Friday, July 09, 2010

Spain, Beautiful Football, the Left Winger and Me.

It was the year 2000. I was just finishing up college, unsure about my future, but loving the present then. For, the four years in college were not so much about becoming an engineer, but to become an enlightened and knowledgeable person who appreciated the world around him. Part of that appreciation was getting to enjoy watching sport as an art form - my leading hobby then and even now. That was the time, I spent nights watching Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh working out perfect fast bowling even as their team disintegrated generally. It was the time, I was exposed to Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan combining muscle with brain and skills. And one fine day in the fag end of my fourth year of engineering, to a sublime back pass by Fernando Redondo of Argentina to Raul Gonzalez of Spain, both playing for Real Madrid against defending champions, Manchester United in the 1999-2000 Champions League. That was the start of a long enduring romance for Spanish football and eventual support for the perennially under-achieving Spanish national squad that however, threw a heavy monkey off its back when it won the Euro Championship for the second time in its history in 2008.

La Liga Football was being telecast in India every alternate week, if I remember correctly then, in the early 2000s on Star Sports. It featured some good expert analysis from Gerry Armstrong, a former Northern Ireland player who had plied his trade in Spain for Real Mallorca for a while. Armstrong's commentary (incidentally Armstrong still plies his punditry for Sky Sports/ESPN Star as an expert for the World Cup today), was laced with nostalgia for Spain and Spanish football in general. The early 2000s was a time of domination of football by Real Madrid, which featured talent such as Raul Gonzalez, Luis Figo (who had just transferred from Barcelona and had earned tremendous opprobrium for the move) and good supporting cast such as Jose Maria Guti, Roberto Carlos, Steve McManaman and others. This team played flowing football featuring short passes, excellent build up and attractive ball movement. I was hitched further. Zinedine Zidane later joined the squad in 2001, adding even more quality and assurance. Real Madrid was the cynosure of all eyes, with present day Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque, managing the squad with aplomb and astute man management skills. They were winning title after title, culminating in the 2002 Champions League triumph against Beyer Leverkusen, featuring a supreme goal by Zidane. The team played beautiful football, pinging the ball around for passes and aided by skilled individuals playing unselfishly, meshing their personalities ably to create a winning team. They lacked a solid defense though, but always looked like scoring more than the opposition to win.

But all the good work by Real Madrid did not necessarily translate into a good performance by the Spain team. Partly because, the Real Madrid team had only one Spaniard who could stand tall in comparison to his illustrious team-mates and the Spanish team did not have the same personality - as in the game - as the lead club of that time. Its 2002 performance was not bad. Spain "wuz robbed" by pathetic refereeing which handed over the game to a valiant South Korean team in the quarters.

Meanwhile Real Madrid went another direction after 2002. Instead of accumulating players who complemented the already strong talent in the team, the team's president tried to emulate the Manchester United merchandising model - create a Spanish team of stars that would earn the following of "star gazers". In 2002, Madrid signed Ronaldo, who did great, but was actually superfluous to the squad and in 2003, they signed David Beckham, an one dimensional dead ball specialist, who never gelled with Madrid. My fascination with Real Madrid was waning because of the change in philosophy from beautiful all round football to the "Galactico" model of "Zidanes and Pavons" orchestrated by overweening club president Florentino Perez (who had also dropped Del Bosque after the 2003 loss to Juventus in the Champions League). My loyalties shifted to another effervescent Spanish club, FC Barcelona which was during that time, enduring a crisis. The squad was dominated by a number of Dutch players, some great, some mediocre and was in the throes of a major makeover. The shift of loyalties was not smooth. I had read ESPN Soccernet's writer Phil Ball, "Morbo- the Story of Spanish Football" and had begun to understand the political dynamics of football and support for the game in multi-nationality Spain. The incipient left wing tendencies in me (I was living in Japan then, this time, unsure of my future career yet again), propelled me to hitch my bandwagon to Barcelona - I had just read about the Spanish civil war and the role of the Indian national movement and other left wing forces across the world in support for the Republicans against the Falangists and Nationalists led by Franco, who later patronised Real Madrid.

