More than a Sport: What the World Cup Means to Spain




More than a Sport: What the World Cup Means to Spain by Aaron Shulman

June 13th, 2014 reset - +

THE MOST MEMORABLE anecdote I’ve heard about the Spanish passion for fútbol came from a friend of a friend known only as Chino, a loud, growly native of Madrid who would be a bit much to handle if he weren’t so charismatic. The night the Selección won the 2012 UEFA European Championship, right before he jumped into a pool with his clothes on, Chino told me the following story.

It was 1998, Chino was 20, and Real Madrid had just won its first European Cup in 32 years. “We’d never experienced anything like it before,” he recalled. “So as you can imagine we got drunk and went crazy celebrating.” Chino ended up getting behind the wheel of a friend’s car and driving it around a public park, honking the horn with his friend riding on the roof. Naturally, the police showed up, so Chino jumped out of the car, approached them, and said, “I’m sorry, officers! We let ourselves get carried away by the euphoria! I’ll get the car out of here right away!” The police admonished Chino gently and then watched as he and his friend hopped back into the car and drove off into the night.

This story is emblematic to me for several reasons. For one, it illustrates the explosion of nearly unhinged joy that attends soccer glory in international competitions. (Though, of course, this isn’t unique to just Spain.) Secondly, it alludes to the milieu of special privilege and looking-the-other-way that surrounds Spanish fútbol, most notably the fact that major teams with huge, untenable debts to the government are given cozy tax deferments. Lastly, Chino’s story illustrates how intimately soccer is tied up with Spanish notions of pride and self-worth — now even more so than in 1998.

The irony of Spain’s meteoric hot streak in global football — taking home the Euro Cup in 2008, followed by the World Cup in 2010, then the Euro Cup again in 2012 — is that it has coincided precisely, and sadly, with the country’s cratering economic collapse.

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While I lived in Spain for three years and am married to a Spaniard — who happens to loathe soccer for reasons that will be unpacked below — I didn’t feel qualified to write about what fútbol means to the country without asking for help. So, I’ve spent the past few weeks emailing with friends in Spain and skyping at very odd hours.

To lean on a cliché that exists for a reason: Spaniards are a proud, passionate people. This is true in practically all spheres of life. Whether it’s discussing politics, confronting neighbors over a problem, or simply offering an opinion on how someone looks, honoring one’s own point of view often takes priority over social decorum and niceness. In other words, the Spanish are Mediterranean: boisterous, fiery, never boring. Such a constitution doesn’t reward tempered positions or indifference. In the case of soccer, it leads to division: those who love the sport — the majority, one study putting this group at 85 percent of the country — and those who don’t. 

Most Spaniards who hate soccer, like my wife, feel the way they do for reasons of political conscience, which hark back to the Roman poet Juvenal and his idea of bread and circus. According to them, soccer is an instrument of social control, a way to distract the masses from injustice and protect the established power structure. In other words, they see soccer as an enemy of change in a country where things have to change: unemployment is close to 30 percent, corruption is farcically normal, over a hundred foreclosures on subprime-mortgaged homes occur every day, and police violence is brutal. On the TV program Salvados,in 2012, the president of Valencia Football Club spoke with great pride and what seemed like unwitting candor during an interview in his stadium; instead of offering a familiar, sanitized apologia of soccer, he said, “What you’re doing [as a soccer team] is a social deed … If those 45,00 people didn’t come here every Sunday … they would go to a politician and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?!’” To paraphrase the Basque novelist Lucía Etxebarría, with poverty in Spain starkly on the rise and football more popular than ever, there’s a lot more circus than bread

Along similar lines, several people I talked to brought up the role of soccer during the days of the Franco regime, which used the sport to beat the nationalistic drum for the patria and derail discussion of thornier issues. “We’re returning to the times of Franco,” says my mother-in-law, who was born and came of age under the dictatorship. But she also sees soccer’s prominence as an extension of the ongoing economic crisis. “People are losing in their personal lives, but then on an international level, they get to experience victory. They personalize it to an extreme extent. The problem is that the government uses victory to export a ‘Spanish Brand’ instead of actually fixing things.”

This fútbolization of the “Marca España” makes sense as a marketing tactic for a government hopelessly seeking investment capital abroad, while trying to maintain support from a frustrated electorate at home. But this approach has come off as opportunistic to the point of terribly poor taste, as my friend José was at pains to argue, recalling how mortified he was by the way President Mariano Rajoy used the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s funeral to stoke the Spanish brand. On a phone interview from Johannesburg, Rajoy said: “This soccer stadium where Mandela will receive his last respects is also the stadium where Spain was proclaimed the world champion … As such, it can be a very lovely, very moving moment. It’s a very emblematic place for these reasons.” 

