La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football, by Jimmy Burns, Simon & Schuster RRP£18.99/Nation Books RRP$16.99, 416 pages
When Chelsea beat Barcelona last month in the semi-final of the Champions League and contrived a victory against a vastly superior football team, it was celebrated fervently in Madrid as well as west London. For at least 24 hours Real Madrid’s manager, José Mourinho, could revel in the Catalans’ failure.
The following evening Real, a little less amazingly, lost their own semi-final against Bayern Munich. And so the final of Europe’s biggest club competition will proceed without Europe’s two best teams, or a new eruption of the bitter rivalry carefully chronicled by Jimmy Burns in his vivid survey of Spanish football, La Roja.
No matter that Barça and Real failed this year; Spanish football is at its zenith. Spain won the last World Cup – their first – and the last European Championships. And they did so with consistent panache, something that you could not have accused England of when they won their sole World Cup in 1966.
But Spanish football has often been a rather crude affair. Burns, a former Financial Times journalist, makes a convincing case that for most of the last century it was a battle between “La Furia” – the expression of the martial virtues of aggression and virility – and the more appealing qualities of fluency and precision currently practised by the national team (“La Roja”, or the Reds) and Barcelona in particular.
Indeed, for much of the time “La Furia” was in the ascendant – in part because of the persistent British influence on Spanish football. Burns tracks the arrival of English mining engineers and merchants in the 19th century as players and coaches, patronising the natives but teaching them the game – or at least the long-ball version of it – with an emphasis on stamina, tenacity, physical courage and willpower. Even when the Spanish wrested control from the British, “La Furia” was often what was desired – not least by General Franco, the dictator who, predictably, loved the blood-and-guts side of things.
But Burns’s story is not a glib one of Franco and his sport administrators ordaining the football equivalent of militarism on compliant football hierarchies. The Basques, no lovers of Franco’s regime, for decades before and after his dictatorship needed little encouragement from anyone to trample over opponents. Burns sees this as a reflection of the Basques’ role as Spain’s warriors – recalling their feats in the reconquest of Islamic Iberia and the colonisation of Spanish America. This may be a touch hyperbolic, but many of the connections Burns makes between history, politics and soccer are all too real.
In 1925, two years after the dictator Primo de Rivera had banned the use of the Catalan language in public, the Barcelona crowd booed the Spanish national anthem – and the club was closed for six months as punishment. During Spain’s civil war, as Franco’s forces laid siege to Republican-controlled Madrid, benches and fences from what was then Real’s stadium were used for fuel, and the turf was turned into a collectivised vegetable plot.
Burns manfully resists simply portraying Real as the Francoist bad guys against Barça as a poetic expression of Catalan nationalism. His summary of the rivalry – that Barcelona have as a rule been “less magnanimous in victory and a worse loser” – will come as a shock to anyone who has listened to Mourinho’s jibes, which include the idea that Barça’s association with Unicef is skewing footballing decisions in its favour.
For now the world largely loves Barça – certainly the best team I have watched. But their rightly lauded manager, Pep Guardiola, Barcelona FC man and boy, is leaving – exhausted by the intensity of it all. For the sake not only of Spanish football, but for world football, we must hope that his successor continues to deliver the values of “La Roja” and not “La Furia”.
Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford