only one that most non-North Americans recognize, is the Yankees. In America, we always whine about how much money they spend, but no one ever talks about salary caps or revenue sharing here; it would be suicide for merchandising and for international reputation to place such limits on your standard-bearers. When there are 15 Steinbrenners spread across the continent, you need your Yankees to be as lavish as possible. When the Boss apologized to New York fans because he didn’t win them a championship this year, he sounded more like the president of Real Madrid than the owner of an American team.
These are the most historically significant football clubs: Real Madrid (Spain), Barcelona (Spain), Manchester United (England), Liverpool (England), Arsenal (England), Juventus (Italy), AC Milan (Italy), Inter Milan (Italy), Bayern Munich (Germany), Ajax (Netherlands), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands), Olympique Marseille (France), Benfica (Portugal), Porto (Portugal), Celtic (Scotland). A new giant is Olympique Lyon, which has won five consecutive French titles and is going on a sixth.
Any of these teams could compete in the World Cup. Consider the ideal Barcelona starting lineup: Zambrotta (Italy), Thuram (France), Puyol (Spain), Sylvinho (Brazil), Márquez (Mexico), Deco (Portugal), Xavi (Spain), Ronaldinho (Brazil), Eto’o (Cameroon), Messi (Argentina). Only goalee Victor Valdés didn’t make a national team; he was an alternate for the Spaniards. Sitting on Barcelona’s bench are fellow international studs Edmilson (Brazil), Van Bronckhorst (Holland), Iniesta (Spain), Van Bommel (Holland), Gudjohnsen (Iceland), and Saviola (Argentina).
I didn’t mention Chelsea in the above list. That’s because it was nothing special until a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, took over and decided to buy all the best players with his oil money. In his own mind, he’s beating all the others at their own game, but in reality, his is the only big club that’s running a budget deficit. (I’ve heard it’s a couple hundred million dollars. Just think about that.) All the other clubs make up their salaries in ticket prices and especially merchandising. When David Beckham transferred to Real Madrid, for instance, he made up several times his own salary with his jersey sales. Even our Yankees typically run a profit. Whereas the other clubs succeed on their own merits, Chelsea relies solely on its personal fortune. It’s the Paris Hilton of sports.
There are two levels of competition for the best clubs: domestic and international. Most domestic football leagues, unlike their American counterparts, do not use a postseason tournament to determine their champions. Instead, the clubs play a round-robin regular season, with home and away games against every single team. A win nets 2 or 3 points, a tie 1. At the end of the year, the team with the most points is the rightful champion. The schedule is so fair that each team even gets to alternate home and away games so no one has to suffer a long road trip.
This system isn’t feasible for some of our leagues, most especially American football, but I think it has a lot of advantages. The biggest is that the champion is always the team which was the best over the course of the year rather than the one which got hot at the right time (all three of our major champions are examples of this, but the St. Louis Cardinals are especially egregious offenders.) True, you don’t get any great seven-game series at the end of the year, but if two clubs are neck-and-neck at the season’s end, every game they each play will take on great importance, like in the September pennant races. Furthermore, every game a team plays is meaningful. Every February, the NBA season gets boring; most of the playoff positions are set, and everybody’s just playing out the string. That can’t happen here.
There are domestic championship tournaments, but they’re played during off-days of the season, and all of them are modeled after England’s FA Cup, which allows every team in the country to complete for it. Winning your country’s tournament is a nice secondary honor. Also, international qualifying matches and international club games are played during off-weeks in the club season, not the off-season. So a professional football player, all things considered, will play two games a week nearly all year long.
A club wins great honor from a domestic championship, but the highest glory (and the most merchandising dollars) come from victories in international competition. In Europe, there are two levels: Champions League, for the very best international clubs, and UEFA Cup, for the second-best. Qualification for each depends on domestic league performance, so as I said before, the season has meaning for every club – for example, 4th place is highly coveted in Spain because it’s the last opening for Champions. The defending champions are Barcelona, lead by the indefatigable Ronaldinho.
The Champions format is similar to the World Cup, but it has twice as many games and is stretched out over the entire year. Every few weeks, you’ll play a game. Teams who finish in the top half of their groups, determined by round-robin home-and-away games, advance to the elimination phase. Each elimination match, though, encompasses not one but two games, one at the stadium of each team. The team with the highest goal differential wins, so for example Real beats Chelsea 4-1 and then loses 3-2, they advance based on their 6-4 differential. If there’s a tie at the end of both, the team who scored the most goals in their road game wins. (Succeeding away from home proves you’re a badass, as we out-of-state students know.) If the match is still a draw, we go to penalty kicks. The final, the biggest game of the club season, is a one-game ratings extravaganza. This year, Barcelona beat Arsenal on my first night in Spain, before I understood how great football is.