But perhaps most knotted and sticky of all is the fact that, while President Rajoy may wish to present the Spanish Selección as an example of the excellence the country has to offer, competing in the World Cup actually turns up the temperature on the always-simmering issues of what Spain is — and who is Spanish — in the first place. I am referring, of course, to Catalonia and the Basque Country. In both of these regions, large portions of the populace don’t consider themselves Spanish. These nationalist/separatist mindsets mean that Catalans and Basques root for Spain with a certain ambivalence, if they root for Spain at all. Chino, who now lives in Barcelona, told me, “I have co-workers who didn’t even watch the final game of the last World Cup. They said it wasn’t their team.” While there is surely truth to this, I remember what a friend from Barcelona told me about this a couple of years ago: that people in these regions watch Spanish World Cup games at a low volume so neighbors won’t hear it. Of course, the architects of the Spanish winning streak hail overwhelmingly from Catalonia. Pep Guardiola, the coach responsible for the tiki-taka strategy that enabled Spain to dominate world football, could be seen just the other day, on his World Cup break, attending a rally for Catalonian independence in Berlin.

 In short, loving soccer in Spain is simple. But everything else is complicated.

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Alright. I’ve played the killjoy and, by now, have probably sucked all the fun out of Spain’s attempt to defend their title. Well, now here’s the counterpoint.

Despite all the justifiable gripes I heard about soccer’s role in Spanish society, they were just that — gripes about its role, and never about the essence of the sport. In fact, nearly every friend or in-law of mine that dwelled on the pernicious use of futbol in Spain today also made clear how much they loved the sport, or at least were willing to recognize how breathtaking it is aesthetically and athletically. Conversely, people who love the beautiful game are also willing to acknowledge its ugly flip side. 

There’s no contradiction in this. Chino, an over-the-top soccer fan if there ever was one, didn’t hesitate to call the sport “the opium of the masses” or to admit that it absolutely represents a case of bread and circus. But this does nothing to dim his love for the game. On the other end, my mother-in-law had no trouble declaring soccer “beautiful.” And my father-in-law, a Freire-quoting educator well aware of the manipulation of fútbol, becomes a zombified gob of focus every time a game is on. And then there’s our close friend Miguel, one of the most politically informed Spaniards I know and a fervent leftist. Skyping with him and his wife, Leti, Miguel became flustered by my onslaught of questions about soccer’s possible negative impact on Spanish society. “But Aaron …” he kept saying. Leti intervened and expounded a penetrating, credible theory that soccer is important to men in macho Spain because it’s the only context in which they can express extreme emotions. When she was done, Miguel had finally collected himself into a rebuttal.

“It’s true,” he said. 

But it’s so much more than that. And the fact that it’s a populist phenomenon doesn’t mean it’s not a great sport. It’s a competition. And during the World Cup, fans know that the very best players on earth are competing and that these will be the best games ever. I was in Jordan during the last World Cup and it was amazing how the Jordanians had flags from other countries, and each person chose the team they wanted to root for. Similarly, in Spain people experience it in a festive way, not violently. Soccer is another expression of the Spanish spirit and way of life. It's very emotional, and it’s about sharing. Yes, I know that it’s a circus to keep people occupied, but I take away lots of positive values from it. You share emotions with people you don't know; you find yourself hugging a person you will never see again.

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That there seems to be a contradiction in enjoying football as a politically conscious Spaniard, when in fact there is no contradiction at all, seems to me the most convincing argument for why soccer matters, even if it can’t be separated from its dark side, and why the World Cup is great. For a brief 90 minutes, a sport mired in economics and politics, played by teams whose home countries are mired in economics and politics, becomes something else — a throbbing, emotional, human spectacle of grit, chance, strategy, teamwork, and physical genius.

While football in Spain will never be a simple matter, least of all during this World Cup, the team’s performance will still bring unforgettable moments — or so Chino and millions of other Spaniards direly hope as they burn for yet another victory. But there are doubters. Among them, my father-in-law, who offered a pessimistic prediction for the Selección this time around, invoking Gabriel García Márquez’s slim novel about the impossibility of halting the inevitable: “It will be the chronicle of a defeat foretold.”

We’ll see.

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Aaron Shulman is a freelance journalist who has written for The New Republic, The American Scholar, and The Awl, among other publications.

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