What’s Behind La Roja: The Politics and Poetry of Spanish Soccer

As Euro 2012 kicks off in Ukraine and Poland, Jimmy Burns, award-winning journalist and author of La Roja, a history of Spanish football, talks with TIME about Spain's football past and the prospects of an even more glorious future.

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General Franco giving the Europe Cup to captain Munoz from Real Madrid. The team had just won the Champion Clubs' Europe Cup against an Italian team by 2-0 in Madrid stadium on May 29, 1957.

With soccer’s European Championship now under way, many fans and punters have their sights trained on one team and one team only: Spain. Since winning the last iteration of the tournament in 2008, the Spanish have captured the global imagination with their irrepressible attacking play. A victory in Poland and Ukraine — adding to Spain’s monumental 2010 World Cup triumph in South Africa — would cement the team’s place as one of the greatest sides to grace the beautiful game. But Spain was not always a powerhouse. For decades, the drama and rivalry between its two greatest club sides — Real Madrid and Barcelona — overshadowed all else. More than a half century of political turbulence and social upheaval took its toll on the sport as well. In the new book La Roja, award-winning author and veteran journalist Jimmy Burns delves into the complex sociopolitical history that has shaped Spanish football, explaining its setbacks and disappointments and fueling its eye-catching rise. He spoke with TIME by telephone from London:

TIME: What’s fascinating to me throughout your whole history of Spanish football is how central the Basque country and Catalunya — two regions very much at odds with the idea of “Spain” — are to its formation and success.

Burns: I suppose that’s not simply coincidental. The key and the fascinating thing about Spanish football — what gives its dynamic, its narrative, its passion — is indeed its politics. You can’t separate Spanish football from its politics. You have this development of these two great centers of soccer — Bilbao [in the Basque country] and Barcelona [in Catalunya]— two regions with a strong sense of local, cultural, social and political identity. Football in both places has become totemic in cultural and sociopolitical terms. Barcelona is, as they say, much more than a club. It’s become a form of Catalan national expression. Athletic Bilbao still has a policy of only fielding players with blood roots related to the Basque country.

In the book, you introduce this idea of la furia (fury), which was a term associated with Spanish football early on. That doesn’t seem to jibe with the elegant, beautiful game for which the team is now famous.

It was really a term that came to personify the way that Spanish football was played in its early beginnings when it was brought by the British in the late 19th century and then led by the Basques in the north of Spain. And it was called la furia because it was a very virile, passionate, spirited, physical kind of football. During the years of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, the concept dovetailed with [his vision] of a militaristic, authoritarian, macho traditional Catholic society. What we see over the years — and I get at in the book — is this football evolve into what is known as the new Spanish football, that of La Roja, or the kind of football that you’ve seen FC Barcelona play. It’s more fluid, quick-passing, technical and creative. People call it like a kind of ballet, because it’s almost choreographed. I call it poetry in motion.

Despite that poetry in motion — and the present supremacy of Spanish football — the sport in Spain lagged behind other countries for years. What explains the national team’s almost chronic underachievement?

The Spanish came to the game very belatedly, compared, say, with the English. Before even FC Barcelona and Real Madrid — the two great clubs we all know about today — had been formed, teams in England were packing in almost 100,000 people into some of their stadiums. It came belatedly and evolved in a checkered way, basically because of Spain’s turbulent political history, which kept interrupting Spanish society. The first time the Spanish really won something was 1920 in the Olympics, and it was a silver medal there. The only big tournament they won after that was the 1964 European Nations Cup against the Soviet Union. And then almost nothing for over 40 years.

There’s a combination of factors: political turmoil, and then the way authoritarianism suppresses sometimes a more accountable system of football — where the selection process of the squad and coaches is based on merit, not necessarily political grounds. And you had a huge turnover of coaches at the national team, so they never really developed their system that you could call your own. The first time they got there was 2008, when they played the Barcelona system.

How did the Franco dictatorship try to use football?

Franco was an astute politician and an opportunist — and, as such, clearly saw the huge potential of soccer developing in Spain as mass culture, which in a sense could divert people’s attention from the regime. It was a balancing act: on one hand, it developed in some regions closely identified with local nationalist aspirations, which were anti-Franco. But stadiums there also became almost a kind of escape valve where passions could be let free rather than have riots in the streets. It’s a question of political psychology, and for a long time it worked.

So was he or was he not a Real Madrid fan?

