THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN – A fractured history explored

Updated: February 25, 2014
Barcelona fans with Catalan flags

The history of Spain is one of contrasts. On one hand it is a country which has united itself at times of need and on the other it is a state divided, tearing itself into civil conflict and regional struggles for independence.

The reconquista of Spain from the Moors which finished in 1492 and the peasant guerrillas who fought the French during the Peninsula War of the early 1800’s showed a country that could unite under the threat of oblivion. Yet at the same time it has always been a country of proud regionalism. The discovery of America by Columbus was in the name of Castille rather than the country as a whole and the Civil War of the 1930’s threatened to pull the state apart.

In the modern era, Cataluña and the Basque region are perhaps the two areas that are famous for their own separate identities. They have their own languages, flags, strong independence movements and their respective football clubs identify strongly with their surrounding areas. Athletic Club of Bilbao has a Basque only player policy and Barcelona are very much the focus for the Catalan regionalism with many Catalan players representing the current first team.

During the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Real Madrid thrived under his Castilla (centrist propaganda) policy. As a centrist, Franco disliked the regionalism of the Basques and Catalans and their cultures were suppressed under him. National dress, language and songs were banned in both regions.

Cataluña was the last region to fall to Franco’s regime and Barcelona Football Club was seen as a mouthpiece for Catalan nationalism. Josep Sunyol a lawyer and Catalan nationalist became president of the club who wanted the nationalist message to be expressed through Barca’s style of play. Eventually implicated in an anti-Franco plot, Sunyol was shot.

For many years Spain were seen as the great underachievers of world football, always the bridesmaid and never the bride. Sociologist José Ignacio Wert coined the phrase “anorexic patriotism” to explain why Spain’s sporting teams routinely underperformed. He quoted Johan Cruyff and Vincent Del Bosque who believed that the lack of a central national patriotism was the problem.

Wert blamed both the Franco regime as well as Basque and Catalan nationalists.  Many reasons were put forward for this, one being that the high number of Basques and Catalan players who represented Spain did not care as much about playing for Spain as players from other parts of the country. After Spain’s 2010 World Cup victory, Sport (a newspaper based in Barcelona), suggested that true Barcelona fans should not be celebrating the win because as Catalans, it was nothing to do with them.

With Spain’s resurgence as a footballing power and decline as an economic entity there has been a renaissance in national pride. During international tournaments, more Spanish flags (often seen as a reminder of the civil war) were being flown in the Basque and Catalan regions and Barcelona’s Xavi dedicated the 2010 semi-final victory over Germany to “the people of Spain”. Del Bosque though believes any regional debate deserves short shrift, “Spain is not Barcelona, nor is it Real Madrid,” he says. “Any victory belongs to Spanish soccer.”

One thing worth considering is the possibility of Basque and Catalan separatists either achieving their goal of full independence or FIFA granting them the right to play in their own right similar to the home nations in the United Kingdom. The big losers from this scenario would be the Spanish national team in itself. The Basque team would include players such as Xabi Alonso, Mikel Arteta, Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente, making up the spine of a team that would prove formidable for any opponent.

A Catalan national football tea would prove a stronger adversary, boasting the likes of Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Cesc Fabregas; they would be a match for any opponent – a fact demonstrated by their 4-2 victory over Argentina in an unofficial friendly in 2009. They have also beaten Columbia, Honduras and Costa Rica in similar games during the past decade.

Whilst Spain currently continue to dominate football, it is worth thinking about the contradictions within the country itself that both keep the team together as a winning unit, yet at the same time too, could also pull it apart.

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