Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Flying another flag

There's nothing like Christmas to bring up old and unresolved family issues.

With the rest of Europe, England apart, on hibernal hiatus, 32,000 turned out at Barcelona's Olympic Stadium tonight to watch Catalonia hammer Honduras, a representative in last summer's World Cup Finals, 4-0, with a brace from Barça's Bojan Krkic.


The Catalan eleven also boasted blaugrana stalwart Carles Puyol and teammate Sergio Busquets, who both lifted the World Cup in Spanish colours in South Africa this year. Barça heavy though the team was, the Catalonia squad actually contained more players from the city's other team, Español.

The Catalan national team remains of course unr
ecognised by FIFA or UEFA, as are a handful of European 'countries' like Corsica, Gibraltar, Jersey, Kosovo, Monaco and the Vatican City. FIFA now demand full United Nations recognition before they rubber-stamp anything, but in their quest for acceptance, the 'forgotten nations' point to the footballing status of not entirely sovereign states such as Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and San Marino, as well as the four nations which make up the United Kingdom, which has only one seat at the UN.

The Spanish close season or mid-winter break are the only times the Catalan nat
ional team can realistically assemble, but on the evidence of recent outings, their side, now coached by Barcelona idol Johan Cruyff, would be a force in European football were it playing regularly: Last year they downed Diego Maradona's Argentina 4-2 at the Camp Nou, beat Colombia 2-1 the year before that and in 2003 thrashed Ecuador 4-0, five years after a memorable 5-0 walloping of Nigeria. And absent from their ranks tonight were Catalan aces Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique and Xavi, World Soccer's Player of the Year for 2010.

Indeed, Spain won the World Cup playing the Barcelona style and with far more Catalans (five) than any other regional nationality, although the skipper who hoisted the golden prize aloft in Soweto was Madrid-born and 100% Real man Iker Casillas.

That magical night in the Rainbow Nation shone a brighter than ever spotlight upon Spain's fractured footballing loyalties, which were last probed in depth following their Euro 2008 victory. Claim and counter-claim surrounded the extent to which the triumph of 'La Roj
a' ('The Red') was cheered in its less than ardently patriotic regions, and the apparently obvious semantics of the chant 'Yo soy español, español, español' ('I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish') which echoed around the country this summer, were equally dissected at length.

Maybe it was the dawn of a new and modern Spain ready at last to jettison a pain
ful past or perhaps it was just a passing fiesta where everyone fervently embraced each other in brotherly love as on New Year's Eve, toasting La Roja with ample Rioja, before waking up hungover the next morning with unforgiven feuds and remembered rivalries.
AS Diario, one of Spain's daily football papers, summed up the conundrum quite succinctly in its headline 'Visca España' - 'visca' being the Catalan version of 'viva'.

And Cruyff, despite his assimilated Senyera DNA - he named his son Jordi after all, does not foresee or even desire that Catalunya should become FIFA-recognised or an independent nation any time soon. He
speaks (ropey) Castillian Spanish rather than Catalan, yet remains proud to take charge of what are essentially glorified friendlies once a season in his adopted homeland.

With Spain defeating Holland
in the World Cup final only a few months ago, harvesting the fruit of the seeds he had planted as a player with Barcelona in the 1970s, perhaps this is not the best time to be questioning Cruyff's cultural leanings with any certainty anyway.
The Basque country also has a national team in action over Christmas, hosting Venezuela tomorrow night in Bilbao. Heavily dependent on the historically Basque club sides of Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, their squad also boasts Spanish World Cup-winner Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid.

Euskadi
are no slouches either, having claimed the scalps of a ho
st of FIFA nations across the last twenty years including Uruguay, Ghana, Russia, Serbia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Bolivia and Morocco. Famous former players from the Basque country include the great goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, still Spain's record cap-winner, and the flying French World Cup-winning left back Bixente Lizarazu.

And the tapestry does not end there: Andalucia, Aragon, Asturias, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Extremadura, Galicia, Murcia, Navarre and the Region of Valencia have all played friendlies against FIFA-recognised nations during the past decade.

A united Spain might have won the World Cup in June, but the red of its national shirt, in truth belies a coat of many cultures.



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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