It only helped that Barcelona had just (fortuitously) landed a new Brazilian talent, the buck toothed and ever smiling Ronaldinho. His entry galvanised a crisis-ridden Barca. His ability to think on the move, play adventurously and linking up with effective players such as young Xavi and others, propelled Barca from strength to strength, first culminating in a La Liga win in 2005 and later the Champions League. Ronaldinho's addition also inspired other Catalans to play their best for Barcelona. Much of today's vaunted Spanish midfielders, started plying their best talent during this time - Xavi reprising Pep Guardiola's anchor midfield role, young Iniesta providing weaving and silky runs complementing Ronaldinho and other unheralded talent such as Deco from Portugal and Edgar Davids from Holland offering great support. The defense was led by the solid Carles Puyol. The rejuvenation of Barcelona coincided with the relative decline of the "Galactico" model in Madrid. Reliance on young Spanish players in Barca who were exposed to the best levels of competition, meant that the Spanish squad could summon talent that were better off from their predecessors in playing at the highest levels. Indeed, in 2006, the Spain squad did not disappoint in the initial stages, finally, managing to attain an identity of its own - a short passing squad that built tremendous pressure on the opposition through their technical excellence. But this was early days still for the present generation; they could not manage to surmount a Zidane inspired French team and lost.

By 2006, I had become a full fledged leftist. My political loyalties coincided firmly with my club ones. Barcelona's community model, its refusal of corporate sponsorship for its jerseys, its sharing and team oriented game - were more or less a fit with my imagination of a political community. No wonder, I wrote this piece - "The Left winger" in 2006. The piece was a tad naive - after all FC Barcelona was and is a commercial organisation, albeit of the community ownership kind and not necessarily "socialist". But it did convey my feelings for the kind of football that Barca then played, very well. The period of Barcelona's rejuvenation was also an interesting time for Spain politically. Spain had cast away right wing rule by Jose Maria Aznar and had supported Jose Luis Zapatero who gained popularity after withdrawing Spain troops from invaded Iraq. And Zapatero was a Barca supporter to boot.

The loss in the 2006 World Cup was not altogether bad for Spain. Spanish footballers and coaches were already being hired elsewhere - Rafael Benitez of Valencia went to Liverpool and harvested talent from Spain - in players like Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina and later Fernando Torres. Arsenal landed Catalan prodigy Cesc Fabregas who rose to acclaim at a tender age. Spain was no longer just importers of the best talent in the world, but were worthy exporters. Their clubs' farm systems were paying off.

Their national squad had suddenly discovered a footballing philosophy that was close to what was being practised in FC Barcelona and an unifying principle that was akin to the new government's policies after coming to power. Besides, it helped that the implementers of the philosophy were the same in both Spain and FC Barcelona - Xavi and Iniesta. Spanish coach Luis Aragones added some muscle and guile to the smoothness and skill, when he summoned Brazilian emigre Marcus Senna to the holding midfield. A far more political decentralised Spain was also visibly democratised on the footballing pitch.

The iconic Madridista, Raul Gonzalez was dropped before Euro 2008 to the collective howls of the centrist Madrid media. Instead, unheralded but smooth David Villa who had plied his trade at relatively minor Real Zaragoza and the workmanlike Valencia, was given his spot behind yet another talent, Fernando Torres. And Spain's new found identity was able to cast off the demons of the past, as the team won the Euro 2008 convincingly, tearing apart opposition in the way in a technically precise and elegant manner. Xavi was named the man of the tournament. Spain was now a major world power in international football and no longer just an under-achieving pretender.

The swagger and confidence attained after Euro'08 helped Barca's Xavi, Iniesta and co. (which included the world's best footballer Lionel Messi) go up further heights under the able tutelage of Catalan hero Josep Guardiola to win the Champions League, playing the now dominating "tiki-taca" form of football. Even Real Madrid underwent a change from the flawed "galactico" model and tried to get back to a "horses for courses" policy before Florentino Perez took charge again and landed Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka etc to reformulate the flawed system again last year. Barca and Spain, meanwhile, were accumulating players suited to this style of football and were winning nearly every game.

The present 2010 squad's thus far performance - akin to an intricately assembled and sketched painting that seems to lack a few finishing touches - is a result of years of honing the kind of football that is now seen on the field. The best players suited to the tiki-taca - the Barca specialists now teamed up with the workhorses from Real Madrid - Xabi Alonso, Sergei Ramos and Iker Casillas along with others from the Spanish hinterlands to make up a solid winning squad that has progressed well in the World Cup. Spain has now churned out an unique model of football, but not incidentally or by default but after years of persistence and effort. Too bad, their political leadership has not managed to emulate the stellar efforts of their footballing giants. Unwilling to change course radically from the right wing policies of the past, Spain is now mired in an economic disaster, even as its sportspersons are ruling the roost internationally.

If Spain wins the 2010 World Cup, defeating the tough and near equally talented Dutch, it would be a great collective balm for the country as a whole. It would also be the triumph of a footballing philosophy that is the 21st century version of "beautiful football". And a source of pride for the romanticist and the left winger in me.

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