Beyond Soccer: The Poignance (and Royalty) of Spain’s Soft Power

The Spanish Bourbons have their fair share of controversy, but Crown Prince Felipe and his wife show that the Spanish brand isn’t limited to the football pitch

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Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia of Spain visit the Cervantes Institute in New York City on June 20, 2012

The garden on east 49th Street is a surprise. The block is too much in the middle of midtown Manhattan to be pretty, its surrounding neighborhood, an uninteresting mess of commercial and residential. The large Spanish flag hanging outside the Cervantes Institute is out of place, but it is a good omen. Once you step inside and walk past its small museum, the courtyard appears magically on your right, an ordered space framed by adjoining buildings. The porches of the apartment buildings on its margins intrude into the space above and, on this hot and very humid June afternoon, an aging couple one floor above cool off as a gathering below of more than 100 people sip wine and make conversation, mingling around Prince Felipe, 44, heir to the throne of Spain, and his wife Letizia, 39. The couple on the porch stare into the humidity, unaware of the royalty beneath them.

As royals go, the Spanish Bourbons are relatively low key. In the U.S., they do not electrify the paparazzi the way even a minor Windsor might. When Felipe represented his father King Juan Carlos at the finals of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament in Kiev, Ukraine, he kept to the realm of symbolism, draping the national colors as a scarf around his neck only after the team had defeated Italy 4-0. La Roja is Spain’s most powerful soft-power punch, and even the royal family knows that the King and his clan are merely punctuation in any celebration of the best national team in the history of soccer. (At the Zarzuela Palace reception for the team in Madrid, Letizia and her two daughters wore La Roja red.)

(MORE: La Roja’s Stunning Euro 2012 Success Enthralls a Depressed Spain)

But the crown prince and princess too are part of the soft-power strategy of Spain. That was why they were in New York, part of a quiet tour of the U.S. northeast. In Manhattan, the hundred people at the party in the Cervantes Institute were a select audience susceptible to their brand of royalty: prominent leaders of the Hispanic community in the U.S., an audience well aware of their own historical links to Spain on various levels — politics, culture and even descent. Felipe and his wife — a former TV journalist — are a magnetic couple and turn on the charm effortlessly. He is tall and handsome. She has the look of a supermodel with the wardrobe to match. Both are excellent with small talk — as the Manhattan party proved — and able to switch from subject to subject in Castilian and English with ease.

Strengthening links in the Americas is crucial at this time. Spain is in the middle of a wrenching economic crisis, part of the struggling experiment of the European monetary union. Royalty — and the way it can embody common history and culture — is a way to glue Spain and its overseas interests together. The financial network is widespread and intricate. (Spain is the 11th largest investor in the U.S., and Latin America remains a growth market for Spanish goods and services.) The office of the royal household also decided that the prince and princess would tour the studios of Univision — the New York–based Spanish-language network whose numbers are growing even as those of CBS, NBC and ABC shrink.

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And so Felipe and Letizia do their duty. During a formal presentation before the garden party, Felipe spoke of the wonders of the Castilian language, which transcends the borders of Spain and connects it to Mexico, Central America and almost every country in South America. The efflorescence of Spanish as the medium of imagination for generations of Latin American writers is a matter of vast pride in the peninsula — even as the idea of Spain is a textured one in the shared histories of its former colonies. (This week, Felipe’s mother, the Greek-born Queen Sofía, was in Spain’s most distant former possession, the Philippines, where she helped dedicate a few projects and suggested that Spanish be reintroduced to the public-school curriculum of the Asian nation, where the economy is currently thriving.)

In a speech later in his trip, Felipe played up his nation’s ties to Hispanic communities in the U.S. and across the two continents by calling Spain — by extension — “an American country.” Hillary Clinton, in welcoming him, said the ties between the U.S. and Spain were a “win-win” for both countries. Referring to the historic connections going back to Juan Ponce de León’s exploration of Florida 499 years ago, Felipe joked that he would not bring up the matter of the Spanish-American War — which Spain lost to the U.S. in 1898.

Yet the prince is well aware that history — in all its complexity — is an essential part of Spain’s soft-power allure and perhaps explains why rooting for Spain — indeed, not just its soccer team — has such a depth of feeling and meaning to hundreds of thousands of people who do not speak the language or have ties to the country. It is the pain and poignance of Spain — how so often it has been at risk of ceasing to matter or even to exist — that make it so compelling. Royalty is a simple way to package that complexity.

