For most people, 2020 has offered little cheer. But the year does mark a noteworthy anniversary for Football fans from one nation that has contributed extensively to the global game. This year citizens from Seville to Santander can celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Spanish international Football.
On the 28th of August 1920, the Real Federación Española de Fútbol entered the first ever men’s Football team to represent Spain in competition. The 1-0 victory against Denmark can hardly be considered a foreshadow of the outstanding success that La Roja would achieve over the following century. Among its achievements stand FIFA World Cup glory in 2010, three separate UEFA European Championship triumphs in 1964, 2008 and 2012 and Olympic Gold in front of a home crowd in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. La Roja were European Championship finalists in 1984 (losing out to France) and also earned silver in the 1920 and 2000 Olympic Games. If we take the combined number of World Cup, European Championship and Olympic titles that each national side has won as our chosen metric of success, Spain ranks joint 3rd (alongside France and behind only Italy and Germany) of the most successful teams in Europe.
Though Spain has earned the right to be viewed as a mighty Football nation, cynics will point out that three of its trophies came in a particularly strong era for La Roja between 2008 and 2012 – one of which was the fortunate outcome of a extra-time scrap against the Netherlands that could easily have gone to the men in Oranje. But on the other hand, one could argue that Spain could have won a great deal more had the country enjoyed a less turbulent 20th century. The costly Civil War forced one of Europe’s strongest sides to forgo the 1938 World Cup, and a backwards fascist regime that lasted until 1975 was largely to blame for widespread malnutrition in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This invariably led to a smaller pool of players strong and healthy enough to compete internationally, but the remarkable performance of Real Madrid in this era does make this a difficult point to argue. Nevertheless, a generational height discrepancy is noticeable to this day when you walk down a street in Valencia or Vigo. And of course, “a turbulent 20th century” could apply to almost any European nation state, but Spain’s self-imposed economic sluggishness definitely shrank the cohort of Football players capable of winning World Cups for years.
Regardless, with such a full trophy cabinet one would anticipate the Spanish layman to be proud of his country’s, at least to a degree. But as anybody who has spent a significant amount of time on the peninsula can confirm, this is not the case. To the Spanish, unbridled patriotism is a source of much handwringing and desperate segways into alternative conversations. Though some individuals may privately hold pride in their country, very brash, public celebrations of patriotism anywhere from Huelva to Huesca are largely seen as distasteful and unwelcome.
I recall a conversation with a former manager. As an Erasmus-funded intern working in provincial Andalusia, I walked into the office one day wearing a belt with a buckle shaped and coloured like the Spanish flag (God knows where I purchased such an item). A clear statement of my enthusiasm and respect for the country that was kindly hosting me I thought, but my colleagues didn’t see it that way. Without any trace of menace or anger, I was quietly requested not to wear it again inside the office less any client see me with it. In contemporary Spain, the more conservative types manifest their values with subtle red-yellow-red details on their wallets, the wristwatch strap, their braces and in 2020, their facial mask. My cringingly oversized belt buckle gave the false impression of a far-right sympathiser.
Why? Well, because the Spanish generally hold deep, negative associations with Spanish patriotism and its related symbolism.
In many regards Spain has yet to come to terms with the pain of the Civil War. Around 4 decades of censorship following the fascists’ victory in 1939 effectively prevented any public discourse concerning the conflict as well as a chance for the bereaved to mourn their losses appropriately. The memory of such tragedies does typically lose some resolution as time passes, but scores of citizens still feel that the state is yet to properly apologise and account for the lives lost in that gruesome episode. Overzealous flag-waving and displays of national pride can therefore cut very deep to some people.
Furthermore, the persecution of various groups within Spanish society by Franco’s Falangist party was common knowledge during his rule but has created a legacy of mistrust in the state. Franco’s policies deliberately targeted “non-Castilian” groups, famously outlawing the publication of any media in Spain’s non-Castilian languages (most notably as Catalan, Euskara and Galician), punishing dissenters harshly and marginalising the country’s substantial Roma population in a way that nastily casted the public memory back to the inquisition. There is no question that some individuals benefited hugely from Franco’s regime, but the very public knowledge of precisely what was being undertaken by the Falangists “in the glory of Spain” makes the average Juan Doe very reluctant to demonstrate block-headed, unconditional pride in his nation in our times. The Spanish are acutely aware of the terrible things that have been done in the name of their country in the exact same century that Spain’s national men’s Football team has achieved some extraordinary feats.
Following Franco’s demise and the transition to democracy with a constitutional monarchy in 1975, the country underwent dramatic changes very quickly. Spain went from steadfast totalitarianism to a liberalised society almost overnight. The late 70’s and 80’s saw a cultural explosion, with punk music, bikinis and hardcore pornography suddenly being readily available in one of Europe’s most ostensibly Catholic countries. Admission to the European Union in 1986 proceeded a period of prolonged development in which Spain’s economy grew for 22 consecutive years bar 1. And combined with the fantastic performances of the Spanish national side as well as professional Spanish teams in international club Football competition, one would expect increasingly more Spaniards to express some degree of pride in their country.
This does not seem to be the case, at least anecdotally speaking. The financial depression of 2008 and the 2020 pandemic (that has all but halted global tourism) have been two very recent events that have hit Spain hard. For all the country’s recent successes, once again citizens of this Football powerhouse are comparing their current state of affairs with how things appear to be going in Europe’s other leading countries and asking themselves “what do we have to be proud of?”