Tag Archive 'catalonia'

Jun 15 2010

Profile Image of Joaquin Bueno

From Underacheivers to Overwhelming Favorites: What Could a World Cup Win Do for Spain?

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.

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Nov 09 2009

Profile Image of Joaquin Bueno

A Gypsy on the selección; Cruyff for Cataluña; Ronaldo and the Cost of Losing

This article from goal.com tells the news of a sensational Spanish player, Jesús Navas, who has been lighting up the Primera División for a few years now with Sevilla. Before this call-up, Navas had been unable to play for the national team largely due to an anxiety problem in which severe homesickness and fear of new surroundings would cause him nervous breakdowns.

He is a fast, intelligent, artful, and creative talent who will surely be a lively spark in the Spanish side, in addition to being a classic wing-player with an extensive repertoire of tricks up his sleeve. Navas happens to be of Romani heritage, and is one of many greatly successful gypsy players in Spain (José Antonio Reyes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two well-known examples).

This to me is significant, being that in Spanish football media, it has long been commonplace to refer to a player’s regional ethnicity, even when the play for the national team. We can think of the Catalan players such as Fábregas, Xavi, Puyol, and so forth who have been essential parts of the team. David Villa, Spain’s most deadly goalscorer, is commonly referred to with the Asturian nickname El Guaje. Xabi Alonso, one cannot forget when reading a game summary, is the stalwart Basque at the heart of play. The list goes on and on.

However, when it comes to gypsy players, the use of Romani nomenclature is nowhere nearly as common in the headlines. We could speculate as to the many reasons why. Looking into the history of the 20th century, we can see the Franco regime’s insistence on creating a dialectic of a united Spain composed of various concrete regions. Basques, Galicians, Andalusians, etc, combine as one Spanish nation. However, his vision, while incorporating essential elements of gypsy heritage, such as the propaganda machine’s appropriation of flamenco culture, did not necessarily name the gypsy people as a part of this dialectic, despite having been in Spain over 500 years. A very similar thing happened to a degree with negation regarding the Jewish, Berber, and Arab history of Spain, while at the same time appropriating certain exemplary symbols (think the Alhabmra or the Mezquita of Córdoba). A good example of this is the Alcázar of Toledo, its name coming from the Arabic word for fortress, where a Republican siege was defended for weeks by nationalist forces within. It to this day stands as a monument for the “will of united Spain,” though its face is that of Franco’s supporters who seized power by force and maintained it by various forms of forceful control.

In the case of the Roma, or gypsies, their reality continues to be one that is outside of the margins in Spain’s national identity. While there are successful Romani people, Navas being one of them, the word gitano still carries negative connotations, loaded with stereotypes regarding the “nature” of gypsy people. For the most part, the participation of gypsies in international football has gone unheralded, and in Spain, the profiles of such players are often accompanied by accounts of how their gypsyhood impedes their integration. Before Navas, there was José Antonio Reyes; many media sources, from Spain to England, claimed that homesickness prevented his success at Arsenal, while the common joke in Spain was regarding how he was going to learn English when he could hardly speak proper Spanish.

From Elsewhere in Spain (and elsewhere beyond… Iberia)

Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz has invited great controversy by calling up an injured Cristiano Ronaldo to the Portuguese national team for their crucial World Cup playoff later this week. CR has not played in nearly a month for Real Madrid, and his prognosis is another 3 weeks before he is in top shape. Despite this, Queiroz has intimated that he might call on him to help Portugal’s bid. Much intrigue now. For one, Real Madrid is threatening to not permit him to go. Not only would this severely irritate all of Portugal, but it would also potentially limit Portugal’s chances of being the World Cup, and subsequently prevent one of football’s biggest names from being there (oh, the marketing calamity!). On the other hand, there is some history here. Queiroz was briefly Real Madrid’s coach before being unceremoniously dumped; he remains in the Bernnabeu’s collective memory as one of their worst ever recent coaches. Plotting revenge, Carlos?

Johan Cruyff has been named Catalonia’s head football coach, a job which is ceremonious considering that 1. there is no pay and 2. Catalonia is not a FIFA-recognized team. Their games are symbolic in nature and, obviously, not official. When asked about not being able to speak Catalan, Cruyff responded jokingly that his Spanish wasn’t that great either, and that he could hardly speak even Dutch. Nonetheless, a valued (“Dutch”) icon of Catalan difference assumes his seat at the throne of the symbolic Catalan football empire.

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