Well, one of the ironies actually is that one of his favorite clubs for a long time was Athletic Bilbao, because he liked the way the Basque players played. The Basques took on the mantle of soccer in Spain from the English and played a tough physical game that for Franco was an example of what he saw as exemplary Hispanic — not Basque — values that dated back to the conquistadores and the Spanish empire. It’s all part of the mythology. Of course, this is while the Basques aren’t even allowed to speak their own language.

It’s also true that he saw the utility in a particularly successful Real Madrid team, especially in the 1950s, the golden years, when it was led by the great [Argentine-born] Alfredo Di Stefano. Real Madrid went on a conquering rampage and won a succession of European cups. It was at a time when Spain was very much the isolated, backwards country in Europe, where the only exports were oranges, immigrants and Real Madrid.

How did Spanish football change after Franco’s death and the advent of democracy?

I describe this dual phenomenon, again this dovetailing of political reality with the evolution of football. You have Franco dying, which is a seminal moment — the end of the regime, the coming of democracy — and then you have the coming of Johan Cruyff, the great Dutch footballer who came to Barcelona in the mid-1970s and really revolutionized the way that Barca plays: the kind of way we have come to associate with it, the quick, fluid passing, all that creative and poetic movement.  Cruyff began it with what was then called “total football,” which was players moving around, out of position, flexible, all over the pitch, all over the turf, exchanging positions and passes — basically playing a very different football to what most Spaniards knew then. Barcelona became the team to watch in democratic Spain at a time when Real Madrid began to look a bit conservative and out of step.

An obvious component to Spanish football’s recent rise lies in its youth academies. What explains their excellence?

This dates back to the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, which was really the first huge international sports event to be held in post-Franco Spain. The whole nation was behind it. In the run-up to the Olympics, the decision was made to pour in huge amounts of money into sport in general and soccer in particular. We’re not just talking about Real Madrid and Barcelona having these cathedral-like stadia. You go through villages and small towns, and they now all have fantastic facilities.

I think the training has something to do with it. I’ve been present at some of the training at these youth academies, and there’s a very kind of ethical dimension to it, particularly with young kids. You don’t necessarily tell them that what’s important in life is to win. What’s important is team spirit, your creativity, to do things well and to do things nobly. And that’s an ethos that is very strongly communicated in La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy, where they have an almost monastic regime. The kids have their access to even Facebook restricted, because coaches say it distracts them from real life.

How key is Spain’s coach, Vicente del Bosque, to the side’s success?

Del Bosque comes from Salamanca, a university town with a good tradition of sober, wise people, including the great philosopher [Miguel de] Unamuno. You’re with Del Bosque and you realize how quiet-spoken and thinking he is. He’s not one of those managers who marches up and down the touchline, acting like he’s the great dictator. He believes in talking quietly to his players and also, very importantly, listening to them. He’s a great teacher and great conciliator. He has made sure that Real Madrid and Barcelona players have left behind the antagonisms of their club sides and come together with La Roja in a spirit of solidarity. I always say, only half jokingly, that he deserves to be Prime Minister of Spain more than the current incumbent.

Does the current Spanish team have a shelf life? How long can this dominance last?

Like everything else in life, things have got a shelf life, but to extend the analogy, you can have something come up to replace the item. It goes back to the youth setup. One of the positive things to come out of the financial crisis is that Spanish clubs, from the small ones to the big ones, are having to think much more seriously about promoting homegrown talent rather than spend vast amounts of money on foreign transfers. It’s obviously a quality that Barcelona or, say, Athletic Bilbao have developed more than some other clubs, but I think Spanish football has got a huge regenerative capacity, based in its investment in youth. Not only has the main Spanish squad been very successful in recent years, but also the under-21s and the under-19s as well, which gives you an indication of the depth of talent there.

So how do you rate their chances for the Euros now?

I get very nervous when asked to predict games and tournaments. They undoubtedly go into the tournament as the favorites. Some people say this is a disadvantage, because they’re going in with the weight of expectations. I don’t think so: from what I’ve seen in the run-up with this squad, it’s very motivated, it’s very self-confident without being arrogant — it’s not taking anything for granted. I think we’ll see them getting through to the final stages — the quarterfinals, the semifinals. And I would like them to win it. It would make football history — they’d be the first European side to win the tournament twice running after a World Cup. I think they deserve it, you know. They play the most beautiful football.

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