Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Football and nationalisms

Football always had a tribal aspect. Somehow, in every country, the victory on the neighbor always had a special taste. In the case of Spain, the nature and history of the country had a special reflection in football, as mirror of the society. Since a very early stage, football was formed by clubs and competitions which aimed to connect with the community they were living in. The constant failures of the Spanish national team along with the nationalisms (all of them, from the "periphery" of Catalonia and the Basque Country to the centralist Spanish or Castillian nationalism) and the success of the clubs, as icons of these territorial identities, created rivalries that go beyond the pure sport level. In this way, Athletic Club and FC Barcelona are usually seen as representatives of the national aspirations of Euskadi and Catalonia, while Real Madrid has usually been linked with the centralism of the Spanish state. This is a short walk through the history of Spain and its football in the last century, from the early and classic centrifugal-centralist dichotomy to the recent broad and complex reality of the state.

In Spain, football started to replace the different traditional and regional sports, especially in the urban areas, at the end of the 19th century. Football was easy to adopt, since it was easy to find empty lands where the initial amateur players built the goals and played with a ball. But the initial reduced importance of the game, which basically was a hobby of its players, changed in the early decades of the 20th century, especially since the 1920s and 1930s. During the 1910s, the first debates about professionalism started to appear, but the year 1920 is seen as a turning point.

In 1920, Spain presented a football team in the Olympic Games of Antwerp (Belgium). The Spanish team ended up winning a silver medal in what it was the first international achievement of the Spanish football. This silver medal forged the myth of the Furia española (Spanish fury), so used during the dictatorship of Franco. The paradox is that the superiority of Athletic and Basque football in general during those years until the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) would force us to talk about the "Athletic fury" or the "Basque fury". Basically, the so called Basque style ended up being adopted in an interested metonymy. In the 1940s, the fascist unique party during the regime of Franco hyped the style as the paradigm of the Spanish race. An absurd, considering that the term did not have any content, since it was applied to any style used by any Spanish team of any province, especially referring to a winning team.

But aside the exceptional triumph in the Olympic Games 1920, the results of the Spanish NT were pretty disappointing and, during the 1920s and 1930s, the organization of football in Spain had a very regional tendency. The competitions were played in the regional level and the Copa del Rey (La Liga was founded in 1928) was a kind of regional battle. Since a very early stage, football in Spain was basically a clash of identities represented by the clubs.

Athletic Club had a special connection with the city and its territorial environment, which got highlighted when the Basque club decided not to use players outside the Basque territory. During the democratic term of the II República (1931-1936), Athletic Club and the rest of Basque clubs openly defended the Basque autonomy and, during the Civil War, created an Euzkadi team which faced several republican allies (Czechoslovakia, Poland, USSR or Norway).

At the same time, in Catalonia, FC Barcelona, a club founded by a Swiss man, Hans Gamper, had built a special connection with its community, becoming the club of the people in Catalonia and a symbol of the catalanity, in opposition to RCD Español, which was more connected with the middle-class and the centralist ideas. An example of it were the incidents of a game during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1921-1929), when Les Corts, FC Barcelona's stadium, was closed for 6 months after the booing of the Spanish national anthem. As in the case of Athletic Club, FC Barcelona, as club, was very active in the defense of Catalonia and its national identity during the República and the Civil War.

General Franco in the Santiago Bernabéu

During the 1940s and 1950s, football was a tool in the hands of the new fascist regime to set the new political and ideological values of the "Spanish nation". In 1938, during the Civil War, the newspaper Marca was released for the first time in San Sebastián, in a zone already dominated by the national-fascist army. The journalist Miquelarena stated their intentions and the necessity of a "change in the conception of football to make it fit in the new values of the State. During the II República, football was a red (communist) orgy of the lowest and evil regional passions". The journalist highlighted that "almost everyone was separatist -and rude-. The pro-Basqueism was seen in the stands of San Mamés and also in the tribunes of Chamartín. In most of the cases, a madridista was a pro-Basque of Madrid; that is, a localist mental retard against the national limits". After the Civil War, sport was included in the state engine. Sport gets subdued to the state and gets full of the fascist terminology. The words that gave sport content were in the line of obedience, submission and military discipline. The National Sport Delegation, the most important sport organization of the new regime, depnded on the unique party, Falange. The RFEF, which had been founded and driven by the clubs since its creation in the year 1913, got used to be part of the state. In this context, the football clubs lost their private nature and their self-government capacity. The socios, which had been ruling their clubs, because in mere ticket holders of a sport event. Football ended up adapting their functioning rules to the evolution of the political regume and only in the last years of the dictatorship, the clubs recovered some of their influence.

In contrast with other aspects of the Spanish life, football rapidly recovered the economic levels and the audience of the pre-war period. In only two seasons, as average, the clubs recovered the attendances they had enjoyed during the República. Football became an psychological escape way, as a way to compensate a difficult existance. However, football as mass phenomenon, was not a creation of the regime. In other European countries, the rise of football was also a way to heal collective injuries after World War 2. Therefore, the recovery of the football show was not an invention of the regime, but this regime definitely realized that the show was a very powerful political tool during the 1940s.

