On June 7th, the Spanish national team played the second of two international friendlies in the Americas. The first was an energetic 4-0 victory over the United States in Boston; the second, in Caracas, another dominating win against the Venezuelan team.
The match was noteworthy in contrast to the previous set of friendlies played by Spain since the World Cup.
In a maneuver of perhaps unconfident foresight, the Spanish federation (RFEF) scheduled three friendly matches against Mexico, Argentina, and Portugal—all of them being played as the visiting team.
Needless to say, the World Cup triumph was a physically and mentally exhausting effort for the Spanish players in 2010. Coming off a big win in Euro 2008 as well, there was the inevitable sense after the 2010 win that the team had won all there was to win. Indeed, they did win all that they could that mattered to them (they didn’t win the 2009 Confederations Cup—a tournament criticized by clubs and pundits as being an unnecessary intrusion on the summer before a World Cup).
Thus, the friendlies, played towards the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, had a sense of unimportance about them, which was projected by the players. With the Barcelona-Real Madrid clásico only a short time into the season, and with a heated race between the two teams for first place, it was clear that the minds of the professionals were on competition rather than exhibition.
While tying with Mexico, Spain was drubbed by both Argentina and Portugal in contests that were much more important for the teams that had something to prove. And yet, their opposition was still contemplating the wake of the World Cup victory.
While attention was moved to the eternal Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry, in the previous months, the national team had overtaken all other news, even displacing the spiraling economic disaster and relegating it to less important spaces on cover pages.
This came at a time when tensions between the Spanish government and the opposition, the democratic subjects and their bureaucratic democracy, were approaching boiling points due to the economic agony of Spain. In the days surrounding the Cup, the chords of disunion were chiming in various regions, especially with the polemic of the Catalan constitution (which curiously featured then-Barcelona president Joan Laporta as a provocative spokesperson for the cause).
Of course, the Catalan independence cause continues to be a thorn in the paw of Spanish constitutional democrats who wish to maintain the union despite certain liberties granted to the autonomies. If anything, because of Catalunya’s deeply rooted capitalist heavyweights, who loom in the background as potential financiers of a functional breakaway state. This, in contrast to Basque nationalism, to name the other notable example, which has seen the continuous efforts of the Spanish state to associate the most ardent nationalists with the terrorist movement, from kale borroka street violence to the coffers of ETA.
As such, the Spanish media’s rhetoric, despite the constant association of Basque freedom and terror, conveys a greater sense of fear about Catalunya’s claims’ legitimacy. The question that Catalanism promotes is one that goes directly to the core of the political system: can democracy oppress itself?
On July 26th, Catalunya banned bullfighting, a gesture largely (and understandably) regarded as provocative by the national press in Spain. In the end, though, in the national media, the more enduring images were focused on the national football team, a far better sell in a football-charged nation than images of Catalans celebrating their gesture of difference and defiance.
Ironically, this championship football team had a most Catalan backbone, combined with a solid pillar of their Real Madrid rivals. The style of their play, however, was a direct product of the Barcelona school; a brand of total football in which all players press hard, in which possession is used as defense, and in which creativity is employed with controlled artistry to attack the other team.
The World Cup celebrations, enjoyed by millions of people all over Spain, were treated to the image of Spanish players such as Puyol and Xavi wearing their Catalan flag, their senyera, on the field after the match. In the post-game jubilation, even Queen Sofia was compelled to break all known protocol and go directly to the dressing room to shake the players’ hands.
As the surprised protagonists of the grueling match with Holland exchanged greetings with Her Royal Highness, Carles Puyol—a Barcelona captain and symbol of the made-in-Catalunya philosophy of the team—emerged from the shower clutching nothing but a towel to his waist. Desperately holding on to it with his left hand, he extended his right when the Queen offered him her hand.
Almost a year later, the friendlies now forgotten and a team still basking in World Cup glory, not to mention Barcelona’s success in Europe (they won the Champions’ League—the most prestigious European tournament of football for clubs), the two against the USA and Venezuela came, at the end of the 2010-2011 season.
Over a month earlier, during a 4 week period in which Real Madrid and Barcelona played each other four times (in the Spanish Cup final, the Champions’ League semis, and the Spanish league), the sports press in Spain, most notably the nationalist Marca and AS, became obsessed with whether the tensions between players from the two teams would affect the selección. The series of clásicos was marked by clashes between Spanish teammates—in one match Madrid’s Arbeloa stomped on Barça’s Pedro—as well as insinuations and accusations from both sides.
However, the season having finished, the successful friendlies seemed to erase any of that tension between Spain’s players. Interestingly, Del Bosque used one of the games to hand Barcelona’s Victor Valdés—one of the nationalist sports press’s favorite targets for anti-Madrid accusations—his second start for the team, relegating perennial starter Iker Casillas to a substitute appearance. In that same match, two Athletic Club Bilbao players started as well, in addition to a total of 5 Barcelona players and two from Madrid.
With the backdrop of the national “15-M” sit-ins—the acampadas, camp-outs in most Spanish cities protesting the political state of Spain in the economic crisis—the Spanish team’s performance was a symbolic moment of synthesis in which the “different” Spains came together to a successful end. In Barcelona, on the eve of the Champions’ League final, Catalonian state police—the Mossos D’Esquadra—violently beat the peaceful protestors, who refused to move from the Plaça de Catalunya.
Their reason for the police charge was to clear the plaza in anticipation of a possible celebration by Barcelona fans; the official story was that the acampadas posed a public safety risk in such a situation, especially as the need was seen to “clean” the plaza of objects that could be used as weapons by Barça fans.
Nonetheless, the actions of the Catalonian state police unwittingly served to echo what would happen with the Spanish national team friendly matches, becoming an unlikely statement of unity with the Spanish political establishment in the face of popular discontent. Similarly, the national team’s success played out the powerful symbolism of the football narrative, painting an image of unity and imperial dominance in the Americas.
This, an image strikingly at odds with the internal, structural realities of both Spanish football and the democratic state. In the recent nationwide municipal elections of the 22nd of May, the ruling socialist party, the PSOE, was dealt a severe blow as the traditionally conservative PP gained major ground all over Spain, and in many cities where the PSOE was well-grounded. At the same time, abstention was on the rise and a focus of the national news media, while in the Basque Country, nationalist party Bildu—claimed by its critics to be directly linked to ETA via its outlawed political wing—had an astonishing turnout, taking second in the voting overall, despite having been banned and subsequently reinstated only days before.
And in two football matches across the Atlantic, La Roja played as a squad oblivious to this, almost incredulous in its own effortlessness in thrashing their less adept rivals.