La Roja By Jimmy Burns: The Roots Of Soccer’s Spanish Fury

Spanish fans celebrate on their team's win in the 2010 World Cup final. Josep Lago / AFP-Getty Images

During Franco’s dictatorship, between 1939 and 1975, soccer was a pastime that was actively encouraged by the state—that is, as long as it was not exploited by the enemy. And the enemy ranged from communists, Freemasons, and freethinkers to Catalan and Basque nationalists, most of them decent human beings whose clubs were rooted in local cultural identities. It gave Spanish soccer, when I was growing up, its political edge; it separated us soccer lovers into democrats and fascists.

Franco was brutal on and off the field. Far from magnanimous in his hour of victory, Franco emerged in 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, determined to rule his country with an iron grip. Spaniards were divided between those who continued to support him and his military rebels and those who had fought against him on the side of the democratically elected Republican government. The former were rewarded with jobs, social security benefits, and new houses. The latter faced imprisonment, execution, and social exclusion, including exile.

Culturally, Spain was reduced to a playground, carefully controlled. With an increasing number of Spaniards migrating from the countryside to the big cities, in particular Madrid and Barcelona, and the spread first of radio and then television, soccer overtook bullfighting as the most popular pastime, tolerated by a regime that saw sports through the prism of self-preservation, a vehicle for defusing antagonisms of a dangerously political ilk. Of those years, one of Spanish soccer’s most eminent native commentators, Alfredo Relaño, has written, “Soccer kept growing. Spain began to rebuild itself after the war. It was a time when there was little to do except work as many hours as possible ... pick up the pieces from the ruins, and on Sundays go to the soccer match. These were hard years, of shortages, cold, and few diversions. There was a radio in each house (the invention of TV was on its way), a cinema in each neighbourhood and soccer. At times there were cycling competitions, boxing fights, and bullfights, but above all soccer, and not much else.”

During the 1920s, when Spain’s first professional players began to make their marks, it was the direct, aggressive, spirited style of the Basque team Athletic Bilbao that set a benchmark, although the term furia (fury) that came to denote the style could not claim originality. Basques played the way they did because they were taller and physically stronger than other Spaniards and because they were accustomed to playing in wet conditions, whereas much of Spain was a semidesert. In the old days of emergent Spanish soccer, few fields were covered in turf.

Spaniards at the time were quite happy to recognize that the aggressive, spirited game of soccer had its roots in Britain and the English teachers that came to Spanish clubs. Under Francoism things changed, and the term Furia Española (Spanish Fury) became part of the regime’s militarist nomenclature. La Furia was redefined and promoted by the state’s propaganda machinery as one of the leading virtues of the New Spain. It was resurrected from the mythology of conquest and glory that belonged to the country’s imperial past, such as the recovery of Muslim Granada by the Catholic kings and the creation of Spanish America by the early conquistadores—conquering warriors. It also drew on the national stereotype mythified in the literary figure of Don Quixote, the incarnation of the spirit of noncompromise, with his hopelessness and failure forgotten beside his nobility of purpose.

As the Falangist newspaper Arriba wrote in 1939, a few months after Franco had emerged triumphant from the Spanish Civil War: “The furia española is present in all aspects of Spanish life, to a greater extent than ever. In sport, the furia best manifests itself in soccer, a game in which the virility of the Spanish race can find full expression, usually imposing itself, in international contests, over the more technical but less aggressive foreign teams.” In other words, soccer was to be played as if the ground was a battlefield and the players soldiers. What mattered were courage, sacrifice, and above all the physical annihilation of the opponent. Neither skill nor creativity, let alone fair play, was part of the armory.

Franco liked the phrase La Furia—The Fury—because he felt it exemplified the essence of Spanish nationhood. Unsurprisingly, it was a Basque-born player sympathetic to the regime who became emblematic of the cause. The occasion was the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, when Spain faced England in the group stage. The player in question was Athletic Bilbao’s Telmo Zarra. The leading scorer in six Spanish championships, Zarra had already achieved the popular iconic status previously attained by the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete, killed in the bullring of Linares three years earlier. It was popularly said that Zarra played with three legs, the third being his devastating head. Zarra rammed home with his foot rather than headed Spain’s winning goal, having beaten defender Alf Ramsey off a cross from Agustín Gaínza. When the match was over, Spanish soccer’s top official, Armando Muñoz Calero, told Franco, “Excellency, we have vanquished the perfidious Albion.” Thus did Franco’s Spain get its own back for the defeat of the Invincible Armada of 1588. Well, up to a point.

It proved a Pyrrhic victory. In a four-team final mini league, Spain’s chances of winning the World Cup ended after being beaten 6–1 by Brazil. This perhaps explains why Franco consoled himself with the thought that the crowning moment of soccer achievement was when Spain showed a lot of Furia and beat the Soviet Union in the final of the 1964 European Nations Cup, the only major trophy the Spanish squad won during the three and a half decades of Franco’s dictatorship.

spain-soccer-OV30-secondary Franco saw soccer as a battlefield for the restoration of national pride. Popperfoto-Getty Images

Long after Franco died, there would be no shortage of Spanish commentators who would blame Spain’s failure not on La Furia but on the lack of it among certain players on the national squad. Yet bad luck and a dearth of inspired coaching at the national level as much as politics lay behind Spain’s record of underachievement. With the exception of its gold medal in the 1992 Olympics, democratic Spain had to wait until 2008 before it won the European Championship again, after enduring years of pain and disappointment under a succession of mainly lackluster coaches.

By then Spain’s national team had caught up with the quality of its great clubs, found a decent coach, and forged a consensus around how soccer could best be played in a way that was not only effective but also wonderful to watch. I myself had become a Barca fan, a conversion that got under way in the 1970s when Johan Cruyff came to Catalonia. Like Di Stéfano, his personality and way of playing influenced a whole generation of players, although his presence proved more enduring. And to fans like me, he came to personify in soccer the best of Spain after Franco. It helped fuel my later enthusiasm for La Roja and the way it refined La Furia into a new aesthetic, where the nobility of purpose became entwined with creative play as a winning formula.

La Roja La Roja By Jimmy Burns. $16.99; published May 29 by Nation Books. Courtesy of Nation Books-Perseus Group Books

From La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World, by Jimmy Burns. Reprinted by permission of Nation Books, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.