Despite recent turmoil, Spain go into the World Cup as one of the favourites. Yet its footballing culture has been forged in the fire of dictatorship and civil war.

Ahead of this year’s World Cup in Russia, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) announced the launch of Spain’s new Adidas national team kit, but not without a clamour of controversy. In customary red for the most part, the kit also features a yellow and purple zig-zagged stripe; combined with the red it constitutes the colours of the flag of the Spanish Second Republic. Fervent calls have been made by some conservative nationalists to boycott this tricolor “republican” shirt, the flag of which has been embraced by Spain’s political left – even Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has tweeted his approval. However, Adidas and RFEF have jointly denied any political connotations, claiming that the stripe is in fact blue, and that the shirt is a nostalgic rehash of Spain’s 1994 USA World Cup kit worn by Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, and Julen Lopetegui (Spain’s recently sacked manager, who is now Head Coach of Real Madrid).

Indeed, Spain’s recent successes between 2008 and 2012 occurred during times of political crisis and economic austerity in Spain, but synthesised the many doubts and confusions into rare moments of solidarity and national harmony. As well as Iniesta, those Spanish teams featured many of Pep Guardiola’s iconic FC Barcelona team, somehow fusing Catalan tiki-taka into a force of Spanish nationhood, but without fully eradicating the seemingly impossible rehabilitation of multiple, regional identities. We need only think of the venom that was spat at Gerard Piqué during national training after the mayhem of the Catalan independence referendum last year for evidence of this. The Spanish national team is an unresolved paradox of triumph and tragedy, and, historically, they have not always been so successful.

Formed in 1920, Spain’s national team originally began with the intention to merely represent the country in the Summer Olympics that year in Belgium, finishing with a silver medal. In 1934, the team qualified for the World Cup, but were knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual-champions Italy. That was the last time they played until the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. Though France hosted the 1938 incarnation, the arrangements for the 1942 and 1946 tournaments were abandoned due to the outbreak of WWII. Spain, however, missed that pre-war Coupe de Monde: it had its own war to fight.

In 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out; General Francisco Franco led a group of Nationalists against the Republicans of the incumbent government. After much bloodshed and atrocity, Generalissimo Franco’s fascist counter-revolutionary movement declared “victory” over the democratically elected left-leaning Second Spanish Republic in 1939, inaugurating nearly four decades of military dictatorship.

The Spanish national team is an unresolved paradox of triumph and tragedy, and, historically, they have not always been so successful.

The Civil War brought football, and La Liga, to a standstill. The war had fractured Spain, and some teams (in Galicia, the Basque Country, and Sevilla) were either beset by siege or under Nationalist control; however, at this point, the Republicans retained control of Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, and most of the coastal area of Levante. The national league was suspended at the outset of the war, so in 1937 the Republican areas of Spain instead formed regional competitions such as La Liga del Mediterraneo, La Copa de la España Libre, and La Liga Catalana,held in the strongholds of Barcelona and Valencia.

Both sides tried to use sport to promote their interests overseas. Players from Athlétic Bilbao (Spain’s most successful pre-war team) and FC Barcelona conscripted and fought against Franco’s military insurgency – Barça even went on a football tour-cum-resource mission of Mexico. Low on funds, and still processing the assassination of their president, Josep Sunyol, Barça sent out a delegation prompted by the invitation of Mexico-based, Catalan businessman, Manuel Mas Soriano, who offered funding and asylum to the players and staff.  Alongside the USSR, Mexico was one of only a very small number of nations which supported the Republican position.

But, after Franco had eventually risen to power at the expense of half a million lives, he used the prestige and success of Real Madrid CF to centralise and unify the new totalitarian state from the capital, hoping to reinstate Spain in Europe via football. Real had two of the world’s best players in Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás (who eventually came to Madrid as a defector from the Communist regime during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956). Franco bestowed Spanish citizenship upon both as a gesture of the sporting glory of the Spain. Having solicited assistance from Hitler and Mussolini during the Civil War, Franco wanted to ameliorate Spain’s tattered international relations by way of the European Champion Clubs’ Cup: the modern-day Champion’s League.

The team of the regime became the enforced ambassadors of General Franco and the military dictatorship of Spain in the 20thcentury, while also playing into the existing rivalry between Real and Barça. Franco had banned the use of all languages and dialects other than Castellano, forcing the renaming and relabeling of many clubs. Thus, Franco could both glorify the image of Spain under his dictatorship, whilst simultaneously antagonsing and oppressing the resistance in Catalunya and the Basque Country.  During the 1960s and 1970s, both regions’ desire for independence and the deep-seated hatred towards the centralist, right-wing government found its outlet in football. Although it existed before, El Clásico became one of the most bitter rivalries in club football.

