Juan Cruz: Olé, España! (But we're still a divided country ...)

No matter the make-up of our football team, they don't belong to all Spaniards
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the Spain team that was crowned European champions on Sunday night, only two men came from Real Madrid – the team favoured by the Franco regime and for years almost the sole provider of representatives for the national side. Barcelona – that emblem of Catalan nationalism – provided three players, and the team as a whole was notable for the fact that its members originated from all corners of Spain.

This was the Spain of diversity that our Prime Minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, likes to talk about, the Spain of territorial solidarity. For Zapatero, these claims are about calming nationalist emotions, which nowhere run higher than in the Basque country of the north. It's a diversity that is much more a football reality than a political reality, but nonetheless, at this moment, as Spain revels in the glory of its great victory, what these players have achieved remains powerfully symbolic.

Whether what has happened on the football field has longer-term consequences for Spanish politics, frankly I doubt. But people are enjoying it for now, and I've seen the effect myself.

I watched our semi-final against Russia at the home of a Catalan singer-songwriter, Joan Manuel Serrat. Years ago, during Franco's time, Joan had the opportunity to sing Spain's entry in the the Eurovision Song Contest, but he refused to take part in it because he wasn't allowed to sing in his own language, Catalan. That's how much the politics meant to him. Yet as we sat in front of the TV, every Spanish goal was celebrated with pride.

Then there was the final against Germany on Sunday. I watched this in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, surrounded by islanders who cheered the goal that turned out to be the winner as if they themselves had scored it. And then, in the streets, cars hooted with the same unbridled enthusiasm which has been a feature of the Spanish media these last three weeks.

The other day, before the final, Jose Montilla, the leader of the Catalan government, wrote an article in La Vanguardia, the Barcelona-based daily: "Why do I want Spain to win?" The answer is simple: the Spanish team belongs to all Spaniards, to all who want to be Spanish, to those who are not sure, and to those who would like to refuse. That's because it is diverse and it is good, and because its players today represent some of the best football in the world. If the team was no good, we wouldn't care whether or not it was diverse, and it wouldn't matter. But it is a good team. It's a pleasure to support this team, even if there are those who would rather not admit it.

The fact remains that this team has become consolidated much faster than the project Zapatero is overseeing. There have been politicians – Catalan and Basque separatists – who, on the eve of the Russia match, said they would rather they beat us, arguing that as a "new" country, Spain's opponents needed their support. But the footballers didn't let the political push and pull get to them, and it seems that within the team neither the Basques nor the Catalans have been too worried about this tiring atmosphere, which so often dominates Spanish politics.

There's a Valencia player, Marchena, who comes from Andalusia, who has been working on improving his Catalan (which he has learned in Valencia) with his team-mates Puyol and Xavi, and in general, the pressure of nationalist polemics has remained outside the boundaries of the team.

The rest of the team tell the same story of a great coming together. Of the two Real Madrid players, the goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, comes from Mostoles, a town on the working-class belt of the Spanish capital, while the defender Sergio Ramos is from Seville. Of the three Barca players, Iniesta was born in Fuentealbilla, a tiny village in Albacete, La Mancha. The other two, Xavi and Puyol, are Catalan. The rest of the team come from all over: the Canary Islands, Asturias, Valencia. There's even a Brazilian, Senna, now a naturalised Spaniard and one of the revelations of the tournament.

It was noted that at some difficult moments of the tournament, sparks flew within the team that in times past – when they were trapped by the belief that they would always lose – would have ignited fires. This time, however, the Spanish side has been blessed with the victory gene.

Still there is something that prevents the team from belonging to all Spaniards. Nearly 80 per cent of Spanish viewers saw the games Spain played, but the percentage came down 20 per cent in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Then again it was up to 80 per cent in the Canary Islands, the region which is farthest from the Spanish mainland, and where there are periodic bursts of nationalist feeling. Are we sure the Catalans and the Basques don't want Spain to win? Not really.

The writer is an author and columnist on 'El Pais'