As Spain prepares to take on Switzerland on Wednesday, the world is abuzz with anticipation.
Not only are Spain joint favorites with Brazil, but the tournament needs the Spanish team like a fish needs water. After one of the drabbest opening rounds in memory, fans everywhere are looking for reasons as to why things are so awful this time round. The long European season, the austral winter, the security concerns and the stress it creates, the ultra-defensive attitudes, and the worst ball in history that was still round: the Jabulani. Thanks, adidas, for a World Cup with no shots on goal.
The prospect of the Spanish team being true to its image, thus, serves as a necessary riposte from the otherwise disappointing level of play seen so far. The Spaniards seem to be on the rise, even considering their incredible record winning and unbeaten streaks, as well as their scintillating win at Euro 2008.
Having seen the Brazilians struggle to beat North Korea 2-1, the Spanish side brings a promise of a real jogo bonito. The coach, Vicente del Bosque, seems more than likely to be faithful to their image of artful prodigies of world football. Despite coming off the success of 2008, the 2010 squad is one that is still tremendously youthful and not bound to the stereotypical cynicism associated with defending champs who refuse to sacrifice anything in their bid to retain. With enough talent to build two squads, it is easy to forget that Spanish football itself is defined by its strict divisions, often with its bitter political roots.
In the case of this current squad, there is a strong base along the Real Madrid-Barcelona line, with as many as 9 starters featuring from these two banner teams. At the same time, there is also a significant infusion from other Spanish teams such as Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla, not to mention the small but brilliant British contingent in Torres and Fabregas. It is a team filled with Catalans and madrileños, with Basques from Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya, with stars from La Mancha and the Canary Islands.
This diversity of linguistic-ethnic groups has long been associated with an underperformance of the Spanish national team at big tournaments. However, Euro 2008 showcased a side that seemed to be driven much more by professional, global ambition, than by regional differentiation. The team was able to assembe around a single footballing language that made sense not only to them, but to the world.
Laurent Dubois, an avid football fan and historian at Duke University, speaks about the idea of football and the French empire in the 20th century, his study Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France culminating with a discussion of the impact of the World Cup triumph of 1998 on society and politics. Among other things, the triumph (and the run) of the epic ’98 French team generated a maelstrom of political and social debate that went down to the bone of French identity.
The fact that the team was composed of an unprecedented mix of ethnic backgrounds, mostly descending from the French colonies, was a source of contention during their famous run. At the same time, the French victory created a platform for unification, in which the idea of France gloriously embraced post-colonial realities. A once homogeneous identity became multicolored, and under its figurehead Zinedine Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants, realized the possibilities of a truly race-less society.
And yet, Soccer Empire also brings up the question of how long such a feelgood moment lasts before society reverts to its previous patterns, moving on to other, perhaps more immediate concerns.
In the Spanish case, it would be fascinating to see how the politics of autonomous communites play out alongside the progress of the national team. What would happen to the vociferously separatist contingents from the Basque Country and Catalonia? More importantly, what would happen in terms of the public opinion of the masses who follow football, whose opinions are not always represented by their most vocal politicians even in areas with anti-Spanish nationalist ambitions?
Unification seems like a naïve ideal, especially in the context of what many will consider merely a sport, a diversion. Nonetheless, one cannot negate the reality that this sport is a phenomenon resulting from innumberable cultural conditions, and is an important part of the social fabric, occupying not just stadiums, but imaginations and everything that derives from that. Ideas about masculinty, sex, discipline, beauty, violence, and so forth, pass through and are perpetuated by the global game.
For the Spanish team, while we cannot predict the impact they will have on politics and society in general in Spain should they do well, we can certainly know for sure that a deep Spanish run will certainly bring the footballing public a great deal of joy.