Octopus Paul, who could now well rival Nostradamus’ everlasting popularity as an oracle, did not pick Spain on a whim. But what he cleverly did was not tell us enough of the whys and wherefores of his choice.
Some research and a little analysis would have shown that Paul had been really, really smart. The winner of the football World Cup was also the most favoured. Two years ago, Spain had won the European Championships; two weeks going into the World Cup, bookmakers and critics had reckoned that Iker Casillas’ team was the most balanced and most skillful after a string of impressive lead-in performances.
These were strong indicators of what was likely to happen in this tournament, but most of us were swayed by the romance of Latin American football and/or Diego Maradona’s histrionics. When Spain lost the first match, the attention was deflected from them to other sides. But over four pulsating weeks in which several reputations—team and individual—were mauled, the truth was finally out: Spain was the best, in technique and temperament.
The greater story of Spain’s recent triumph, however, is not just about football but its rousing success in several sports disciplines over the past decade or so. Its hockey and basketball teams, for instance, have also been in the upper echelons for a while now—in both men’s and women’s events—and till an upset defeat to France recently, Spain was also Davis Cup tennis champion.
Add to this a bagful of individual champions who would be the envy of any nation. Rafael Nadal is the world’s top-ranked tennis player, and he leads a pack that includes quite a few in the top 25. Fernando Alonso is a champion Formula One driver and among the most respected and feared (by rivals) on the circuit. Alberto Contador may not have the celebrityhood of Lance Armstrong or Floyd Landis but has also conquered Tour de France on his bicycle. Golfers Sergio Garcia and Miguel Jiménez too are high in the pecking order.
I might add that the world chess champion also resides in Madrid. Of course Viswanathan Anand is an Indian but in many ways he is also an assimilated Spaniard, having found the environment of that country most conducive to practise and play his chosen sport.
In terms of population density to champions, Spain favours comparably with sports giants such as China, the US and Russia for, instance. In that sense, it is similar to Australia, and better than countries such as Brazil and Argentina (where the Spanish influence, incidentally, is extremely strong) in Latin America; Canada in North America; Germany, France and England in Europe; Japan, Korea and Malaysia in Asia; and South Africa in Africa.
I have nominated only the so-called developed countries as comparison because economic well-being is considered one of the strongest factors in achieving sporting greatness, though this argument is by no means foolproof: Some African nations and Caribbean countries such as Cuba and Jamaica too have impressive records in the Olympics though their GDP (gross domestic product) and PCI (per capita income) would put them in the category of developing countries.
So what explains Spain’s diverse and rich sporting achievements over the past two decades? Doubtless this will be the subject of many studies and theses. My own explanation is non-academic, even simplistic: It’s because of a strong sporting ethos which is integrated completely into the national character.
I was in Barcelona in early 2008 when Vijay Mallya was testing out Force India for the first time on the F1 circuit. The beauty of the coastal city apart, what struck me was the sports consciousness in the people, and not merely because of a preponderance of early morning joggers or bronzed bodies emerging from the multitude of gyms through the day. From the hotel bellboy to the assistant engineer on the F1 track to the manager type from Barca FC who helped us on a guided tour of Nou Camp, everybody seemed to breathe and talk sport.
One of the senior managers of the hotel where we stayed told me Spain was sports crazy because “it gives us a stronger sense of identity and well-being.” According to him, the turning point could have been the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992.
“The creation of huge stadia, indeed the occasion of the Olympics, made an indelible impact not just on the economy, but also the people of Spain. Politically, emotionally and psychologically, this became a rallying point: If Spain could host the Games, it could also produce champions,” he said.
The truth value of this is open to debate, but I think he has a point. At some stage, debate must yield to action. Last week, I was in Delhi for a conclave on the Commonwealth Games. With less than three months to go, almost all discussion was not on how many medals India would win, but whether Delhi would be ready with the infrastructure for the mega event.
Do we really need octopus Paul then to tell us where we stand as a sporting nation?
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at beyondboundaries @livemint.com