Tag Archive 'Spain'

Jul 05 2012

Profile Image of Philip Kaisary

¡Tricampeones! Spain complete their cycle

“Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hands outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
– Eduardo Galeano


They are calling them el generation de fenómenos – ‘the generation of phenomenons.’ On the night of July 1, 2012, in Kiev, the most talented generation of footballers that Spain has ever produced – or, perhaps, will ever produce – fashioned their most lucid performance. With their destruction of Italy by four goals to nil, the largest margin of victory in a European or World cup final, Spain has become the only team to defend successfully the European Championship, and the first international side since the Uruguay teams of 1924, 1928, and 1930 to win a hat-trick – tres tantos – of consecutive major tournaments.

Spain, the perennial underachievers have become perennial world-beaters and record-setters. Much has been made of the fact that the cycle that was set in motion when Spain defeated their bête noire, Italy, on penalties in 2008, a team that they had never previously beaten in tournament football, has now come full circle. Italy has been beaten again, and with panache.

Spain’s recent dominance of world football has been so staggering that we must rouse ourselves from the enchanted state that their mesmeric play is capable of inducing and remind ourselves of its unreal reality: Spain have not so much as conceded a goal in a knock-out game since Zinedine Zidane scored a break-away solo effort in their 2006 World Cup quarter-final against France. Or to put it another way, as Rob Smyth has observed, “Iker Casillas’s net has been untouched for sixteen and a half hours.” Spain’s extraordinary cycle has been defined not only by their inventive and artistic football, but also by their impregnability.

Yet, it is not for achieving their record-setting triptych of victories that Spain 2008–’10–’12 now assumes a place in the pantheon. Hungary 1953, Brazil 1970, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982: football’s immortal sides are not mere winning machines, but the workers of miracles. Last night, Spain’s miracle was to play at a level of such audacious incisiveness, married to an impregnability approaching perfection, that, as Pablo Neruda might have put it, it were as if the moon and the stars lived in the lining of their skin. If it was not quite as astounding as Barca’s 5–0 destruction of Real Madrid in 2010, the spectacle of the condemned Italians chasing Spanish moon-shadows was both exquisite and cruel.

That the Italians had sight of goal on occasion only exacerbated the cruelty of the joke: as if the cat-like Casillas would ever be beaten! Denied agency, Spain’s adversaries became mere victims: the harder Italy chased, bravely competing for territory and possession, the more stretched they became and the more hopeless their cause. By half-time Spain were two goals to the good.

Jonathan Wilson has argued that Pep Guardiola’s final season at Barcelona became like a Greek tragedy – the hero aware of his destiny yet unable to prevent it. This final’s narrative arc also took on something of the hue of Greek tragedy: Spain compelled Italy to chase the game, creating the conditions in which Italian defeat would be fulfilled by their desperate attempts to avert it. The theme of Italy’s defeat had been scripted through the ages: Aeschylus and Sophocles, Yeats, Mann, and Conrad. Italian defenders strained and stretched sinews, contorted their bodies (to breaking point in the cases of Giogio Chiellini and Thiago Motta), pressed and continued to chase, but Spain’s prodigies created or discovered space where none seemed to exist, stretching, manipulating, and piercing defensive lines, seemingly at will. Such exquisite mastery sears itself in the memories of aficionados forever.

The aesthetic aspect of Spain’s sublime technique and dazzling collectivity is consummate evidence with which to buttress Lilian Thuram’s contention: “Footballers can be like artists when the mind and body are working as one. It is what Miles Davis does when he plays free jazz – everything pulls together into one intense moment that is beautiful.”

Intense moments of beauty in which fantasy and reality blur: Xavi’s perfectly measured pass for Jordi Alba in full-flight, inviting the left-back to return to earth to score a goal I had only thought possible on a Playstation; the balletic quality of an Iniesta body-swerve; the high-speed smuggling of the ball through, between, around, and away from Italians all night long; the sublime improvisation inherent to what Xavi calls “mig-toc” – “half-touch” – tiki-taka that maps the coordinates of a beautiful and unrelenting dance: ‘there is only one ball and you shall not have it.’

