Simon & Schuster £18.99
La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football, By Jimmy Burns
Recommended reading for the England team this week ...
Until recently, Spanish football bore marked similarities to the English game: a rich domestic history and a proud record in European club football contrasting with sorry decades of under-achievement by the national side. Now, Spain are world and defending European champions. England are very definitely not.
There's one simple, practical reason for that: huge numbers of coaches in Spain; an awful lot fewer in England. And what's been embedded in the younger generation of Spanish footballers is a powerful alliance of technical excellence and a very English vim and vigour. Or, as one chapter heading in Jimmy Burns's masterly exploration of Spanish football has it: "Football with cojones".
Burns gives a fascinating account of how the game was introduced to the Basques by expatriate Brits: first came Huelva Recreation Club, founded in 1889 by Alexander Mackay, a Scots doctor working for the Rio Tinto mining company. It spread from the Basque country and pervaded the national consciousness, becoming a focus not just for sporting passions but for the hopes and aspirations of people across Spain – and especially in Catalonia, where support for Barcelona went hand-in-hand with the separatist tendency.
When Franco took power, one of the first things he did was to take control of all football institutions, and during his years the game was shot through with politics. Leading 3-0 after the first leg of a Spanish Cup semi-final in 1943, the Barcelona team received a dressing-room visit before the second leg from Franco's Director of State Security, who, alluding to the fact that some of them had left Spain during the Civil War, delivered a chilling warning: "Do not forget that some of you are playing only because of the generosity of the regime in forgiving you your lack of patriotism." They lost the game 11-1.
Kicked off, as it were, by foreigners, the Spanish game continued to derive inspiration from imported talent (something that began to happen in Britain only decades later): the two biggest stars of the great Real Madrid team of the 1950s, for example, were a Hungarian, Ferenc Puskas, and an Argentinian, Alfredo di Stefano. And it's fair to say that the national side's present hegemony can be traced back to the arrival in Barcelona in 1973 of the Dutch genius, Johan Cruyff.
Cruyff brought with him the artistry of "Total Football" with which the Dutch national side had mesmerised the world. He brought "fluidity and the rare element of surprise to the game, so that football became an intricate piece of choreography rather than a north-to-south battlefield."
He wrought something of a transformation off the pitch as well. After he'd orchestrated a 5-0 win against the deadly enemy, Real Madrid, one journalist wrote that he'd done more for the spirit of the Catalan nation in 90 minutes than politicians had managed in years of stifled struggle. And when he returned to the club as coach, he developed the template for the breathtaking football played by Barcelona and the national side today.
The richness of Spanish football's myth and history is at least the equal of Britain's, and Burns has done a tremendous job of setting it in the context of the country's wider history. If, on 1 July, Spain become the first team to retain the European Championship, there would be no better tribute to them than this fine book.
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