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Many hues of red
In the 2002 Spanish film, Mondays in the Sun, a group of middle-aged friends unjustly laid off from a Vigo ship-building yard in northern Spain, ruminate about life, immersing themselves in drink at the local bar. They kill time also by making off with the local ferry each time the rest of the working class town gets ready to go to work. When they are not doing either, Santa - played by Javier Bardem - and his unemployed mates make sure they catch the weekend football home game. Since they can't afford tickets, they watch the game from the terrace of an adjoining building.
So far so good. The only hitch is that the roof of the stadium obscures their view when the game flows to the far end, and they can only follow proceedings by guessing the cheering of the spectators in the ground. In a comic moment, when their team finally scores they celebrate as wildly as if they had witnessed it all along. Only, they haven't seen a thing.
Spain's landscape is littered with such anecdotes and story-telling, especially when it comes to football. If this weren't out of a movie, it could belong to a Jimmy Burns book - injustice, football and a sense of humour. Football in Spain has a complex relationship with its various regions and cultures, making it fascinating for the football anthropologist. The sport's sociopolitical role in the birth of the nation following the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, the use of it as a propaganda tool during the Franco years, and the national team's long-running inferiority complex and lack of support, as a consequence, are tales you could revisit again and again.
Over the years, Burns has recorded them well. He returns, this time with La Roja, attempting to capture the entire sociopolitical history that shaped Spain's football. This is his most ambitious work yet. Despite having set the pace for football books on Spain - over a decade ago, his Barca: A People's Passion, became the go-to history of the famous club - the Madrid-born, Barcelona-loving Burns faces a stiff challenge with this one. Either La Roja, like the football team's story it is about, could re-set the bar on football writing on Spain, or it could end up as an also-ran in a crowd of books on the same topic. Despite the book looking a little hurried, a trifle short on detail, Burns is still on familiar turf here. You can immediately tell he has been served well by the work done in his earlier works. Like a seasoned historian, who relishes getting his hands dirty, Burns digs out stuff and is unafraid to share them.
Unsurprisingly, the belated coming-of-age of the 'selecion' - in Spain, the national team was always a selection, never a team, straightaway implying its orphan status in local eyes - lies at the centre of this latest exploration. To understand this better, Burns chooses to return to the roots of the game to try and understand the hold of football in this land.
The vast canvas before him is inviting. He discovers how it was a British game that the Spanish made their own, how the Basque region with their strong regional and nationalistic sentiments was the first to understand the importance of football as a regional symbol. There is the Catalan surge and football becomes a part of local identity.
Then there is the role of early superstars and maverick coaches - a feature that runs to this day in the Spanish game - that sets the stage for local football's well-rounded growth. External influences in the form of the Argentine Alfredo de Stefano, Kubala the Hungarian in exile, the eccentric coach Herrera, and finally, in the '70s, the long-haired prophet, Dutchman Johan Cruyff, show the openness of Spanish culture to receive, imbibe and learn.
Yet, the most fascinating aspect is the enduring crises of confidence of the national 'selecion' - only belatedly rechristened La Roja (The Red). For very long in its colourful and eventfilled history, Spain's main team remained a psychological case - making it more a shrink's delight than a historian's. Not many back home were unduly bothered, till it shook off the ghosts and shook itself awake and helped unite a diverse people with its fantastic brand of football.
La Roja is an engaging coming of age story. What would be welcome now is a sequel, on what awaits Spain in the grand theatre that is the World Cup of Brazil in 2014.
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