Why will a quarter of Spain be supporting England tonight?

How regional divisions make many Spaniards indifferent to their national team's failure
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The Independent Online

I have a friend in Barcelona, a Catalan, who always supports Ireland in the World Cup. Once I asked him why. With a shrug, he replied, "I don't know, really. I suppose it's because they come across as quite simpaticos." If you push him he'll admit to supporting national teams featuring Barça players. Though not, of course, Spain. Whenever Spain play he will always, unfailingly, support the rival team. Whoever they might be.

I have a friend in Barcelona, a Catalan, who always supports Ireland in the World Cup. Once I asked him why. With a shrug, he replied, "I don't know, really. I suppose it's because they come across as quite simpaticos." If you push him he'll admit to supporting national teams featuring Barça players. Though not, of course, Spain. Whenever Spain play he will always, unfailingly, support the rival team. Whoever they might be.

My friend is not alone. In so far as Catalans will be taking an interest in tonight's Spain v England game in Madrid, they will be - most of them - supporting England. Should England score, the whole city will know about it. It happens every time, just as it does when Barça score a goal: in every neighbourhood there will be someone guaranteed to set off a celebratory firework or two.

Now, admittedly, things could get a little complicated this time around. What if Owen or Beckham score for England? The spontaneous reaction will be jubilation, but a moment's reflection will yield the alarming truth that they play for the most detested enemy of them all, Real Madrid.

At which point the mental systems of Catalan football fans everywhere may dangerously short-circuit. Or not. Love for England may momentarily trump loathing for Spain. Whatever the case, it will yield an interesting new twist on the complex tribal impulses that animate the otherwise sane and impressively civilised Catalan people.

The Catalans are not alone. The Basques are at least as zealous in their desire that the Spanish football team be beaten. And as far as tonight's game is concerned, because they haven't got as much of a thing about Real Madrid as the Catalans do, they'll be cheering on Beckham and Owen with as much abandon as the rest of the England team.

There are other, smaller nationalist enclaves in Spain where they'll be rooting for England too. A number will in Galicia, in the Celtic-rooted north-west (they play the bagpipes out there, the fields are green and they look Irish); some diehards will in the Valencia region; and the Balearic islanders (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza) will be happy for the most part to see perfidious España defeated.

All of which I mention by way of helping explain an eternal dilemma: why do Spain always fall flat on their faces on the international stage? Why do they always flatter to deceive? The short answer is that the Spanish just don't care enough. And the measure of how little they care is that, precisely, a substantial sector of the population (as much as a quarter maybe) actively want them to lose.

As for the rest, the remaining 75 per cent or so, they are not nearly as fussed as people of similarly potent football nations - the English, the Germans, the Dutch, the Italians -- whether their national team wins or not. The point is that fully half the country supports Real Madrid, and for most of those people Real is their country, not Spain. Real is where all their football passions are invested. Loyalty to the Spanish team is strongest in Andalucia, whose biggest teams - Seville, Betis, Malaga - have little history of success, and rarely compete outside Spain's borders. (Hard-core England supporters, the ones who take the trouble to go to away games, tend to support the less glamorous clubs back home; seek glory on the international stage on a scale they could never aspire to in domestic competition.)

So what does all this mean on the pitch? It means that the players who represent Spain lack the edge necessary to succeed even against teams like South Korea and Greece (the nations that knocked them out of the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 respectively) because their lust to triumph is so much weaker. Football, as the Spanish themselves like to observe, is a state of mind. If you go out on to a pitch to face furiously driven rivals, knowing that their entire nation is willing them on but knowing just as well that most of your own compatriots are bestowing only a passing interest in the game, the odds are going to be against you; you've lost the state of mind game before you've even kicked a ball.

Raul, the Spanish captain in recent years, says he would dearly love to win something for his country. So do some of the others, like Michel Salgado or, even, Barcelona's Carles Puyol. But when it comes down to it - when you're going for that ankle-crunching 50-50 ball; when you're in the second half of extra time and only a desperate effort of will can get you through - somewhere inside you a little voice is going to raise the crushingly subversive, but not entirely irrational, question: why bother?

Things could change. A contributing reason why the non-Catalan, non-Basque Spanish are so uninterested in the fate of their national team is that they have no history of ever doing well in a World Cup. Should they suddenly surprise us all and finally live up to expectations in Germany in a couple of years' time then success might breed an appetite for more success. With players like Jose Reyes, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia, to name but the English contingent of talented Spaniards around these days, anything ought to be possible. Don't bet your money on it, though. Lots of people have in the past, and they have always got it wrong.

John Carlin is the author of 'White Angels', a book about Real Madrid, published by Bloomsbury, £16.99

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