With apologies to the English Premier League, and its last-day, last-minute thrills – few fixtures could ever match the ridiculous, sublime spectacle of Manchester City versus QPR, with its red card mayhem and flurry of late goals – we are living in the era of La Liga and Spain. (Serie A induces solemnity; the Bundesliga stolidly plods along.) No matter that Barcelona and Real Madrid failed in their bid to make it an all-Spanish Champions League final: these two fierce rivals waged a classic dogfight at the top of the Spanish league table, with Ronaldo and Lionel Messi putting on a goal-scoring show for the ages. The UEFA cup final, however, was an all-Spanish affair, with Madrid’s other team, Atletico, besting Athletic Bilbao, one of the most venerable clubs in the league.
And let us not forget Spain’s national team – winners of Euro 2008; the reigning world champions and favourite to win Euro 2012. The side begin their defence of the European Championship against Italy tomorrow evening.
Rarely in the history of Spanish football have the fortunes of the national team and club synchronised with such happy results. Club success has never been Spain’s problem; it has been national greatness that, until recently, has proved so elusive, to the dismay of this football-mad nation.
As Jimmy Burns shows in La Roja, his lovely account of football in Spain, getting all of that nation’s constituent parts – its flamboyant personalities, its fractious regional nationalisms, its political passions, its various styles of play – to work together took the better part of the 20th century. Burns is, of course, well-equipped to tell this story: born in Madrid and a long-time Financial Times correspondent posted to many football-playing parts of the world (South America, Portugal), Burns has spent decades observing La Liga. And while he may be for Barca, the subject of another fine book by the author, this account isn’t the least bit partisan, which is a major achievement in its own right.
However much it might dent national pride to say so, the Spanish game is a mongrel product. Outsiders have made their mark. The British brought football to the country in the late 19th century; Catalans and Basques perfected it in the early 20th; and an influx of foreign players – Real Madrid’s great Argentinian-born forward Alfredo di Stefano foremost among them – gave the game a much-needed spit shine in the 1950s. As Burns writes: “The engagement of foreigners with homegrown Spanish talent overcame political adversity and produced soccer of sublime skill, passion and huge entertainment value. But it proved a long road.”
Burns elegantly traces the evolution of the Spanish game from its roots in Andalusia, where British mining engineers first kicked around the football, and the Basque country, through the dreary Franco years up to the emergence of La Liga as the billion-dollar juggernaut it is today. Athletic Bilbao were one of the pioneers of Spanish football. Indeed, the Basques have played an outsize role in defining football in Spain, and have given the game a colourful gallery of players.