Where once under-achieving Spanish players were more virility and machismo than style and substance, now they go in search of a hat-trick of major tournament titles.
Author Jimmy Burns traces the origins of their transformation.
It seems difficult to believe now, but Spain’s 3-2 defeat to Northern Ireland in Belfast in September 2006 was no great shock. The result fit with the image of a Spanish team with some decent players, which looked good on paper, but could fall apart unexpectedly at any time.
That game now marks a before and after in Spanish football. Coach Luís Aragones reacted by dropping some big names, including Real Madrid legend Raúl, and rebuilt his team around smaller, quicker players such as Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and David Silva. Also important, as explained in Jimmy Burns’ new book La Roja: a journey through Spanish football’, was Aragones’ decision to give his team a new nickname.
For the entire 20th century, and especially when General Franco was in charge, the Spanish national side was popularly known as ‘La Furia Española’ (the Spanish fury). They were strong, brave and physical — men with big cojones — who represented the strong and unified Spanish nation, even the players from the Basque country or Catalonia.
Veteran coach Aragones decided this thinking was outdated and replaced the ‘La Furia’ moniker with ‘La Roja’. Previously The Reds were the losing side of the Spanish Civil War, but now red is just a colour like Italy’s azzurri or Ireland’s boys in green. Spain had a new identity, and it all clicked. La Roja’s ‘tiki-taka’ possession game of short passes and quick thinking won Euro 2008, and under current coach Vicente Del Bosque they added the 2010 World Cup.
Burns explained this development when he talked to the Irish Examiner. "Before the national squad tended to be based on the ideals of Spanish virility and machismo," he said. "If they played tough and with spirit they would win. That clearly was not enough as they went more than 40 years without winning anything. Aragones introduced a cohesive system that was not just stylish, but also won tournaments. Del Bosque has carried it on."
Burns’ deeper than usual thoughts on the Iberian game have sprung from his personal links within Spanish culture and society. His grandfather was the widely respected doctor, historian and writer Gregorio Marañon and his Scottish father Tom worked in the British embassy in Madrid during the Second World War. This internal perspective on Spanish culture and history informs his new book.
"As the subtitle suggests the book is a personal journey," said Burns. "I was born in Madrid in the early 1950s, a couple of hundred yards away from Madrid’s Bernabéu stadium, but there was no tribal loyalty involved in my football education. My Spanish mother was more interested in bullfighting than football, and my Scottish father was more into tennis and chess. The book tries to say something about the politics and society of Spain."
It certainly succeeds in that. Don Quixote appears in the second paragraph, while Franco, ETA and recent president José Luis Zapatero also get early mentions.
The Jesuits’ founder Saint Ignatius of Loyola, poet Federico García Lorca and even Ardal O’Hanlon are later introduced to make specific points. The idea is to show how, similar in ways to the GAA in 20th century Ireland, football and politics were usually closely linked in Spain.
To do this La Roja builds on Burns’ previous publications, which have included a biography of Diego Maradona, a look at David Beckham’s time at Real Madrid, and a history of FC Barcelona (Barca: a People’s Passion’). It includes dozens of interviews with important figures — from Ladislao Kubala to Johann Cruyff to Del Bosque — and continues up to present-day battles between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
There’s also a chapter on Irishman Patrick O’Connell, who coached Real Betis to the 1935 La Liga title and then took charge of Barcelona during the civil war, helping save the club and raise badly needed funds with an American tour.
O’Connell later died penniless in London and Burns says that his legacy has been shamefully under-recognised.
"Patrick O’Connell made an enormous contribution to the history of Spanish football," said Burns. "He is a fascinating character who coincided with an extraordinary moment in Spanish history. It is a disgrace that his grave in London is almost abandoned. I am hoping to get FC Barcelona to fund a plaque or tribute to his contribution."
The Catalan club and their often bitter rivals in Madrid loom large throughout La Roja, with exploits on the field often overshadowed by happenings elsewhere. We learn that Barca president Josep Sunyol was murdered by rebels during the civil war, and that Santiago Bernabéu, who oversaw Real’s dominant 1950s side, had fought with Franco’s forces.
It is important, however, not to just see Madrid as the bad guys and the Catalans as the heroes of the story, explained Burns.
"I am a Barca fan because I like the way they play football, but I try to tell the history as it really happened rather than mythologise it," he said. "It is absurd to say Real Madrid were a great team during the 1950s simply because they were Franco’s team. They had a cracking side with players like Alfredo Di Stéfano and won five European Cups quite justifiably."
Barca have been successful lately by concentrating on playing football not playing politics, Burns argues.
"There is a lot of mythology about the persecuted people of Catalonia," he said. "A lot of that is true, but it also gave Barca an excuse for many years. The great thing about Cruyff and Josep Guardiola is they pulled the club out of that inferiority complex. They are now judged not just by their politics but by the football they play. That is important, as at the end of the day you must separate the football from the politics."
Which is what Spain has done in recent years, with cultural and political differences being put aside, while significant money was pumped into infrastructure and coaching.
"In the last 15 or 20 years there has been a massive investment in football in Spain, right up from kids’ level," said Burns. "You have had the formation of a national football culture. There are 200,000 qualified coaches in Spain, teaching in schools and youth teams. Even with the financial crisis there is a decent football pitch in every village."
That mention of the crisis will sound familiar to many in Ireland, as will Spanish president Mariano Rajoy’s recent denial that its leaky banking system needed a bailout. Rajoy last week asked the squad to provide a "huge lift in morale" in these "difficult times".
"Football cannot wave a magic wand," Burns said. "People feel they lack control over their future, something I am sure Irish people can understand. It would be unrealistic to believe that the financial problems can be solved overnight, but football is undoubtedly the one good news story that Spain can hang on to for a sense of positive identity at a difficult time."
First though, Del Bosque’s side will have to get through a difficult group, beginning against Italy tomorrow before facing Ireland next Thursday and then Croatia.
Burns said the Italians have traditionally had the upper hand against Spain, while Chelsea’s Champions League success over Barcelona gives hope for Giovanni Trapattoni’s well-organised Irish side. "Italy have been a bogey team for Spain throughout history," he said. "We have seen recently with Barca that Spanish teams with all their creativity and flair can find it hard to get around defences. Italian coaches are very good at those tactics."
Less positively for Irish fans is that while La Furia might have crashed against historical barriers, La Roja tend to find a way through.
Even the absence of injured stars Carles Puyol and David Villa may not stop Spain making history by claiming a third successive major international tournament, said Burns.
"Puyol is such an inspirational player and Villa a great goalscorer," said Burns. "But Xavi and Iniesta are still around, and they have Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso. I would like to see Fernando Torres in the team, he is so hungry to play and prove himself again. If Spain were to win the tournament it would be an unprecedented achievement. It would be extraordinary."