Tale of two Spains – football glory, economic doom

Senior broadcast journalist Barnaby Phillips works for Al Jazeera.

Barnaby Phillips

Best team in the world? Undoubtedly. Best team ever? Perhaps.

Spain were superb in the European Championship Final. They are blessed with an extraordinary generation of talented footballers – Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva, Torres and so on (and remember that two of their best players, Villa and Puyol, missed the entire tournament through injury).

They don’t even need to play with a recognised forward; their subtle possession play mesmerises the opposition into submission.

I watched the game on a giant screen outside the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, with tens of thousands of young Spanish fans.

I realised, with a sudden pang of envy, that the excited people around me were watching their national team play in the final of a major international tournament for the third time in four years.

Logo for Spain national football team

It must almost feel routine for them. There are many of us in this world who will wait our entire lives, in vain, for such an opportunity, (and as I’m English, I count myself firmly in the category of ever-hopeful, yet always disappointed).

Not that the Spanish fans were arrogant. I spoke to a serious-looking student, Alvaro, before the game. He was nervous, and predicted the final would go to penalties.

Alvaro is 17, still at school, but old enough to worry about the future. He knows full well that some 50 per cent of young Spanish people are unemployed, so his words were poignant. 

“Our team is the one thing that unites us in Spain today, it’s the one thing that still makes us proud to be Spanish”, he said.

The truth is that recent months have been very bleak for Spain, with the economy in recession, banks on the verge of collapse, and a younger generation that is being forced to reassess all its hopes and assumptions about the future. 

It’s a curious juxtaposition; a footballing golden age, and an economic mood of deep gloom.

The hoary old cliche is that football is more important than life or death.

I think that’s nonsense (and I write as someone who has loved football for most of my life).

In a week or two, once the celebrations stop, the Spanish will see they face the same problems; cuts to welfare, fears of redunancy, falling property prices.

None of these will go away.

Looking back through history, it’s difficult to find examples of where a national team’s football triumph has had a lasting positive impact on a country’s social or economic wellbeing.

Greece, for example, won the European Championship in 2004, and this, along with the successful hosting of the Olympic Games in the same summer, engendered a tremendous sense of pride. But with the benefit of hindsight, the pride of 2004 looks more like hubris that obscured the need for Greece to tackle corruption and economic failure. Dictatorships used World Cup victories to boost their popularity - Italy in the 1930s, or Argentina in the 1970s – but if anything, this was probably to the detriment of ordinary people.

Spain, of course, is not a dictatorship today, and at the risk of sounding naive, you might say that this footballing triumph will engender a renewed sense of optimism and faith in national ability. 

But at the very least, it’s a reason for a tumultous party and celebration. In the midst of all their worries, who can begrudge the Spanish for that?

About these ads