Every two years, whether at the Euros or the World Cup —or at the increasingly influential African Cup of Nations—football puts aside its club-centric tribalism and dons national colours. Not an easy feat, coalescing players who spend the better part of nine months kicking lumps out of each other literally or metaphorically. And it’s even more difficult for the supporters to unite under one flag.
Which is what made Spain’s Eastern European odyssey more special; if there was one feature of their game that was as compelling as its artistic intricacy, it was the strength of the intra-personnel ties—more accurately, the professionalism of their various component units. In fact the real beauty of Spain’s football, more so than Barcelona’s, is the concept of unity, of playing for each other.
This operates at various levels. The first is of course the club rivalry, which with its historic roots and modern-day twists has to be the most bitter in top-flight football. Spanish football is riven between Castile—itself further divided between Real Madrid and Atlético—and Catalonia, with the Basques of Bilbao providing the third axis. The hatred doesn’t stem merely from football—decades of conflict were heightened in the 20th century by the Franco regime—and goes far beyond club loyalties. It could manifest itself in the pig’s heads thrown on to the pitch or, until recently, in sympathy for the banned Basque terrorist outfit, ETA.
Face-off: Xabi Alonso (right) of Real Madrid and Andrés Iniesta of Barcelona during a match at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Madrid earlier this year. Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
The serious business of rivalry in Spanish football is also influenced by the fact that La Liga is probably the only major league with a large proportion of its stars as one-team players—and usually their home team. And, if any further stoking of the flames was necessary, José Mourinho, the Bane of Barcelona’s life, rode into town two years ago and wasn’t about to let national team unity get in the way of his plans for his football club Real Madrid. It’s common knowledge that Spain play in a system devised and perfected by Barcelona, and implemented by a Barcelona-heavy midfield, yet consider the rider: Spain’s hugely admired captain Iker Casillas is a die-hard Madridista and its coach Vicente Del Bosque had a highly successful stint as Real Madrid coach—where he honed his skills at team-building on the Galácticos, a star-based system that was the very antithesis of the collective style he is implementing now.
That system appears even more impressive because it demands of its players an almost elemental, internalized sort of bonding. One basic premise of tiki-taka, the totality of its football, mandates that each plays for the others. “We can’t play long balls,” Cesc Fàbregas explained during the Euro 2012. “(Andrés) Iniesta is not (physically) strong, I am not strong, (David) Silva is not strong. We have to combine. This is the way we have to play.” Spain made a virtue out of a necessity, turning a notional weakness into a national triumph. If only for a few weeks, before Madrid and Barcelona resume hostilities by elbowing aside national identity for regional flavour.
First up, though, is the quadrennial celebration of sporting nationalism at the grandest level. The Olympic Games is the ultimate determinant of national prowess, sporting or cultural; and if you have any doubts, study recent Chinese history. Many stirring national narratives have been woven into those Olympic rings; the runners of north and east Africa, the gymnasts of the erstwhile Soviet bloc; Cuban boxers, Mongolian wrestlers and a Moroccan woman hurdler. Yet there is often a fragile relationship between participants and “national” identity, because so many of the competitors are solo artistes—or, as in Indian tennis, possess strikingly novel notions of what team spirit is about. The British football squad is not a Dream Team but a club manager’s nightmare—with the real prospect of injury to a star player days before the season kicks off (here’s a subversive thought: Is the Olympic football tournament more true to that sport by being staged at the start of the season, rather than—as in the case of the World Cup and Euros—at the end?).
For the Indian contingent this must seem like another false dawn. Every four years we place our non-cricketing stars on pedestals, feting and celebrating them, giving them four years’ worth of newsprint and airtime in two-odd months, only for reality to knock them down and allow us to get on with our preferred status of indifference and ignorance. They strain and train for years to reach that goal—hopefully, a medal; and when they do reach it, believe they have won it for the nation. They haven’t, of course—they’ve won it by, of and for themselves.
Things are a little different this time; not only are our medal hopes spread across several broad frames but the hopefuls themselves are far more integrated into the national consciousness. Their stories are more familiar to us, giving a wider context to their trials and tribulations. It’s a virtuous cycle; awareness breeds interest. Abhinav Bindra’s success was a story waiting to be told; we now know much more about the rather distant sport of shooting—and a rather distant shooting star—thanks to the book co-authored by Rohit Brijnath, A Shot at History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold. And hopefully Bhiwani Junction, Shamya Dasgupta’s book on Indian boxing, will be the corollary, bringing us closer to the sport before success in London.
Much to look forward to, then, over the coming weeks. For me, though, one event will be special: the young footballers of Spain and Brazil flying their national flags, laying down markers for the 2014 Fifa World Cup.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com