Unlike the United States, Russia, or even Germany, Spain is not an athletic powerhouse. Its people are generally smaller than we are, and finding a gym to work out is too expensive for most citizens. Every champion the country produces, therefore, is a celebrity who receives the adulation of all, from basketball to tennis to motorcycle racing. The night after Spain won the World Basketball Championship, thousands of fans poured into the Plaza de Castilla at 12:00 on a Monday night to party with the players, who sang songs to them to express their thanks. The pantheon of Spanish heroes includes Miguel Indurain, Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario, Rafael Nadal, Pau Gasol, and Fernando Alonso. The latter three appear in every other television advertisement, but no one gets tired of them.
The country adores its individuals, but it lives and dies with the football teams. Euro Cup qualifiers got as much press as the basketball team’s world title. The Madrid-Barcelona game and Alonso’s F-1 championship win occurred on the same day, and the ballplayers got the lion’s share of the front page. Every celebrity must take sides on this contest, the “eternal rivalry.” After every single game that Real Madrid plays, the press writes reams of pages about what this means for the future of the club. The most popular sports talk show is here is “El Rondo,” or “The Round Table,” in which 11 guys and a girl yell at each other for hours and hours. (The 3- and 4-man booths in our sports programs seem quiet and organized now.) Recently, Barcelona lost consecutive games – at Chelsea and at Real Madrid, without Eto’o, its best striker, nothing to sneeze at for certain. Yet that very night, the press was already questioning Coach Frank Rijkaard’s abilities, even though the team won the domestic league and Champions last year.
Football players are celebrities who receive the same treatment as actors both in Spain and in the U.S. Did you know that Zinedine Zidane is a devoted family man? Or that Roberto Carlos is having his first child with his current mistress and his fourth overall? Well, I do now. I suppose I prefer this to the “Where’s Daddy?” culture of the NBA (Shawn Kemp: 8 kids, 7 women, 7 cities.) These guys date some hot women, too. Fat, gap-toothed Ronaldo is currently dating one of the most beautiful young models in Brazil. I wish he wasn’t, though, because his old girlfriend, with whom he has two children, has one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen. She was beautiful; she was a fellow football player, and she also just made you feel good about yourself. He was silly to ever let a woman like that go.
It was a delight to be in Spain for the World Cup this year. I got to know all the players by name; I learned the national team’s song for the year (“¡a por ellos, oé!”) During games, not a soul was in the streets. After every goal, I could hear shouting in all the other apartment buildings on our street. Thousands of fans went to the Plaza de Colón (Columbus for us) to watch the games on big-screen televisions. Maradona was a color commentator for the television network. Because all the other countries’ games were on cable, which we didn’t have, I only saw the Spanish games (and I went to bars to watch the Americans lose), but that was enough. I thought Americans were nationalistic, but then I encountered Spanish football fans. For every game, they wrapped themselves in flags and sang songs about the excellence of their countries.
We started with euphoria: a 4-0 victory over Ukraine which the newspapers declared was “a game to tell your grandchildren about.” Next came a hard-fought 3-1 win over Turkey in the rain, which proved that this club at the fighting spirit it needed to win the title. After a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in which the Spaniards rested their best players, the team was raring to go against Pyrenean rival France. “We’re young and fresh, and the French are old and tired,” was the conventional wisdom. Already the country had one eye on its prospective quarterfinal match against the apparently invincible Brazil. That night, however, Zidane returned to his old magical form. The “old and tired” French proved to be wily veterans. They outsmarted the young Spaniards and sent them home, 3-1.
I’ll never forget standing in the metro that night, surrounded by hundreds of broken fans still draped in red and yellow and wrapped in flags. No one spoke except a group of young girls who were leading cheers to try to brighten everyone’s spirits. Alas, they weren’t Spanish; they were Mexican. “Four more years,” I heard. The thoughts written on their faces were too hard to ignore. “We have to wait four more years to even get back here, and who knows what’s going to happen between now and then?” And then the ultimate question – “Are we ever going to win a championship in my lifetime?” They only have these things every four years, after all. A whole generation of players can pass within two of them. Only seven different countries have won it; how long would it take for my America to catch up with them? I began to see why each Cup is so deathly important – each one is an opportunity you can never get back.
