This is the day that rabid futbol fans look forward to all year. The UEFA Champions League Final is the culmination of a season long tournament between the best clubs from the best leagues from across Europe. This year’s tournament has seen some big surprises— the two favorites (reigning champ FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich) were both eliminated by an under the radar Atletico Madrid club. One thing that is not a surprise though is the total dominance of Spain’s La Liga. In fact both finalists in today’s big match are from Madrid! Later today scrappy Atletico Madrid will try to keep long-time powerhouse Real Madrid from taking a record 11th European championship. Sevilla has already won the Europa Cup (which might be compared to the NIT tournament in American basketball for reference). Amazingly Barcelona, arguably the best club in the world, winner of La Liga and the Copa Del Rey, is out. So how did Spanish futbol become so powerful?
Soccer has the unique ability to represent and strengthen different cultural identities and ideologies throughout the world. Perhaps nowhere can this be seen more prominently than in Spain. Importantly, many of Spain’s soccer clubs reflect the politics of the region they represent. The story really begins with the Generalisimo– Francisco Franco. It centers around what might be the most hated rivalry in sports, known as el clasico, between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. A rivalry that has at times seen such brutality, including state-sponsored murder and imprisonment, that to this day it is as much political, maybe more so, as it is sporting (see Catalonian separatist movement).
The Spanish Civil War has been described as the warm-up for the Second World War. The end came in 1939 when the insurgent rebel Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco finally defeated the army of the popularly elected Republican Government to take control of the country. The unmerciful civil war, fueled by political, religious and sectarian hatred, had dragged on for three terribly bloody years. Franco’s allies in the war had been Mussolini, Hitler and the Catholic Church. When Franco’s troops captured Madrid on March 28th to end the war his primary task, after executing tens of thousands of his enemies, many in Barcelona, was to forcefully unify his new Spanish state. A long campaign of murder, torture and political oppression ensued leading to decades of fascist-style dictatorship. Separatists from previously autonomous regions, especially those in Catalonia and Basque country, came in for extra harsh scrutiny. Both fought Franco’s policies very bitterly, so his gaze was squarely fixed upon them.
From the start the Generalisimo brilliantly co-opted the beautiful game as one of his most successful propaganda tools. He had seen how his benefactors, Mussolini and Hitler, had manipulated the sport in their own countries to great advantage and quickly followed suite. Immediately he adopted Real Madrid as his, and hence the nation’s, club. He then used the club masterfully to build domestic support for the Falangist state, to build positive exposure for the regime in the eyes of the world, to divert domestic attention from the economic dislocation and bankruptcy that plagued the regime, and most importantly for this discussion, as a vehicle to crush the persistent Catalonian resistance and suppress Catalan language and culture. He did this in part by stigmatizing (criminalizing?) support for the other great Spanish club, FC Barcelona, the symbol of Catalonian pride. Barca, in turn, would become arguably the single most important symbol of republican resistance against the regime for decades to come. The rivalry was quite literally about life and death, and it escalated accordingly over the years with each side always striving to outdo the other.
Today most of the clubs competing professionally in Spain are listed under the legal status of sports companies, whose ownership is in the hands shareholders. With the appearance in recent years of mega-dollar private television deals many clubs have drastically increased income, allowing for the hiring of many of the best players in the world. But as these things go many clubs over-spent and with the collapse of the world economy in 2009 many have fallen into financial turmoil. The two powerful clubs, Real and Barca, have weathered the storm with great success, but many others have not been so lucky. Atletico Madrid, Sevilla (and occasionally Valencia) continue to be very competitive but have tiny war-chests by comparison.
So in a few hours from now, at San Siro stadium in Milan, built by the industrial kingpin Pirelli during Mussolini’s fascist rule, Atletico Madrid will try to derail another title bid by Franco’s club, the world’s most valuable sports franchise. GO ATLETICO!
Check out this excellent BBC documentary on these times:
Read about more recent history of the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
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