With Spain’s near flawless performance in Kiev, the argument about the identity of football’s greatest team just got more complicated.

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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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Jan 13 2010

Profile Image of Joaquin Bueno

David and Goliath? Again? Villarreal eliminated by second division strugglers Celta

On paper, the upset of a regular top-4 side like Villarreal by strugglers languishing near the bottom of the rather unglamorous Spanish second division seems impressive. Real Club Celta de Vigo, from the rapidly growing and impossibly gray industrial city of Vigo, are currently in 14th place in segunda, just 4 points from the drop zone. [let’s not forget that demotion from the 2nd division means wallowing in the entrails of the infamous segunda B, veritable quagmire of further ignominy]

Villarreal are in themselves a curious story. The town they are based in, Vila-Real, barely has 50,000 inhabitants (compare that to Vigo’s population of nearly 500,000). Their stadium, El Madrigal, has a remarkable capacity of 25,000 people. Imagine: if the stadium were to sell out at any time, that would represent 50% of the populace of the town. I could just imagine the Camp Nou filled with 800,000 spectators, whistling at their team for failing to connect 24 passes in a row, or for not signing the latest Dutch successor to Cruyff…

Despite their unlikely size, the team from Vila-real has been a staple in recent European competitions, stopped only by Arsenal in the semifinals and another time in the quarterfinals of the Champions’ League. Some of you might recall Eeyore-like midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme’s infamous penalty miss: the color flushed out of his face and he appeared like he was about to vomit for the entire run-up to the failed spot kick. Had he scored the kick, we might have seen another all-Spanish final pending the outcome of extra time (Arsenal went on to lose to Barcelona).

A big reason for their continued success has been the retention of key players, despite losing some big names to bigger teams. Despite losing Pepe Reina, for example, to Liverpool, they replaced him with a more-than-qualified Diego Lopez, a backup at Real Madrid, and made a handsome profit in the process. Similarly, Diego Forlán’s absence has been readily filled by Giuseppe Rossi, Italian international striker, and Nilmar, a current Brazilian international. This is a team that was able to offload their biggest star ever, Riquelme, who was blacklisted by then-coach Manuel Pellegrini. Perhaps their biggest blow was losing their Chilean coach to Real Madrid; this season started horribly for them, as they adjusted to the coaching change. Since then, going into the winter break, the team has reorganized under Ernesto Valverde, and the proof was in their impressive 1-1 draw with Barcelona just over a week ago.

Celta, on the other hand, had a much more illustrious past in the Primera (I refuse to use the improperly anglicized “Primera Liga,” the “First League,” because it makes no sense, and is not what the league is called in Spain: la Primera División). The team earned the nickname “Eurocelta” for their exploits in Europe in the early 00’s, knocking out some big teams in the UEFA Cup, while at the same time playing some of the best football in Spain. Big names came and went for Celta as well. Santiago Cañizares once tended goal for Celta. Michel Salgado was the hometown boy before also being snapped up by Real Madrid. The great Claude Makelele made his name playing in Vigo (not to mention wrecked his first Ferrari there). [on a side note, this brings us to the growing issue of major stars wrecking Ferraris and other overpriced sports cars. Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Karim Benzema (TWICE now!)]

In contrast to Villarreal, we can’t say that Celta were wise about replacing players in a profitable fashion. The team, overextended in European competition and at home, was finally broken by a lack of top-class players and a relatively successful yet taxing Champions’ League campaign and went down to Segunda that same season. And things haven’t looked much better since. Likewise, the city of Vigo worries about its industrial bases. The fishing industry, Vigo’s biggest, looks tired amidst worries about overfishing, dwindling fish stocks, higher oil prices; the car industry [Citröen sponsor Celta and have one of Europe’s largest factories in Vigo] is equally important and imperiled.

