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

By | November 9, 2009

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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