During this period, Atlético Madrid (Atlético Aviación) during the early post-war years and, especially, Real Madrid acquired a strong political meaning to the point to be considered the "team of the regime", while "suspicious of separatism" clubs like Athletic Club or FC Barcelona fell under the control, even if it was just institutional, of the new fascist state. Others authors, considered Real Madrid, as a victim of the political propaganda of the fascist regime. The debate was built around the figure of the president of Real Madrid during all the dictatorship: Santiago Bernabéu, who reigned in the club from 1943 to his death in 1978. Depending on the authors, the controversy around Santiago Bernabéu is more or less critical. Santiago Bernabéu was a franquista, there are not doubts about this fact, since he had always backed the ultra-conservative ideas and even acted as member of the fascist army during the war. At the same time, it is also a fact that Real Madrid was supported by Franco and most of its ministers and Santiago Bernabéu was proud of it, just as the fact of the club being an embassy of the regime. The controversy arises on the influences of these facts in the competition, the influence of Real Madrid on the RFEF and the referees, along with the independent attitude of Santiago Bernabéu from the General Franco inside the logical limits of a dictatorship.

Santiago Bernbéu

As we previously said, the authorities tried to link the fascist values with the game. The myth of the Furia española had its real origin of Athletic's football during the 1910s and 1920s. The media, through the voice of Matías Prats in the Radio Nacional, acted as spokesman, adapting a patriotic (or Spanish nationalist) tone to promote the importance of the Spanish national team. A national team that had to abandon the red shirts to use the blue color, as the shirts of the Falange members. A team that forced its players to make a line and raise their right hand in a fascist salute while voicing the usual slogans before the games. The victory of Spain of 1964 was not the victory of everyone, given the political use (it was the victory of the fascist Spain over the communist USSR) and the centralist utilization of it.

After two decades of insitutional control, the clubs gained some degree of autonomy, while the fascist ideology got relaxed in a process that started after the end of World War 2 and the international recognition of the regime of Franco at the end of the 1950s. While the Spanish NT constantly failed to appear in the World Cups or failed in the competition itself, the success of Real Madrid in the European competitions made the club to be the best propaganda tool of Franco in the external environments, willingly or not. But, at the same time, during the 1960s and 1970s, football became the best catalyst instrument of the nationalistic aspirations of Basques and Catalans. The hostility against the centralist and oppressor state found football as a way of expression and projection of national identity. Some authors, like Vázquez Montalbán, even claim that the regime accepted this situation, in order to keep these nationalistic tensions in a controlled scenario like a football stadium. During these years, FC Barcelona, a club that had always made a strong bet for local players, did not hesitate to start a war with Real Madrid for the signing of the best players of the World. Even though these policies were not successful until very recent decades, the club is commonly considered the "national team of Catalonia". The club found a unique connection with the ideas of the catalanism and many matches in Les Corts and, later on, the Camp Nou were national performances with fans waving senyeras (Catalan flags), singing Els Segadors (National anthem of Catalonia) and speaking their forbidden Catalan language. In a similar way, Athletic Club were able to kept their enormous political importance during the dictatorship, keeping their policy of playing with home grown players despite the changes in football.

Barcelonistas in the Cup Winners' Cup 1979 at Basel

With the arrival of democracy (1977), football enjoyed a deep transformation in its organization. The federations also started a process of democratization and the clubs gave their socios back the right to vote their presidents. The centralist organization of sport, the Delegación Nacional de Deportes, disappeared and the old Spanish nationalist rhetoric started to fade away. The Furia española term declined, helped by the failures of the Spanish team in the World Cups of 1978 and 1982, while new territorial ways of expression appeared beyond the Basque Country or Catalonia.

In this way, the clubs of Andalucía, mainly Sevilla and Betis, showed their support to the Andalusian autonomy; RC Celta adopted the colors of the flag of Galicia in a raising nationalist feeling; and Valencia CF wore the colors of the Valencian regionalist flag in opposition to the Catalanism in a very particular conservative and regionalist ideology. During the 1980s and the 1990s, the simple dichotomy centalist-nationalist mainly represented by Real Madrid and FC Barcelona along with Athletic and Real Sociedad became a complex and plural rainbow of different kind of expressions, along with the new regional organization of the democratic state. During these decades, the ethnic-territorial map of the Spanish football, which had a very centralistic radial view started to disappear to build new national and regional identities. The Catalan and Basque cases were well known, but the new autonomies with their own self-government institutions and the spread of regional televisions or media in general helped to create new centrifugal powers.

Iribar (Athletic) and Kortabarría (Real Sociedad) with the forbidden ikurriña in 1976 

Already in the 2000s, the late Spanish victories in the Euro and the World Cup had a shocking effect in Spain. Ironically, the winning Spanish team is mainly formed by Catalan players or, in a more broad definition, by FC Barcelona players. This situation created an interesting paradox, since the Barcelona players are often welcome in many stadiums of Spain by the same fans that not so long ago used political insults against them. And, at the same time, the Catalan club sees the success of the Spanish NT as a reason of pride, since their home grown Masia players are the core of a national team that has set an era in football.

The political and national tensions still exist though and football will keep reflecting the complex territorial reality. The changing society will keep defining the nature of the clubs in Spain, clubs that often act as icons of their nations, regions or cities. This is why football is more than a religion in this country.

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