With all the talk of the financial crisis, we can think about the idea of the club being a bad business; Soccernomics, a recent book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, discusses this issue in detail, raising questions about just why people continue to invest in this money pit of a sport. Owners are a beleaguered bunch, they emphasize, and considering the heavy crisis already being felt by many small team owners, debt-ridden and struggling to make a profit, things have gotten worse for even big teams in European leagues. A recent Guardian article points out that a team like Manchester United is disastrous on many levels, with dubious administration and massive debts that look like they might go unpaid.

For the small team, one explanation is provided as to why people continue to invest in soccer: it is a cultural institution that provides thrills and joy, heartbreak and defeat. Celta beating Villarreal won’t turn the tides of minnows struggling against the current of the global marketplace; such a victory does, however, vindicate the idea that “anybody” can win, though we shall see how far this fairy tale goes for the celestes in 2010. As I consider them my hometown club, having witnessed the glorious “EuroCelta” years, a part of me wants to not be deceived by false hope!

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Dec 23 2009

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Homage to Catalonia

Perhaps cribbing the title of George Orwell’s famous 1938 account of the Spanish Civil War is a little much. But, seventy years on, with the question of the what status Catalonia has and should have within Spain still a serious issue, football has become an important battlefield in its own way. Yesterday’s victory of the Catalan “national” selection against the Argentinian team, 4-2, represents the latest chapter in this long-running story. Coached by the legendary Johann Cruyff, with a lonely, exiled, Maradona watching from the stands surrounded by opposing fans, the Catalan team shone in a town used to rallying around Barca as a symbol of town and nation. But what does their victory mean?

In an interview with So Foot before the game Jordi Casals I Vilalta, the new president of the Catalan Football Association, spoke of football and politics in the self-contradictory way preferred by sporting officials. On the one hand, he insisted that football isn’t politics, that the football association and the team they were fielding was not “a party.” At the same time, he made clear he considers the existence of the Catalan team itself a signal and a symbol of the aspiration for autonomy and independence. He declared that “when” Catalonia had won its independence, FIFA — which has not recognized the federation or the team — would allow them to play official matches, just like Spain. Indeed, he added that if the team could “help the dream of so many Catalans become a reality,” that would be a positive thing. Having confidently imagined a future independence for Catalonia and hoped that the “national” team of a nation-not-yet could help realize this dream, he then retreated once again, re-affirming that they were doing “football not politics.”

It’s fascinating to me to see how, even in a situation where football is clearly being used for political purposes, those doing the mobilization so frequently deny that this is what they are doing. Why the hesitation? It almost seems as many fear to admit the obvious, and feel compelled to re-assert that sport is not politics. Or else all officials feel an unbending pressure to conform to the dogma that sport is not politics, and to declare this as a kind of self-evident truth, even as they enthusiastically demonstrate the opposite. The very fact of organizing, and paying for, such a big-time match up, and of mobilizing players for the team, makes broader sense only in the context of a political project.

Barcelona fans take pride in the fact that their team’s jerseys are the only ones left in Europe that don’t advertise something. The subtext is that the jersey symbolizes, as the team slogan goes, “more than a club” — that it represents a region, or more: an aspiring nation. To have an advertisement on the Barcelona jersey would, the logic goes, be a kind of violation: after all, national team jersey’s don’t carry advertisements (though of course Nike and Adidas have found many ways to cross that line…). And of course the Barcelona-Real rivalry has long had, as at least one of major components, serious political overtones, something you can read about in detail in one of our Soccer Politics Pages.

The Catalan selection, meanwhile, consisted of volunteers — players who were paid nothing, and who are under no obligation to play, since unlike national teams this one does not have the FIFA-granted authority to call up players. Indeed, Arsene Wenger refused to release Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal to play, though Fabregas had expressed his with to, something he could not have done if the request had come from the Spanish federation.

