Does football unite Spain?

From BBC news:

Victory celebration in Madrid, 12 Jul 10

World Cup victory has put the national flag proudly on display across Spain. Yet for some – including Basques and Catalans – the flag clashes with their aspirations for greater self-rule.

Here Walter Oppenheimer, a Catalan journalist with the Spanish daily El Pais, examines the impact of World Cup euphoria in Spain.

Is football helping to unite Spain? Can the first Spanish World Cup victory achieve what no politician has been able to do for decades, if not centuries? I don’t think so, I’m afraid.

Victory in South Africa was fantastic news. It will cheer up a country terribly depressed after the recession, inject a lot of confidence and help the Spanish people to go out and spend more and boost the recovery a bit. It may even help the unemployed – 20% of the working population – to look to the future in a better mood. But it’s not going to end the so-called Catalan problem or the Basque problem.

I’m a Catalan myself, despite my name. I was born and raised in Barcelona, but I’m not a patriot. Not a Spanish patriot, nor a Catalan one. Borders are not my cup of tea – I love to speak Catalan in Madrid and Spanish in Barcelona. So I think I understand what the Catalans want, but I have a sense of perspective. And I love football. And Barca [Barcelona] in particular. The Spanish team, too. As millions of Catalans do.

Some Catalans hate the Spanish team, but most of them don’t. Equally, some Catalans want independence but most of them don’t. They might be ready to support it one day if necessary, but not yet, because they don’t feel they need to be outside of Spain.

Most Catalans are Catalanists, which is something rather different from pro-independence: they love Catalonia more than they love Spain, but they don’t hate Spain. The same happens with the Spanish team: they support the squad, but they are not prepared to put the Spanish team before Barca, for example. It has always been like that.

Politicians and the media claim these days that the key to the Spanish victory in South Africa was unity – that it shows how important and easy it is to bury regional political differences.

I think what this victory really shows is that Spain has a generation of fantastic players and, as important as that, some time ago decided to forget the stupid idea of  “la furia”. This was a very racial and Franco-era concept of football based on character rather than ability. Instead, Spain embraced the natural qualities of its players: passing and technique, rather than physical power.

The day before millions celebrated victory against Holland right across Spain – including in Barcelona – more than a million people demonstrated in Barcelona against a judicial decision to reduce the powers of the Catalan parliament. This problem is not going to disappear just because the mood has improved. Catalans celebrate the squad’s victory and the rest of Spain happily accepts that Barça players were the key to success.

All this is very welcome but it is not even new. The same happened in 1992, when the Olympic Games was a great success and Barcelona – even the sacred Nou Camp stadium! – was full of Catalan and Spanish flags. Optimism took hold of Spain, but the Catalan problem didn’t change one bit.


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