Many of the Spanish league’s best players, now and throughout history, have been foreigners who didn’t start speaking Spanish until they arrived here. (The best players all know multiple languages, quite an impressive feat.) Ronaldinho one of the country’s biggest celebrity; I see his goofy smile on Trident billboards all over the country. Before him there were Zidane (5th mention this article!), Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Van Cruyff, Eusebio, and Di Stefano. Some Spanish play for prestigious clubs overseas, especially Cesc Fábregas for Arsenal and Luis García and Xabi Hernández for Liverpool. The coaches of Real Madrid and Barcelona are an Italian and a Dutchman, respectively. Yet for some reason, people here believe that only a Spaniard can be a coach for the Spanish National Team; that the players would only listen to a fellow countryman. In my opinion, that’s the real reason the Spanish team has never won a World Cup: they’ve never had a top-quality leader.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised about this. The top decision-makers for the national team are members of the national government’s Ministry of Sport and Recreation, and we can’t trust the government to do anything right. If I were the Minister of Sport and Recreation, then, I would make a play for Brazilian coach Luis Felipe Scolari, who won the 2002 World Cup with Brazil and took Portugal, a country with inferior players to Spain, to 4th place this year. “The Portuguese had the talent; all they needed was a warrior’s spirit,” said Scolari. The Spanish players could use some of the same, having languished for years under management which doesn’t deserve them. This is a young and promising group, and there’s still time to make them the best in the world.
The best Spanish player of all time, according to the scribes, is Raúl. He goes by his first name because his last, González, is too common to be recognizable. He was a lower-middle class kid from the Madrid suburbs who had to take hour-long bus rides to the Real Madrid youth team’s practice facilities every day. He always dreamed of playing for the big club one day, and after impressive performances on Real’s farm teams, he finally got his wish one day. He debuted in a defeat but later proved himself a brilliant striker who had a knack for bridging the gap between the midfield and the front line. He was front and center for Real Madrid’s great triumphs at the end of the ‘90s, and before he knew it, the poor boy was a multimillionaire, playing for his favorite team, happily married to a supermodel with whom he has four children. After every goal he scores, he looks up to his wife in the stands and kisses his wedding ring.
Then things started to turn for the worse. In the 2000 Euro Cup, Raúl missed a penalty kick that would have kept the Spanish side alive, and they came home empty. (I still see replays on TV today.) With Raúl as the focal point of the offense, the Spaniards fell in the 2002 World Cup to South Korea, with a Raúl goal overturned in highly controversial fashion. Spain was Greece’s first victim in Euro 2004. The two sides had equal points and equal goal differential, but Greece scored more overall and thus won the tiebreaker. Raúl’s job is to score goals, so this fell on him. Real Madrid was in decline as well: the club was letting too many promising young players get away in exchange for aging stars who had nothing to prove. Barcelona and Valencia overtook it. Last year, Raúl suffered a knee injury which knocked him out of the Real lineup and continued to limit him throughout the 2006 World Cup, another heartbreaking Spanish defeat.
Even now, the hero of Spain is struggling to return to his old form; the national coach left him out of Spain’s lineup for the latest qualifier, which broke his heart and caused a national scandal; some Spaniards have already started to turn against him and say he’s overrated and past his prime. Yet he continues to work nobly for the team. After Real lost to Getafe, a much lesser club from the Madrid suburbs, Raúl asked management to cut him from the team because he couldn’t justify making so much money when he was playing so poorly. The club denied him, and Raúl was vindicated when he scored the first goal in the team’s victory over Barcelona last week. Perhaps the boy from the suburbs has some magic left in him, after all.
Raúl’s club, Real Madrid, is one of the greatest of all time. It is only one of three to have never been relegated to a lower league. It has won 29 Spanish titles and 9 European Championships, both the most of anyone. 112 of its members have played on the Spanish national team. It has apparently unlimited financial resources, and it plays in one of the most beautiful stadiums in the world.
So who’s the George Steinbrenner holding it all together? There isn’t one. Real Madrid is Europe’s version of the Green Bay Packers. The owners of the club are the stockholders, or “socios.” There are thousands of them scattered through the city and country, from the mighty to the lowly. One is a 104-year old nun who bought a stake in the original club. Another is Jorge, the 41-year old son of my host family, a bachelor who still lives with us. He doesn’t even watch the team’s games because he has to work all night as a chauffeur. The stockholders get preferential treatment for ticket purchases, and they also elect the team president, who makes personnel decisions.
I was in town for the Real Madrid election this year, and it was a spectacle of the advantages and the perils of democracy. All five of the candidates were rich old men, and according to my professors, they were also “manchado” – “stained,” with past criminal actions or mob connections or the like. For his “platform,” each candidate promised he would sign certain players and coaches, and each sought the endorsement of great men of the team’s past. For a comparison, imagine Mark Rich running for president of the Chicago Bulls and promising to sign Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker, Ben Wallace, and Ray Allen. It sounds too good to be true, sure, but it also sounds really good. How can you turn down something like that? And it’s hard to forget that on these foundations, our own government is made.
