Leading up to Euro 2008, Spain manager Luis Aragones made a tough decision. He chose not to bring Raul back into the team. Despite the fact that Raul is the golden boy of Spanish football. Despite the fact that Raul is the heart and soul of Real Madrid, the club which represents the ruling position Spanish Spaniards have over Spain.
Now what do I mean by Spanish Spaniards? I mean Spanish citizens whose native language is Spanish. This excludes the Catalans, the Basques and the Galicians, three ethnicities who unhappily find themselves part of the Spanish country against their will. These communities are often like taxpaying colonies of Spanish Spain. Leaders from Spanish Spain have the greatest influence over the country’s fate by virtue of their numerical superiority. Spanish monocultural nationalism has taken root, where the Catalan, Basque and Galician cultures are marginalized in favour of a national, “Spanish”, culture.
Naturally these minorities don’t like it. The Basques, whose language is totally unrelated to any European language, have a separatist movement going. The Catalans are less radical due to the importance of their capital Barcelona as an economic hub. But the Catalan national consciousness has been preserved independently of the Spanish national consciousness.
Demonstrators with the Catalan national flag
One of the great symbols of Spanish monocultural nationalism is Real Madrid Football Club. General Franco, the enfant terrible of Spanish politics known for his Spanish nationalism and marginalization of minority cultures, was president of Real Madrid in the 60s. Madrid-based newspaper Marca is a mouthpiece for Spanish monocultural nationalism and also of Real Madrid Football Club. Real Madrid always gets a hostile reception when travelling to the Basque country to play teams from that region, because the “colonial masters are here and they deserve our treatment.”
Raul is Mr Real Madrid. And therefore Mr Spain. He has carefully cultivated an image as a Spanish monocultural nationalist, and therefore having a divine right to be in the Real Madrid and Spain teams. He is the darling of the Madrid media, particularly the infamous Marca. He followed in the footsteps of another Spanish monocultural nationalist, Fernando Hierro, who was also Mr Real Madrid and Mr Spain. Inevitably, both Hierro and Raul were captain of Spain.
The Spanish national team has always had a Catalan “faction” and a Basque “faction”, players belonging to these communities who have done well enough to get into the national team. Examples include Catalans Cesc Fabregas and Carles Puyol, and Basque Xabi Alonso. The average Catalan or Basque player plays for Spain because it is the only national team they can play for. There are some extraordinarily principled players like Barcelona’s Catalan defender Oleguer who simply refuse to play for the national team, but they are exceptions. Any Spanish national selection has an inevitable component of Catalans and Basques.
Players like Hierro and Raul come with their inextricable baggage of Spanish nationalism, Real Madrid, General Franco and Marca. To compound the problem, these Spanish nationalistic players are usually captain, and the dominant presence in the dressing room. You cross them, and it’s hasta la vista (Spanish for “so long, bye bye”). Such players never see eye to eye with the Catalan faction and the Basque faction. Catalans and Basques are often perceived as not being committed enough to the national cause, so Raul and Co are usually harsh on them. Catalan and Basque players quietly curse the privileged position enjoyed by players of Raul’s ilk, and slowly build up resentment.
This atmosphere of mutual distrust is one of the main reasons for Spain’s underachievement in World Cups and European Championships. The team has always been a collection of exceptional individuals and king-sized egos, and have never won the World Cup. They had only one European Championship victory (achieved in 1964) to their name.
That was until now. Luis Aragones, the 69 year-old grand man of Spanish football, decided to take a stand against bad politics. He decided that there was no place for Raul in the Spain team. He was villified by the Madrid-based media. He was almost hounded out by the press, and even announced prior to Euro 2008 that he would be leaving after the tournament and taking over at Turkish club Fenerbahce. The only thing that could save his reputation was victory in Euro 2008.
Aragones promptly delivered it. With a swashbuckling style of football that everyone else envied, Spain stormed to the Euro 2008 title. There was a sudden unity about the team, epitomised by Catalans Fabregas and Puyol making immense contributions to the cause. Another Catalan, Xavi, was even named Player of the Tournament. There was no disruptive influence in the dressing room. Everyone played for the country. Everyone celebrated victory regardless of whether they were Catalans, Basques or, for want of a better term, Spanish Spaniards.
Sergio Ramos, the Spanish Spaniard from Andalucia, celebrated Spain’s Euro 2008 victory by draping the flag of Andalucia round himself. The blogosphere was filled with comments about the wisdom of such a move. Some mentioned the calamity that would have ensued if anyone had flown the Catalan or Basque flag instead. Headlines like “Xabi Alonso the Basque separatist” or “Fabregas the national traitor” would have appeared on, where else, Marca.
An interesting moment occurred when the sole Basque in the team, Xabi Alonso, received the Spanish flag which was being passed around among the players. He looked distinctly uncomfortable and passed it on quickly. As I told you earlier, Basques and Catalans play for Spain because it’s the only national team they can play for. But to their credit, they have conducted themselves very well and made mammoth contributions to the cause.
To put things into perspective was one Marcos Senna, a man born halfway across the world in Brazil, who took up Spanish citizenship in his twenties, made his debut for the national team at 30, and became the heartbeat of Spain’s victorious Euro 2008 team. Seeing him in Spanish colours celebrating jubilantly, you cannot but wonder if the Spanish-Catalan-Basque divide has been blown out of proportion by bad politics.
No such bad politics here. Aragones has weeded out disruptive elements and led the nation to glory. The Madrid press who villified Aragones for his decisions have now gone strangely silent. And Senor Raul, hasta la vista.