Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Bigger Picture in Spain

"It's not always easy for a Barcelona player to be a symbol of Spain," remarked Martin Tyler after Carles Puyol sent Spain to the finals. Forget the fact that he plays for Barcelona, he's Catalan.

For decades, Spain has been a fractured society. Made up of about 19 autonomous regions, each one treats itself as separate from Spain. They all claim to speak their own language. Yes, it's all Spanish with different dialects, but go to Sevilla and they'll tell you they speak Andalucian. Go to A Coruña and they speak Galician. Even within the Catalan regions, people in Valencia speak Valencian, not Catalan.

Football has been no different. Athletic Bilbao has been around since 1898, and in that time they have ONLY fielded Basque players on their team. No Spaniards, no Catalans, no islanders. Basque only. The rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona gets caught up in so much politics that you forget there's even a game going on. It goes all the way up to the national team - where for years Raul stood tall in the locker room. A proud Madridista who wasn't shy about his political orientation, he often prevented the team from gelling as a cohesive unit. He intimidated newcomers, and made any outsider feel very uncomfortable. The team was split into many small groups of players. It's no surprise they choked in every single tournament, and then won the first chance they got when Raul was dropped.

Then 2008 happened - Spain winning the European Championship. Through the semi-finals, the streets of Bilbao and San Sebastian were empty in the Basque region, nobody dared celebrate Spanish pride in the open. But when they won it, fireworks went off in some remote areas, and the streets filled to an certain extent. It was at least something.

And then last night happened. Puyol scored. A Barcelona player scored. A Catalan scored. All across the nation scenes of jubilant ecstacy erupted. Spain was finally going to the World Cup final. For those that say soccer does not have the power to bring warring, splintered nations together you're a fool. On the streets of Barcelona they chanted "¡Catalunya es España!" and "¡Hola, hola, hola... Barcelona es española!" It seems rather expected, but I assure you celebrations and chanting like that is something you rarely ever see in that city. And still, less than 1,000 people went to the designated fanzone to celebrate in Europe's 11th largest city. The local Catalan Government purposely designated a very small area for the festivities and did not allow for excessive crowds.

I've looked through dozens of newpapers from around the country, and headlines for every photo gallery or story speak about celebrations everywhere...except in the Basque region. There were no fan zones. No excessive shenanigans in the streets.

I'm not really sure what to make of all this. While I want to say this trip to the finals has united a nation, and it has to an extent, the ghosts of Spain's past are ever present. Certain corners of the country remain uninterested. While others, like in Barcelona where support of the state is rarely expressed in the open, are coming out of their shells to show national pride.

Perhaps the Basque will always be Basque, and never truly Spanish. Same with the Catalans. But, a victory on Sunday could change all that. As proud as every region is of their culture, they are equally as passionate about their football. Almost every region is represented on this team, and the pride of winning a World Cup is like nothing we can ever imagine. It's tough for us to truly grasp the significance of a World Cup championship on society. There is absolutely nothing in American culture I can compare it to. But what it could do for a country like Spain would be unprecedented. After decades of Civil War, a ruthless dictator, oppression, terrorism, secrets, and fears, a momentary point of unity will be played out on a green patch of grass in South Africa.

I really hope it has the desired effect.

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