World Cup Politics: Homage to Catalonia & How Soccer Explain the World

Spain has been my favorite international team to watch over the past six years or so, and from a pure soccer/football point of view, I was very happy to see them win yesterday. My friends and I have been debating over the past month of the World Cup to what extent should politics and history matter in choosing a team to support. For the liberal, humanistic, cosmopolitan types I tend to be around in NYC, Spain seems relatively unproblematic based on current and recent history. Many in Spain’s most cosmopolitan city, Barcelona, would disagree, however, as I discovered when I was in Spain for the 2008 World Cup.

I was thrilled that my honeymoon to Spain coincided with the group stage of the ’08 Cup. But low and behold, when Spain’s first game of the our visit came on, my wife and I couldn’t find a single Spanish bar showing the game (we eventually watched it in an Irish one with not a single Spanish fan). I was quite confused.

Luckily, I happened to have brought with me Franklin Foer’s excellent book How Soccer Explains the World, though sadly I didn’t read it until after leaving Barcelona. In its excellent chapter on the soccer club FC Barcelona, it explains how during Franco’s reign, support for FC Barcelona was the only allowable expression of Catalan identity, Catalonia having been the greatest bastion of democratic opposition to Franco’s fascism (as greatly documented in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia). The rivalry between the two best Spanish sides, FCB and Real Madrid, became must more than a sporting rivalry (just as Baca’s saying, “mes que un club” or “more than a club” implies), it was a continuation of the Spanish Civil War. In conversations with people I met, I learned that Catalonya is still fighting for its cultural, lingual, and political autonomy, and that even thirty years after Franco, it was a place where nationalistic support for the Spanish time was not likely to be seen.

As Spain progressed in this year’s Cup, I was very curious if things had changed, or if any of this would be brought out in the American press. Sadly, I didn’t see this story told anywhere until finding a couple great pieces in a soccer blog today. Here is one from yesterday that calls into question claims of Spain playing for the entire country. And here is one from today on the Catalan newspaper claiming that Barcelona’s style, not Spain, won the cup (seven of Spain’s starters play for FCB, and six of the starters are Catalans). Both include great photos of Spanish newspapers, along with English translations of the headlines. FCB’s website this morning led not with Spain winning the cup, but with Barca’s “Iniesta wins the World Cup.” Here is an article from a London newspaper which explains more.

There is definitely a great history class lesson or two that could come from these documents that could relate to the Spanish Civil War, Franco, Nationalism, or Identity. I’m thinking it could lead with a question, like “Is everyone from Spain Spanish?” or “Why would some in Spain be upset Spain won the World Cup?”

Update: Some more links and resources

4 thoughts on “World Cup Politics: Homage to Catalonia & How Soccer Explain the World

  1. It can go even further back: it mustn’t be forgotten that Spain, as a united political entity, exists only since the XVIII century, when, after the War of Spanish Succession, the Nueva Planta decrees supressed the crown of Aragon’s institutions (such as the traditional fueros) and privileges, and imposed Castilla’s law, ending almost seven centuries of political independence. In Xativa, near Valencia, Philip V’s portrait has been hanging upside down ever since.

    A hundred years after that, with the War of Independence against Napoleon, Spain began the construction of its national identity -centered in Castilla-, and up to the XX century, most of Spanish historiography will be written from this perspective. Obviously, during Franco’s dictatorship, this got to a comical point, when his “new” Spain was linked to the Catholic Kings -as can be seen in the coat of arms of the Spanish flag during those years-, with El Cid, or with the Iberians of the VIII century BC. This goes on right up to these days, and football is just another face of it. In the same way that certain catalan newspapers have avoided mentioning Spain, most national papers have gone on and on about how “Spain is playing for the entire country”. La Gaceta’s headline, a awfully conservative paper, was “Proud to be Spanish”. They weren’t talking just about football. All this comes the same week that thousands of Catalans marched in the streets demanding greater regional autonomy. As if they didn’t have already the highest autonomy of any region in the world.

    Other nationalisms, such as Catalan and Basque, really began as a bourgeois response to Spain’s economic centralism. Before that, they were merely cultural movements, with no particular political demands. And just like Spain, they also will manipulate their own history when interested. Basque nationalism is a specially remarkable example of this. But this does not mean they do not have their own cultural heritage, as mentioned before. As I said, Spain has only been united for three centuries, and this was done by force.

    So, everyone from Spain is Spanish, buy only by law. If you were surprised in Barcelona, you’d be amazed in any small Catalan village, where Spanish isn’t even spoken. This happens too in parts of Galicia or Valencia.

  2. Thanks for all the additional info and insight, mrS. My 17th-19th Century is really weak. I’m looking forward to doing a lot of learning with my students this year teaching World History that goes past the Renaissance for the first time in my career.

  3. It’s my pleasure. Having a chat about History always is.

    I’m sure the students will love it. You can’t understand what goes on today without having a look at the last couple of centuries. The fall of the Ancien RĂ©gime, the different revolutions and national movements in Europe and America… they certainly make History classes interesting. Good luck to you anyway. I’ll be following this blog to see how things go.

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