In watching these events, I couldn’t help think of another case (whose story I tell in my book forthcoming book Soccer Empire) in which football was put to use in pursuit of national independence. During the Algerian war when professional players in France — two of them tapped to play on the French national team in the 1958 World Cup — vanished and re-appeared in Tunisia to form the “national” team of a nation-not-yet. FIFA was much harsher then, punishing several federations who played against the Algerian team, which nevertheless toured in Asia and the Eastern bloc as well as the Middle East for several years.

If that team worked as a political symbol, of course, it was because they were good. They won accolades, and gained audiences, through their vivid and victorious football, in the process spreading the Algerian flag and anthem, and the giving the independence movement a sympathetic and attractive face. Of course, the political contexts of Algeria and Catalonia are drastically different, and shouldn’t be conflated. It’s a different time, a different place, and obviously a completely distinct history.

Interestingly, the French imperial orbit provides us with a few other more contemporary comparisons that might, in fact, be more useful. On the one hand there is New Caledonia, a Pacific territory that is still part of France but has a fairly autonomous administrative situation and seems to be well on the road to full independence. FIFA has already admitted New Caledonia, whose football federation is now independent from the F.F.F. (French football federation) of which it was once a part, and they competed this year in World Cup Qualifying matches. They didn’t make it, but perhaps one day they will — so, perhaps, we can look forward to a France-New Caledonia game down the road. Here, the independent football team has arrived at the end of, and as a result of, a larger political process that included a violent uprising against the French state, and violent repression, during the 1980s before a negotiated settlement put in place the current political process.

On the other side of the world, meanwhile — another story I tell in Soccer Empire — the French Caribbean departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique are both members of CONCACAF, and field teams in the Gold Cup. The Guadeloupean team has been noticed a great deal of late, especially in 2006 when they made it into far into the tournament under the leadership of Jocelyn Angloma, once a star of the French national team. This case might illuminate the Catalan case even better than either Algeria or New Caledonia. Although there has long been a forceful independence movement in both Guadeloupe and Martinique, today it seems highly unlikely that either island will gain independence any time soon. In part, integration into France and therefore into the European Union includes many perks and advantages, and indeed help make Martinique the wealthiest island in the Caribbean. Nationalists in the region have repeatedly mobilized football to political ends, and in a way the inclusion of the islands in CONCACAF is a kind of nationalist gesture, and the Guadeloupean uniforms, red and green, echo the colors of the nationalist flag.  At the same time, however, you might say that it is a beautiful compromise. Guadeloupeans and Martinicans, who are quite football mad, get to have their own “national” teams in the Americas, while also remaining part of the F.F.F., and indeed supplying the French team with an impressive number of its star players — including Thuram, Henry, Gallas and Anelka, to name just a few.

Maybe the Catalan selection will find a similar way forward? What if UEFA admitted Catalonia, so that they could compete in regional competitions, even against Spain? This might be an interesting way to have it both ways, just as a compromise form involving increased local autonomy without independence seems the most likely political future for the region.

Yesterday, in Barcelona, the Catalonian selection showcased effective and at times beautiful football, bringing pleasure and certainly pride to their fans. It was, among other things, a nice moment in the meeting between the “total football” once embodied in Cruyff’s Dutch team and today’s Barcelona football that Joaquin Bueno wrote about here several months ago. Whether a nation awaits, of course, is a rather different matter. But if football doesn’t make politics, it certainly shapes it. The question, of course, is precisely how. Perhaps having a Catalan “national” team on the pitch can assuage, even lessen, nationalist aspirations off of it: people can celebrate the nation in the stadium, and might worry less if they can’t celebrate it elsewhere. Or perhaps having such a team can help to trigger and condense a form of national feeling. And if there is some day — who knows? — an independent Catalan nation, people will probably look back and say that football helped pave the way.

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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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Oct 27 2009

Profile Image of Joaquin Bueno

World’s Most Expensive Team Crushed by Semi-Pros

Filed under Europe,Fans,Spain

Today, in the Copa del Rey (Spain’s Cup, a knockout tournament that goes on at the same time as the league), a tiny, tiny team, Agrupación Deportiva Alcorcón, hailing from the outskirts of Madrid and competing every week in the Segunda B (the third tier of Spanish football), crushed Real Madrid, the most expensively assembled football team in the history of humankind. 4-0, in the bizarre theater that is a lower-division stadium: floodlights, bleachers, an incredulous, pipa (sunflower seed)-munching crowd. The kind of “stadium” that only draws the small-team hardcore fans. Families, locals, the sort that doesn’t want to (or can’t) shell out the cash for season tickets at one of their metro area’s more prominent clubs.

And it was quite a victory for little Alcorcón, who out-hustled, outran, and outplayed the “new” galácticos. Their gut-busting performance knocked the wind of out of the millionaire superstars. Jerzy Dudek, the hero of Liverpool’s last European Cup, looked like he was in mourning after each goal. Guti, Spanish pretty boy, completely lost his cool and was taken off at halftime. Arbeloa, Spanish international and a regular in his own Liverpool days, was a statue. Raúl and Van Nistelrooy couldn’t hit the backside of a barn. Gago gagged. Diarra, well, you could imagine as well.

The nature of the Copa del Rey is that there are two legs, meaning that in a couple weeks’ time, little Alcorcón (I like to add that diminutive to make them sound like a Dickens character) has to visit the Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s home, where they will attempt to visit revenge upon the minnows who beached them. Difficult it shall be, even for a great team, to win by 5 goals in order to advance.

Traditionally, cup competitions have always afforded such opportunities to small clubs. The Copa del Rey has always been a great example. Last year’s final pitted all-winning Barcelona against Athletic Bilbao, Spain’s all-Basque club (no foreign or non-Basque players). Though Bilbao lost, it was a compelling final in which a team like Athletic had the chance to be the “kings” for a night.

In the old days, they could have been “generalísimos,” as the cup was named for the dictator of Spain after the Civil War ended in 1939 (it was known as La Copa del Generalísimo from then until 1976). As you could imagine, the importance of the cup was so great that it had propaganda value reflecting the politics of the ruling power. Before the Spanish Civil War, it was the Trofeo Presidente de la Segunda República, named for the president of the leftist, anarchist and socialist influenced (yet democratically elected) government that was bloodily overthrown by Francisco Franco and his nationalist faction by 1939.

Technically, these cups are often all-encompassing, incorporating teams from the lowest divisions, and giving them the chance to reach later stages in the tournament where they can play bigger teams. Back in the old days, there was a European competition (now defunct) called the Cup Winner’s Cup, featuring cup-winning teams from all of Europe (in Spanish it was called the Recopa, literally the “re-cup”). By now, UEFA has made attempts to streamline their competitions for money-generating purposes. The Champions’ League has been ridiculously expanded, to the point that the first-round games are so meaningless that I feel like I am watching them through the reflection of a puddle. The UEFA Cup is now the Europa League,

Previously, the crisis of the small team has been discussed here, and I am adding to that lament. I lament the diminishing importance of the cup competition, which has always been a staging area for upsets; where teams that are poor can be lords over the wealthy, if even for a few games. It seems like today, the market-owners of football prefer for dominance to be an established and regular paradigm that guarantees cash production and glamor as the fuel for loyalty. It seems harder and harder to find fans willing to sit through thick and thin for a club. Imagine how many people pick their team for its image alone.

Watching Madrid get it handed to them this afternoon reminded me of the pleasures of unpredictability, not to mention the value of loyalty to one’s team, no matter how small, as I watched the fans and players of Alcorcón celebrate into the unforgettable night.