Voting was by mail, and candidates bought billboards in the city. One day, in my apartment, I saw a tall, awkward man with a white T-shirt that read, “Vote what you feel: Ramon Calderon for President of Real Madrid.” Never mind that Calderon is the son of Vicente Calderon, the most famous owner of crosstown rival Atlético Madrid. People voted their consciences, by God! And Ramon Calderon was the winner! (The other candidates are still hanging around, accusing him of fraud, by the by.)
Calderon’s primary campaign promise was that he was going to win the title right away. He promised the voters Juventus coach Fabio Capello and midfielders Cesc Fabregas, Kaká, and Arjen Robben. He did deliver Capello, but unfortunately, Arsenal, AC Milan, and Chelsea, respectively, didn’t agree to give Calderon their best players as victory presents. Instead, Calderon inked Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, Juventus midfielder Emerson, Mamadou Diarra, and Juventus (and more famously, Italian) defenseman Fabio Cannavaro. That’s a great haul, but some fans are still upset that their democratically elected leader didn’t keep all his campaign promises. I saw him give an interview in front of Santiago Bernabeu before a game one day, and throughout, fans were yelling at him, “Where’s Kaká?!”
I’ve had the good fortune to attend two Real Madrid home games this year, against Real Sociedad and Atlético Madrid. The real star of both games was the team’s stadium, Santiago Bernabeu (named for the club’s greatest owner). There are 80,000 seats and not a bad one in the house. I had one of the cheapest seats in the house, but I still had postcard-quality views of everything below. The whole place is clean, organized, and air conditioned. The grass is impeccable. The game program is free. About an hour before play starts, the team bus drives by so everyone can catch a glimpse of their heroes. (I spotted Raúl and Ronaldo.) There are food, ticket stands, and bars all around the perimeter and inside. The building itself is aesthetically pleasing, and it’s breathtaking to see the whole thing lit up at night, both from the outside and the inside. Despite its size, it conducts sound reasonably well. There’s a metro station right outside the building, so arriving to the stadium is quite easy (though catching a ride back isn’t). The fan base is rather heterogeneous in age and race. It’s even beautiful to look out over the parking lot at night and see thousands of people all milling about in different directions, like ants…but clean, beautiful ants.
Real, which was still adjusting to its new players and coach, scored an unimpressive win over Real Sociedad (“The Royal Society”). The crowd wasn’t very happy with them; they simply never got excited. Mostly, people sat and watched the action intently, as if trying to comprehend everything that was happening at once. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo that all football fans are hooligans. Perhaps paying money to watch a game takes some of the joy out of it because it introduces expectations. The Bernabeu reminded me of Cameron without the student section. After I got over missing Duke, though, I focused on the game itself, and I had a great revelation about football: it’s a vision cone sport. From my position on top, I could see where each player should go with the ball, but how would he know? How can anyone see past the three defenders in front of him? The best players, such as Zidane, possess this kind of supernatural vision. Football tactics, I believe, are meant to make up for this general blindness. If there’s a system, each player knows where the others are supposed to be and can better prepare his next move.
The heat turned up for the derby (that’s the word for a game between intra-city rivals) against Atlético, but I often still heard the other team’s fans in the other corner of the stadium a little too clearly. The Real fans busted out some interesting cheers for this one, at least, such as “Vicente Calderon, eres maricón” (“Vicente Calderon ((old Atlético owner)), you’re a homosexual”). During warm-ups, the fans behind one of the goals let down a massive painted replica of Michelangelo’s Creation. Between the fingers of Adam and God was the Real Madrid logo. Many Madrid fans brought their Viking gear; the team strongly identifies with these ancient badasses for some reason. My personal favorite was the sign which read, “We are from Main Street; you’re from the ghetto,” referring to the Atlético’s status as the “poor” team in Madrid. I can’t see that one ever coming to America. This contest ended in a tie. Real Madrid played the last 30 minutes of the game a man down after the controversial expulsion of defenseman Sergio Ramos on two yellow cards. (This was in the middle of a hot streak of officiating for Atlético; two opposing players were expelled controversially in their game against Sevilla the week before, and an Atlético forward scored a goal on a handball the week after this. The ref didn’t see it.) Further, Real Madrid had not “come together” as a team yet.
