Spain's soccer coach sent off by politician

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The Independent Online
JAVIER Clemente has quit as Spain's national football coach, on the word of a government minister. Imagine if Culture Secretary Chris Smith, acting on orders from No 10 and a nod from William Hague, called upon the Football Association to ponder the future of Glenn Hoddle, following England's recent defeat by Sweden.

Far from being howled down in derisive laughter, as would be the case in Britain, the Spanish culture minister's appeal was taken extremely seriously and acted upon within hours. The minister, Esperanza Aguirre - whose brain is widely assumed to be a football-free zone - ordered the Spanish football federation to "reflect on ways to counteract the great disappointment felt among the fans" after Spain's humiliating defeat by Cyprus days earlier.

It amounted to a call for Clemente's head, a demand that had risen to a shriek in Spain's widely read sports press. In vain Clemente protested: "Surely the government has more important things to deal with than football? Before long I will tell the Prime Minister what measures he should take to run the country." The intervention recalled the manipulative excesses of Franco, he said.

Politics and football have long been intimately entwined in Spain. Under Franco's dictatorship the caudillo shamelessly exploited the European triumphs of his beloved Real Madrid as an escape valve for potential discontent. Last week's episode, when the Spanish government strode on to the pitch in a manner unprecedented in 22 years of democracy, seems an extraordinary throwback to those times.

Spain became a country where footballers talked politics and politicians talked football in a discourse followed avidly by millions. Kiko, the Atletico Madrid forward who hails from Jerez in impoverished Andalucia, said: "If the politicians want to do something useful, why don't they take a stroll around Jerez, and give some work to my countrymen who could do with it?"

Real Madrid's Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, said: "We shouldn't feel sorry for coaches. We should feel sorry for people sacked from their factory and sent home without work."

Why did the fate of a stroppy coach become a burning national issue? "In Spain, football is so important that we feel personally humiliated by national defeats, and especially angry when they are caused by a chulo [bullying show-off]," explained one disillusioned fan.

Politicians, it seems, feared negative electoral fall-out from this perceived sense of popular gloom. Opinion polls suggest the government is not reaping the popularity it expected from a buoyant economy. What better way of lifting morale than by joining the clamour?

"Politicians believed Clem- ente was demoralising Spanish fans and diminishing self-esteem. They felt they had to take a stand or be condemned as out- of-touch," said a football correspondent. Doesn't this smack of Francoist opportunism? "In football, nothing has changed," he said.

On Friday, the day after Clemente quit, the sports press heaved a sigh of relief. "Gracias" was the banner headline in As newspaper. And a thumbs- up sign dominated the front page of Marca. All was forgiven in a catharsis of reconciliation. Mrs Aguirre even managed to soothe: "Clemente's decision will restore the enthusiasm of the fans ... I think he has done a lot for football."

There is a generation of Spaniards who opposed Franco and fought passionately for the transition to democracy. They hate football, never go to matches and discourage their children from going. For them, football is identified with the mindless enthusiasm drummed up by Franco to muffle dissent. They remember with bitterness how the best matches were scheduled for May Day, to entertain workers and discourage them from taking to the streets to protest.

They remember the orgies of excess that greeted international success: victory against the Soviet Union? "Communism on its knees!" Against England? "Perfidious Albion vanquished!".

Real Madrid, who won the Uefa Cup last season, is still considered by many as the "national" - that is, Francoist - team. Its world-class stadium in the posh end of town was built by the dictatorship as a shrine to the team that embodied national glory in a hostile world.

Last week's spectacle suggests that, despite the transformation Spain has under- gone, football for politicians remains "a matter of national interest" and, for sceptics, fair game for manipulation when politicos feel the draught.

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