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Oct 02 2009

Profile Image of Joaquin Bueno

Johan Cruyff, tiki-taka, & total football

Filed under Barcelona,Europe,Spain

When Spain won Euro 2008, “tiki’taka” became a popular buzz word in the Spanish sports press. They were referring to the selección‘s style of quick, short, incisive passes–a possession game based on high-pressure in the midfield and near the opposing area, a defense playing far forward, a style based on control and calculated effort.

In fact, this style, as we could intuit from footage of World Cup ’74, has many similarities to the Dutch style that was christened as “total football” and honed by Rinus Michels and the great Johan Cruyff. Indeed, Cruyff went to Barcelona in 1973, and his legacy there involves his identification with the Catalan cause, one of resentment towards the dictator Franco and his Spanish nationalist politics. By 1973, Franco was of ill health, and the question of succession and continuation of the dictatorship was raised; the political climate was increasingly tense. You could imagine the statement Cruyff made when he named his son Jordi, a Catalan name, as well as the name of Catalonia’s patron saint.

His legacy did not end as a player–he led Barcelona to  their first title in 14 years in just his first season. He also came back as a coach in 1988, and went on to become their most successful coach, leading them to their first Champions League (then known as the European Cup). Though he left in acrimonious circumstances, bearing the dislike of an unpopular president and vowing never to coach again, a seed was planted in Barcelona–one of total football.

Though total football is in many ways impossible to completely define, many of its modern characteristics have to do with the “Barcelona” school of playing, a philosophy that  extends beyond the stadium as well. Extensive youth set-ups, an important inheritance from the Dutch, play a major role; FC Barcelona even has its own boarding school, La Masía, for young players. Fans can be owners (socios) and participate in club elections. It is a model of self-sufficiency, what you might call sustainability–rather than having sponsors, they might be the only team in the world that pays their charity “sponsors” (UNICEF).

In 2009, as in 2006, Barcelona’s tiki-taka total football won the Champions’ League in style, often overcoming physical, fast, and direct teams with the dizzying, controlling style favored by Cruyff and his own former coach Michels. The style is identified as central to Barcelona’s otherness. Rather than buy galácticos, they “make” them through a system that launches individual brilliance while maintaining tactical unity. Messi is a perfect example of this, while pillars of the team such as Xavi have consistently been some of the world’s best players. Now we can talk about the dynamic Iniesta, the tenacious Dani Alves, or a player dubbed “Piquenbauer” thanks to his silky defending and willingness to attack, Gerard Piqué.

Interestingly, the coach of the current team, Josep Guardiola, was a pupil of Cruyff’s, and was a central figure in the ’92 team. 1992 was, as an aside, year of the Barcelona olympics, launching Barcelona, and Catalunya, into the world’s consciousness. Barcelona continues to be, as it was in the Franco years, a symbol of Catalan difference, a bastion of “resistance” to the centralist option of Real Madrid, “mes que un club,” as they say.

In 2008, the tiki-taka, its foundations well put down by Cruyff and company, went to Europe, as the backbone of the Spanish national team featured Barcelona players. Xavi was the midfield reference and was named player of the tournament, with decisive assists (including one for Fernando Torres in the final) and leading possesion splendidly. Carles Puyol had the summer of his life in the center of the defense. Andrés Iniesta was a catalyst for Spanish attacks–producing the type of displays that have led people as different as Wayne Rooney and World Cup-winning Argentine coach Cesar Luis Menotti to call him the best player in the world. In the post-2008 era we can count on Gerard Piqué, already the leader of the Spanish defense, as well as the maturing Sergio Busquets to be important starters on the selección. And it’s only a matter of time before younger stars like Pedrito make their impact internationally (let’s also not forget ex-Barça players such as Francesc Fábregas).

Mes que un club: “More than just a club,” a way of life, a system. And to think: the 2009 Champions’ League winning team was the first Barcelona team to do it, without a single Dutchman on the field.

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