Soccer's Spanish Fury

By Burns, Jimmy | Newsweek International, July 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Soccer's Spanish Fury


Burns, Jimmy, Newsweek International


Byline: Jimmy Burns

The Euro Cup winner's passionate style has deep roots.

During Franco's dictatorship, between 1939 and 1975, soccer was a pastime that was actively encouraged by the state--that is, as long as it was not exploited by the enemy. And the enemy ranged from communists, Freemasons, and freethinkers to Catalan and Basque nationalists, most of them decent human beings whose clubs were rooted in local cultural identities. It gave Spanish soccer, when I was growing up, its political edge; it separated us soccer lovers into democrats and fascists.

Franco was brutal on and off the field. Far from magnanimous in his hour of victory, Franco emerged in 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, determined to rule his country with an iron grip. Spaniards were divided between those who continued to support him and his military rebels and those who had fought against him on the side of the democratically elected Republican government. The former were rewarded with jobs, social security benefits, and new houses. The latter faced imprisonment, execution, and social exclusion, including exile.

Culturally, Spain was reduced to a playground, carefully controlled. With an increasing number of Spaniards migrating from the countryside to the big cities, in particular Madrid and Barcelona, and the spread first of radio and then television, soccer overtook bullfighting as the most popular pastime, tolerated by a regime that saw sports through the prism of self-preservation, a vehicle for defusing antagonisms of a dangerously political ilk. Of those years, one of Spanish soccer's most eminent native commentators, Alfredo Relano, has written, "Soccer kept growing. Spain began to rebuild itself after the war. It was a time when there was little to do except work as many hours as possible ... pick up the pieces from the ruins, and on Sundays go to the soccer match. These were hard years, of shortages, cold, and few diversions. There was a radio in each house (the invention of TV was on its way), a cinema in each neighbourhood and soccer. At times there were cycling competitions, boxing fights, and bullfights, but above all soccer, and not much else."

During the 1920s, when Spain's first professional players began to make their marks, it was the direct, aggressive, spirited style of the Basque team Athletic Bilbao that set a benchmark, although the term furia (fury) that came to denote the style could not claim originality. Basques played the way they did because they were taller and physically stronger than other Spaniards and because they were accustomed to playing in wet conditions, whereas much of Spain was a semidesert. In the old days of emergent Spanish soccer, few fields were covered in turf.

Spaniards at the time were quite happy to recognize that the aggressive, spirited game of soccer had its roots in Britain and the English teachers that came to Spanish clubs. Under Francoism things changed, and the term Furia Espanola (Spanish Fury) became part of the regime's militarist nomenclature. La Furia was redefined and promoted by the state's propaganda machinery as one of the leading virtues of the New Spain. It was resurrected from the mythology of conquest and glory that belonged to the country's imperial past, such as the recovery of Muslim Granada by the Catholic kings and the creation of Spanish America by the early conquistadores--conquering warriors. It also drew on the national stereotype mythified in the literary figure of Don Quixote, the incarnation of the spirit of noncompromise, with his hopelessness and failure forgotten beside his nobility of purpose.

As the Falangist newspaper Arriba wrote in 1939, a few months after Franco had emerged triumphant from the Spanish Civil War: "The furia espanola is present in all aspects of Spanish life, to a greater extent than ever. …

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