The peak of the season thus far, however, was the club’s game against Barcelona. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to this one: stockholders snapped up all the tickets for this one, and scalpers were charging me 250 euro minimum. This is one of the marquee games on the football calendar: the two squads have won 47 of the 75 league championships and 11 European titles between them, and they genuinely don’t like each other.
The reason for this goes beyond sports and into the murky world of Spanish politics: Madrid is conservative and very Castilian, and it was the center of power under Franco. Barcelona is the opposite: liberal, trendy, and cosmopolitan. It is very proud of its separate Catalan culture and language, developed from its proximity to France and its outlet to the Mediterranean. During Franco’s rule (1939-1975), he outlawed Catalan and cracked down on any displays of regional culture. He wanted Spain to be united, and Castilian, in every aspect. Franco was also a huge fan of Real Madrid, which he considered an advertisement for his government (see: 1936 Olympics, Berlin). Barcelona’s football team thus became a symbol of the Resistance. Once Franco died, Catalan culture could flourish again, but enmity between the two teams remained.
Even now, it seems like the management of the two clubs betrays these distinctions. Real Madrid’s management is democratic, and for this reason it’s risk-averse. It throws huge money at already-established stars and flavors of the moment and demands immediate results. Madrid’s sponsor is Siemens, a multinational corporation. The team’s jersey is plain white with black trim. Under Capello, it plays rather dull, defensive football, as if it’s hiding in its shell and waiting for the other team to make a mistake before going on the attack. Capello is a 60-year old man whose facial expression never changes. He’s always sitting on the sidelines in his trench coat, arms crossed, and a stony look on his face.
On the contrary, Barcelona’s owner is an open Socialist. The team’s “sponsor” is UNICEF: the club sends 0.7% of its earnings to the program every year for the right to have their name in its jerseys. (The day this sponsorship was announced, Real Madrid lost to Olympique Lyon. A political cartoonist drew a profile of a smiling Ronaldinho, whose jersey sported the UNICEF logo, adjacent to one of a grumpy Raúl whose Real Madrid jersey read “Losers Without Borders.”) Barcelona’s jersey alternates blue and red stripes; it should clash, but the colors are dark, so it looks attractive. The management takes chances on young players, slowly developing them so they’ll eventually pay off in spades some day (as Ronaldinho and Leo Messi have). Its preferred style of play is the “beautiful game,” the wide-open play symbolized by its cheerful catalyst, Ronaldinho. Its coach, Frank Rijkaard, is young and attractive and an aficionado of trendy suits.
Last year, Barcelona defeated Madrid 3-0 inside Santiago Bernabeu, earning a rare standing ovation from the crowd, and the crowd was justifiably nervous about this year’s result. All week, the local news stations ran segments about the same and showed highlights of great goals of contests past. The game itself didn’t run on network TV; a satellite company bought the rights, and it advertised that fact for months. So I dropped into a bar to watch the game with friends.
Within two minutes, while I was still in the metro, much-maligned Raúl broke the ice with a header on the cross from Sergio Ramos. The crowd celebrated wildly, and Raúl did his ring kiss at the end of it all. Then the rain starts to fall. Madrid was playing rough with Barcelona to negate the latter’s technical advantage, and Ronaldinho and the other players were getting frustrated. Leo Messi was brilliant on the sides, but he could never connect with his striker, Gudjohnsen, who was a substitute for Eto’o, out 5 months with an injured knee. (By the way, it seems like European soccer players are always getting injured. There is an obvious need for more American trainers here.) In the second half, Robinho, Madrid’s sparkplug, fed Van Nistelrooy on a cross for the second goal. A muddled Barcelona side could never get an attack going, and Madrid enjoyed sweet victory.
As I mentioned earlier, every game inspires a series of new judgments from the Spanish press. This time, Real Madrid and its fans were finally united again. This win had proved to aficionados that all was well with the club: it had returned to its core values of guts and hard work. Also, because the team members had ended the game happily embracing each other, the mercenaries were finally coming together as an army. Capello was a genius again. Barcelona had showed it wasn’t the same elite team without Eto’o, and perhaps Rijkaard wasn’t as great a coach as everyone thought he was.
Yes, it’s a world of absurd excess, but it has its sublime moments, as well. The amazing goals are the most obvious, but I also love the joyous celebrations afterwards, both by the players and by the fans back at home. There’s the kinship that people feel all over the world for their teams: Spain is never as united as it is behind the national squad. The Ivory Coast called a cease-fire in its civil war so both sides could enjoy the World Cup. And there are the times, like when I read that Ronaldo turned professional at age 16, that you realize that for so many players, their God-given physical talents, and our appreciation of them, are the only thing keeping them and their families out of poverty. Then the whole endeavor doesn’t seem so silly, after all.
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