Tuesday, August 28, 2012
La Roja - By Jimmy Burns
Football is more than a sport played with your feet. It is an unfinished narrative, a conversation between the game and its fans. The teams, players, and managers are the protagonists, but they represent more than a collection of individuals; they are a neighbourhood, a city, or a nation personified. Nowhere has this discourse proved more volatile than in Spain, where centuries-old divisions are ingrained in clubs across the country.
In La Roja, Jimmy Burns explores how Spain transcended regional animosity to occupy the centre of the soccer universe. From the arrival of British engineers on the coast of Andalusia in the late 19th century to the country's triumph at the most recent World Cup in South Africa, Burns highlights the key events and figures that have loomed largest over Spanish football and shaped its history. Conceptually, the book is divided into three sections: the pre-Franco era, the Franco era, and the post-Franco era.
Yet La Roja is much more than a bland recitation of Spanish history over the past century. Burns also taps into the collective conscious of a nation where politics and culture are deeply embedded in the soccer landscape. For Burns, Spanish football has been defined by the "mythification" of La Furia, a "particularly muscular and aggressive style of soccer, blessed with a nobility of intent and execution." In the first section of the book, Burns highlights the advent of La Furia at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, and, more broadly, the spread of soccer across Spain.
The militarised version of La Furia, enhanced under the Generalissimo's regime, was validated by the dominance of Alfredo Di Stefano's Real Madrid in the 1950s and Spain's victory over the Soviet Union in the final of the 1964 European Nations Cup. However, the death of Franco and the collapse of fascist Spain induced a period of nationwide introspection. Cesar Menotti, Argentina's 1978 World Cup-winning manager, who would later take charge of FC Barcelona, commented: "The day Spain .. decides to be a bullfighter rather than a bull on the pitch it will play better soccer."
In the final section of La Roja, Burns delves into Spanish football's post-Franco era - spearhead by Johan Cruyff's Barcelona and the adoption of a style based more on intricacy and passing than on toughness and efficiency. Although La Furia continued to thrive in Spain, as epitomised by Athletic Bilbao's Javier Clemente and Real Madrid's 'Vulture Squad', Burns credits Spain's success at the 1992 Olympics and the development of Pep Guardiola as planting the seeds for the unprecedented success that would follow nearly two decades later.
Ultimately, La Roja succeeds because it is a history lesson focused on more than names and dates. The transformation of the national team from Franco's mythicised "Don Quixotic" style of play to a modern style based on Johan Cruyff's total football is a central theme throughout the text, but it is not the only one. Burns also emphasises Spanish soccer's extensive foreign influence. From Di Stefano, Ladislau Kubala and Cruyff to David Beckham and the Galaticos, it is evident that Spain has always welcomed the world's best players and managers, even when the national mood may not have been as harmonious.
Unfortunately, this global appeal has largely centred on FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Although Burns highlights the role of Athletic Bilbao and the Basque country in shaping the early identity of Spanish soccer, he too allows the Castilians and the Catalans to polarise his discussion. Clubs like Atletico Madrid and Espanyol get passing references because of their proximity to Spain's giants, while other prominent clubs - including Valencia, Villarreal, and Sevilla - are neglected almost entirely.
Without a doubt, La Roja is an essential contribution to the historiography of Spanish football. Burns utilises a comprehensive array of primary and secondary sources to suggest that Spain no more underachieved throughout the 20th century - given the divisive political climate of the time - than it has overachieved at the turn of the millennium. Indeed, the performance of La Roja has both shaped and been shaped by the nation's discourse.