The tie that sometimes binds

One of the more interesting things about the Spanish team that fought hard for its 1-0 victory over the Netherlands yesterday in a gritty, and at times violent, World Cup final is its apparent unity.

Xavi Alonso of Spain is kicked in the chest by Nigel de Jong. And it should have been a red card!

Now some people might say, “Well, why wouldn’t they be unified? They’re all Spaniards.” But anyone who knows a bit about Spanish history or has traveled around areas like Catalonia knows differently. Spain has several regions that speak their own language and have their own separate identity—most famously Catalonia and Basque Country—, and that’s a fact that has caused more than one political flare-up in España. A lot of animosity was particularly fostered between these areas and the country as a whole during the Franco dictatorship in the 20th century. Franco outlawed languages other than Spanish in most official situations and his government generally suppressed the cultural heritage of their associated regions. While these areas did gain semi-autonomous status in the late 70s after democracy was established, tensions over how much autonomy is enough continues—many Catalans, for instance, would like their region to become its own country.

Map of Spain. Catalonia is in red.

On the soccer field this has played out for decades through the great rivalry between Barça, the club team based in the Catalan capital Barcelona, and Real Madrid, based of course in the capital city of Spain. Barça elicits particularly strong feelings from the Catalans because it was the one cultural element they were able to publicly hold onto during the Franco regime, though the Catalan flag had to be removed from the team’s shield during that period. Even today the club’s motto is (in Catalan) “més que un club” (more than a club). The tension between Madrid and Barcelona was felt by the players as well, and squabbling between Barça and Real Madrid representatives on the National Team has often been cited as the reason Spain has routinely underperformed in the World Cup.

So it is to the great delight of many Catalans that the current National Team fields a smorgasbord of Catalan players, including several of the stars of the tournament: Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Sergio Busquets. Those four also happen to play for Barça, as do four other players on the roster, including goal-scoring phenom David Villa. And it is to the great delight of the country as a whole that they get along with their teammates from Real Madrid. So while Catalans generally have had mixed feelings about the National Team, La Furia Roja (The Red Fury—the team’s nickname) got strong support from that region during this World Cup run. An estimated crowd of 75,000 even packed the streets of Barcelona yesterday in order to celebrate their victory, and most of them were carrying…gasp…the national flag of Spain. The image of Catalans jubilantly marching through the streets of Barcelona with Spanish flags makes it seem that Spain is perhaps finally politically united.

But can a little soccer match really bring lasting unity, especially during a time when that country is experiencing massive debt problems and high unemployment? I’m certainly too much of a dilettante when it comes to Spanish culture and history to even begin to answer that question. One thing is for certain though, any lasting political unity will have to include harmony between Spain’s various languages—cause they’re not going away. The Catalan parliament, for instance, recently passed a law requiring film distributors to dub or subtitle at least half of the foreign films they release in Catalonia into the Catalan language. As Vonnegut would say…so it goes.

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