Not content with this, sport became a mechanism of state propaganda and was laced with fascist symbolism: as with general society in Francoist Spain, discipline, compliance, and respect for authority were the order of the day, and the RFEF was ruled over by Franco’s government. Despite his attempts, Spain did not actually qualify for the World Cup in 1954, 1958, 1970, or 1974, nor were they particularly successful in the 1962 or 1966 incarnations (or even later at España ’82 where the hosts were listlessly knocked out at home – at the Bernabéu –in the second round). It seemed that Real Madrid’s dominance on the European stage during the 1950s and beyond meant that the national team was perpetually doomed to underachieve, despite winning the Spain-hosted 1964 Euros, where they beat the Soviet Union in the final.  Previously, at the first Euros in 1960, Franco pulled the team out in the quarter-finals, refusing to play their second leg against the Soviet Union who had been the principal supporter and financer of the Republicans during the Civil War. In an all-Communist final, the Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in extra time. Franco – with his ruthless pride and domineering, Centralist command of Real Madid –  incurred a high price for La Roja, which meant a relinquishing of their potential on the global pitch. How, then, was the national team able to accommodate the diverse nationalities and influences that eventually propelled the team to its recent heights?

The Spanish team pose for a team photo before the World Cup round of 16 match between Spain and Portugal at the Green Point stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, June 29, 2010.

Spain’s image as a footballing nation was distorted by Real’s success, but in the decades after Franco, football also diffused distinct identities through the de-nationalisation and democratisation of the various football federations. This, together with the increasing domestic and European appreciation for the success of other teams in Spain such as Valencia CF, Atlético Madrid, Athlétic de Bilbao,and Sevilla FC, began to dismantle the centrifugal structure of identities outside of the Real/Barça duopoly. The contest between Real Madrid and Barçelona represented the microcosm of a bigger clash between centralist and Catalan ideologies: many would say that this is still the case. But the explosion of other teams and identities filtered into Spain’s football consciousness; this created a new structure which included the other geographical footballing identities of Spain and altered the perception of the national team.

A Spain team that was once based on the Francoist hegemony of Spanish unity now pivots on the diversity of Spanish players and teams from all over Spain, La Liga, and Europe’s other leagues. That said, in the newly-announced Spain squad for Russia, Real Madrid will have the largest contingent of players representing their country with six turning out for the side in Russia. Now with Lopetegui being dramatically announced as the new Real Madrid manager, and with Real legend Fernando Hierro stepping up from Sporting Director of the national team to Spain’s new replacement manager, perhaps the link between Los Blancos and the national team is still somewhat intact.

Before Franco’s death in 1975, he restored the monarchy to Spain. Juan Carlos I succeeded him and the country began its transition to democracy. With the agreement of the new Spanish Constitution in 1978, many significant socio-political changes were ennacted. Together with other revisions, the constitution enacted an asymmetric devolution of power – the perceived unity of the Spanish nation was preserved (in part as a ward against the tensions inherent to the transition) by the establishment of the seventeen autonomous communities, which guaranteed limited self-governance for the diverse regions and nationalities of Spain. In this way, present-day Spain is a decentralised, unitary state: ‘a nation of nations’ which attempts to account for the ethnocultural differences of, for example, Catalunya, the Basque Country, and Andalucía.

A Spain team that was once based on the Francoist hegemony of Spanish unity now pivots on the diversity of Spanish players and teams from all over Spain, La Liga, and Europe’s other leagues.

The devolved Spanish state permits regional football teams to compete in friendly matches against other national sides; sixteen in total, organised by their attendant, local football associations (though not affiliated with either FIFA or UEFA). Particularly with the football associations and political parties of the Basque County and Catalunya, there is a growing desire for their teams to be allowed official participation and recognition in global football.

Though we have the modern image of Spain as interminable favourites for most footballing competitions, this image has quite literally been forged in the fires of war and has been recast time and again through several underwhelming forays. The idea of a team, united under a red and gold flag, homogenous in passion and support, is a hybrid fusion of multiple disparate identities, sympathies, and beliefs. The recent successes of the national team have been unifying for some, for others it still holds the latent nationalism of Franco’s regime. The Real/Barça duopoly will always remain a historically irascible fixture, but it cannot only be this that divides the nation. Past failures have been blamed on the apparent oil and water concoction of the national team, but a side consisting predominantly of players from both clubs must surely have had an alchemical chemistry to pull off the unprecedented trio of consecutive titles. Perhaps with the players themselves, international level is pluri-national: a time for solidarity and a striving towards victory for modern Spain. Kicking off against Portugal on Friday 15thJune in this year’s World Cup in Russia, the destiny of this current side is all to play for.

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