La Roja on a roll


SPORT:They trounced us last week, and tonight they take on France in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals. How did the Spanish become so good at the beautiful game?

La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football By Jimmy Burns Simon & Schuster, 416pp. £18.99

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, as Euro ’96 was drawing to a close, I was trapped with about 100 other sports journalists from around the world in the foreign-media press room at the All England tennis club, where we were all covering that year’s Wimbledon Championships. For a while our collective attention had shifted to the television coverage of the football, with the semi-final between England and Germany a few kilometres up the road, at Wembley, having gone to a penalty shoot-out.

The room was divided, but not exactly equally. Each time Germany scored, virtually the entire room erupted in cheering, which must have caused some bewilderment among members of the public who had stayed on to watch the game outside, on the grounds of the club. Their reactions were completely at odds with those inside the press centre, where each English success was essentially greeted with joy by just the two Polish reporters sitting to my left.

This experience came to mind while I was reading this new history of Spanish football by Jimmy Burns, who notes early on how little gratitude has tended to be shown towards the British for inventing the game and then exporting it all over the world.

A key theme in La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football, meanwhile, is the way that football and politics are intertwined, inextricably so in Spain, where a good dose of religion is added to the mix, and all the more so in the aftermath of the civil war. Gen Franco and other leaders of his regime saw the game as an ideal distraction from the oppression and rather more run-of-the-mill economic problems that were an everyday feature of Spanish life during the middle decades of the 20th century.

The generalissimo also sought, whenever the opportunity presented itself, to use the game as a way of scoring cold-war points against the Soviet bloc in the hope of ingratiating Spain with the US and so breaking out of the country’s initial international isolation. This ploy was more successful than his ambition to use the Spanish team to forge a new sense of national unity in the decades immediately after the war. Rather, regional rivalries were played out through the game, with many Basques and Catalans, in particular, viewing clubs such as Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona as symbols of their aspirations for future autonomy and, in the meantime, defiance towards a regime they generally viewed as favouring Real Madrid.

Most clubs played the game, so to speak, as long as they had to, but Burns tells of how, when news of Franco’s death reached Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, one director almost immediately smashed a bust of the Caudillo on the floor of the boardroom. Framed photographs were then removed from the walls and a sign remembering Francoist members of Barca who had died during the civil war “for Spain and for God” was swiftly deposited in the stadium’s basement.

Long after that, many of the enduring cracks continued to be papered over; it was not until Luis Aragonés, Spain’s manager when the team won Euro 2008, referred to the side as La Roja – the Red – at the official victory celebration that the name, still heavy with political connotations, finally started to be widely used.

For Burns, a prolific journalist and author who writes a great deal about La Liga and its greatest clubs, that 2008 success, along with the one that followed two years later in South Africa – Spain’s first in the World Cup – marks the latest, greatest stage in a journey that started at the end of the 19th century around Rio Tinto in the south and Bilbao in the north, where the British had arrived to build railways and export steel, respectively.

The book is by no means an exhaustive history, and most of the written sources quoted by the author (who was born in Madrid to a Spanish mother and Scottish father) are actually British (or, in the case of Paddy Woodworth, Irish). This presumably reflects both the market at which it is primarily aimed and the fact that there is, apparently, and surprisingly, a relative dearth of published work on the subject.

It is a wonderfully enjoyable read, though, with Burns travelling across Spain to chart the establishment and development of its clubs, the top ones of which now figure prominently in any list of the world’s biggest, as well as of a national team that only recently shook its reputation for persistent underperformance.

That more was expected of the team down the years was in part due to the many brilliant foreign players (such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, from Argentina, and the Hungarian Ladislao Kubala) who came to Spain, positively influenced the development of the game and, in quite a few cases, became its outstanding stars. Di Stéfano, for instance, was the brilliant leader of the great Real Madrid team that dominated European football just over half a century ago.

Spain, whose team had previously played a passionate form of physical football dubbed, with some pride, la furia, first woke up to the fact that developments in tactics and methods of training had passed them by when the Argentinian champions, San Lorenzo de Almagro, toured, and amazed, the country in the winter of 1946-47. The influence of the South American game has been consistently strong ever since.

After the influx of Hungarians in the 1950s, other nations, most notably the Dutch, led by Johan Cruyff, played their part in shaping the Spanish game until it produced, in the Barcelona and Spain sides of recent years, the two most celebrated teams of the modern era.

It has indeed been quite a journey, and Burns is a most entertaining guide.

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