(MORE: Letizia of Spain: How to Look Like a Princess)

Take Felipe’s lineage. He can trace it back to Louis XIV, who sought to integrate Spain into his own Bourbon-ruled kingdom of France. Louis had put his grandson on the Spanish throne in the hopes of unifying both crowns — but much of Europe objected to that potentially hegemonic conglomeration of continental powers and launched the War of the Spanish Succession. In the end, Philip V, Louis’ grandson, would rule Spain but had to renounce any claim to the French throne. Thus Spain continued as an independent country. The Bourbons would wear the Spanish crown by fits and starts and several stops across three centuries, through civil wars, Napoleonic invasion and Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Ironically, the Bourbons of France would lose their heads but their cousins in Spain would keep theirs.

Felipe is also related to the Windsors via the progeny of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Her offspring and her offspring’s offspring would marry and marry in a 19th century attempt at European integration, much like the enterprise of Louis XIV. By the early 20th century, almost all crowned heads of Europe were related — the British King-Emperor, the German Kaiser, the Russian Czar. That did not however prevent their countries from engaging in the catastrophic World War I. The Spanish royal house’s Victorian heritage, meanwhile, has the genetically transmitted hemophilia, which devastated the heirs of Alfonso XIII, who had married Victoria Eugenie of the House of Battenberg (which a later generation Anglicized to Mountbatten), the granddaughter of the British Queen, and like her, a carrier of the fatal chromosome. Only one of Alfonso’s sons, Juan, survived. He would never be King himself because of the travails of a practically genocidal civil war and Francoism. But his son Juan Carlos would become the heir of the dictator Franco.

(MORE: The Elephant in the Throne Room: Spain’s Royal Pains Grow Deeper)

Juan Carlos would emerge as one of the most unlikely and inspiring heroes of 20th century freedom, defying an attempted military coup that sought to subvert Spain’s fledgling post-Franco democracy. Using his influence — both as sovereign and heir to a military dictator — he kept the army in its barracks and, after the threat had subsided, he reigned but did not rule, leaving the politics and government to the politicians, including a number of socialists. Juan Carlos was also King over a Spain that would go on to enjoy three decades of economic growth and cultural splendor.

Spaniards took global roles in the spectacular endeavors: Santiago Calatrava in architecture; Ferran Adrià in gastronomy; Pedro Almodóvar in cinema; and Seve Ballesteros, Rafael Nadal and, of course, La Roja in athletic prowess. Meanwhile, Spain itself was an uneasy but exciting union — a nervous but pioneering diversity: a devoutly Roman Catholic polity that had legalized gay marriage; a volatile mix of nationalisms living under the scaffolding of a nation-state; a social experiment that was both courtly and vulgar, pious and cynical, quixotic and Machiavellian. Now this polyvalent golden age is at risk as the euro-zone crisis deepens.

The fin de siècle scenario is complemented by the 74-year-old king, now mired in controversies of his own making — most recently, an expensive elephant-hunting trip amid the country’s financial woes. His son-in-law is caught up in the investigation of a huge corruption scandal. Of the current Bourbons, Felipe and Letizia are the most admired and most effective ambassadors of Spain’s royal soft power.

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Their quest — accomplished through the quiet extension of the crown’s historic prestige to parts of the world linked by culture and history to Spain — is made more poignant by one more parallel. The previous golden age of Spain took place under the rule of another Felipe — Philip IV — a reign that saw the glories of Velázquez and the poetry of Quevedo and Lope de Vega. Cervantes was then still fresh and Don Quixote just off to conquer the imagination of the Western world. The Spanish empire was the richest and most powerful on the planet — ruling large tracts of Europe as well as the treasures of the Indies. That prosperity came crashing down when Philip IV left the kingdom to the saddest example of Habsburg inbreeding in history: his son Carlos, a sterile, misshapen creature, royal in heritage but incapable of siring an heir. It was into the vacuum that was certain to follow Carlos’ death that Louis XIV inserted his grandson as King and the first Spanish Bourbon. And, three centuries later, it is his descendants — embodied in Prince Felipe, accompanied by Letizia — who are now trying to do their part for Spain, which once again, is in need of rescue.