An Homage to Catalonia
Spain beats Portugal, but shows fatal flaws.
by Colin Powers
The quiet dignity of Cristiano Ronaldo was on full display again for his captivated global audience last night. He whinged demonstratively through an evening of ineffective service, negligent refereeing, strong tackling and callous disregard for legacy, threatening few beyond the unfortunate cameraman he nearly spat on as he left the pitch and the chilly reality of his South African World Cup for the last time. It must be a surreal time of reflection and introspection for young Cristiano.
The paradigm which suggests international success as a necessary prelude for reaching the obscure promised land of historical and comparative ‘greatness’ still holds court as our master narrative. It is a grand oversimplification and distortion of the ‘facts on the ground’, lacking in consistency and integrity but strong in zealotry, often the trump card in such contests (Kobe Bryant is a winner! LeBron James is a loser! Throw all the other shit out!). You can read a smarter expansion on the topic here.
As is such and despite the unambiguous shortcomings of such a worldview, I imagine that Cristiano, flexing and staring at his reflection between the hours of 7 and 10 a.m. this morning as is habit, probably feels some emptiness or metaphysical failure of his will, for he too has been fed this ‘great man’ triumphalism narrative his whole life. Portugal lost. His Nike ad is a sham; there will be no statue built in his likeness. He is a loser. Churchill would have succeeded. Suck on that, 7.
But the defeat of this villain has not brought a new dawn of purified and distilled righteousness, of hope and truth and goodness. Indeed, watching the match from the chilly expanse of Cape Town Stadium, the expected swelling of joy from the vanquishing of Ronaldo never really materialized. Instead it was conquered by the weathered down and ultimate crumbling of my Spanish naiveté. For the reality of the Spanish, who in theory and rhetoric represent everything I want from the beautiful game, has not lived up to the ideal.
My innocence was invested in championing their free-flowing-one-touch egalitarian sharing of the ball, the romance of doing things the ‘right way’ and still emerging victorious. They were the partisans of the Republican Left, the smorgasbord of nihilists and separatists and socialists and anti-fascists and nationalists and really cool writers who fused together in a strange but beautiful way to fight Nazi-armed Franco before the Communists enforced uniformity and their dogmatic hierarchy of power, taking all the fun out of it. Casillas, Pique, Alonso, and young Fabregas all come with the bearded integrity of their valiant ancestors. Cesc has not been allowed to fight, too young to be subjected to such horrors, but they groom him for the eventuality of his leadership. Despite his youth, he boasts perhaps the fullest of the man beards and his promise is thus a rolling stone. The belly of Capdevila betrays his occasional recklessness but mostly his uninhibited love of booze, women and country. Puyol continues as sleepless sentry despite his tendinitic right knee and gastrointestinal problems.
Yet now I have seen them twice in person, and their bodily form has not manifested to such epic heights. No, neither Santa Claus or Chuck Norris exist. The wonderful skillfulness of their build-up through Alonso and Xavi and Iniesta remains objectively impressive, but in doing so they drain the passion and urgency from the match. Their relentless pursuit of possession impedes flow, counter-intuitively inhibiting the creativity born out of frontier psychology and its intrinsic transition and open space. The product is methodical and monotonous. Their opposition settles 10 or 11 men behind the ball, the visuals something much like this Simpson’s mockery of soccer (unfortunately the whole clip isn’t there).
The perfect chemistry and indomitable mastery of all events which I hoped their brilliance and high mindedness would reveal have been sadly compromised. Striking in particular, David Villa and the recently back from injury Fernando Torres collaborate with the awkward uncertainty seen in Team USA basketball and all-star games across the world, where place and role refuse to acquiesce. Independently performers of the highest caliber with the accolades and charisma such status encourages, when they come together for Spain they play with a polite deference to one another. Neither truly asserts or fully unleashes his abilities for fear of disturbing the tenuous balance innate to such relationships of powerful people. Without the structure of an established pecking order and predefined expectations of role, they stumble along offering mutual encouragement for quality ideas out on the pitch but yield few positive results. Both press to make it work and don’t allow for organic maturation, a formula for botched partnership.
Though the WC is unquestionably a small sample size, last night again proved the rule. After 60-odd minutes of listless struggles in the front third, within seconds of Torres coming off for the industrious and imposing Fernando Llorente, the direct, honed-in attack mentality of Villa once again became forcefully apparent. The natural food-chain again status-quo’d, Llorente as the accommodating right hand to the Villa-centric power structure, order and achievement spiked accordingly. Villa buried the match winner and Spain’s chances grew in frequency and quality. By the way, Nando did not get off the bench to go congratulate Villa as many of the other subs did.
For Torres and Villa, it doesn’t help matters that for all El Nino’s pedigree and profile as perhaps the world’s top marksman when healthy, he has never quite excelled for nation to the extent of his smaller, perhaps less physically gifted countryman. Injuries, circumstance, and luck have all unavoidably played a part, but when these two bent with staggering footballing genius come together to don the Francoist red of the motherland, there has been no equitable sharing of the hero’s pedestal. Villa unintentionally and without selfish ambition stands alone, probably self-conscious in doing so. The practiced storyline of Torres having it all, the fame and money and women but lacking in the one thing he cares most about, the love of his nation, does not follow. Indeed, the single loudest moment of crowd noise for me at this World Cup was when Torres came on in the second half against Switzerland. Nevertheless, for men and egos of this stature, the relationship cannot be an easy one. Villa jives better with the lads Del Bosque puts out on the pitch, and that is likely difficult for each to process. I don’t see them sorting out their dynamism before tournament’s end, if ever.
In other Spanish news, while I was watching a rather out-of-sorts Spain-Switzerland match a few weeks back, a group of three media people rounded the corner and set up shop in front of the western stands, where I was situated. I think it was about the 72nd minute in the match. From this point until the 80th minute at the earliest, I would have an excessively difficult time telling you what happened on the field. At the lead of the pack of three was a stunning, stunning woman wearing an un-promiscuous yet magnetic white top. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone ‘radiant’ in person but she was pretty damn close. There was a noticeable quieting of the fans around me as this customarily dark featured Spanish siren just stood, doing nothing of a flirtatious or seductive persuasion. Just standing in all her loveliness. ‘It was like the first time I heard the Beatles.’ I think Spain pushed forward and threatened to tie the match a bunch of times but that is all conjecture as my mind was elsewhere. Anyway, after the Spanish lost, the sensationalist British media ran a series of major stories on this woman, who happens to be none other than Iker Casillas’ girlfriend. She was voted sexiest media person in the world or some jazz like that, and blamed for distracting the Real Madrid man playing nets. And Pau Gasol follows this up with news that he’s dating this girl.