La Roja: An Interview with Jimmy Burns

Euro 2012 is moving to the quarterfinal stage and Spain has booked its entry into the quarterfinals.  The national team is arguably the best in the world, home to some of the top clubs in the world and home base for Messi, Ronaldo and a host of top players.  Today, Footiebusiness is pleased to provide our chat with Jimmy Burns, author of La Roja, a fascinating book about Spanish soccer.  Mr. Burns looks at the rise of the game in Spain through the context of history and politics, a unique approach befitting the Spanish team.

Mr. Burns spent thirty years as a senior writer at the Financial Times. He has also reported for the BBC, CNN, National Public Radio, and other outlets. The winner of the Somerset Maughan prize for nonfiction, Burns is the author of, among other titles, When Beckham Went to Spain; Maradona: The Hand of God; Barca: A People’s Passion; Papa Spy: Love, Faith and Betrayal in Wartime Spain; and most recently La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World.

Thanks to Mr. Burns. In  La Roja you look at the history of Spanish soccer through the lens of the historical and political events that were forming the nation of Spain.  Do you think that Spanish soccer is more interwoven with national history than other soccer nations?  If so why is Spain unique in this regard?

Jimmy Burns:  You can’ t really explain or understand the development of Spanish soccer without looking at the impact politics has had on it over the years.

And what makes the story of Spanish soccer particularly fascinating is the fact that its  coincides with a period during which Spain has evolved from being one of the most backward countries in European to being a modern democratic state with all its channels and complexities. Politics gives Spanish soccer its particular narrative and its dynamic.

FB: Barcelona and Real Madrid are the most recognizable clubs in Spain and its most significant rivals.  How did culture and regionalism help form that rivalry?  Are those factors still relevant today?

JB: This rivalry, which is probably the  most intense and enduring rivalry in the history of sport, had its early beginnings at the start of the 20th century- a post-imperial period for Spain when  the centralized nation-state based in the Spanish capital Madrid faced challenges from Catalonia, and other regions with a growing sense of its own cultural and social identity, including flags and language, different from the rest of Spain.

During the long dictatorship of General Franco-1939-1975-Real Madrid came to be identified by its enemies as the team of the regime, while Barca became what its motto says- mes que en club– more than a club in the sense that it became equated with a whole cultural and political movement unique to Catalonia. Denied political freedoms, the Catalans found expression for the frustrated demands in supporting their soccer club. 

While it would be unfair and unrealistic to say that Real Madrid remains Franco’s team so long after his death, the tensions between central government and Spain’s most powerful region Catalonia remains as intense as ever as does the rivalry between two great soccer clubs.

FB: The Spanish national team has risen to the top of the world soccer powers.  Has the cultural divide between Catalonia and the rest of Spain been a significant factor in the nation’s rise to soccer superiority?

JB: I think the flair and brilliance one identifies with Spanish soccer is the result of  a convergence of foreign influences- English, Latin American and Dutch in particular-  and native talent in a system of play which has been developed almost to perfection at club level by FC Barcelona where the spirited physical soccer taught by the early British pioneers in Spain has given way to a much more creative, technical game. The Spanish national team has been fortunate in recent years to have had coaches like Luis Aragones and Vicente Del Bosque who have managed to bring together the best players from Spanish clubs and got them to play with the style of Barca, and the spirit of Real Madrid.

FB: Has the increasing amount of money in the game of soccer changed the dynamics of Spanish club soccer?  Are traditional rivalries fading because of player movement and foreign involvement?

JB: I think that more money has translated in the case of Spanish club soccer into a virtual  duopoly where  FC Barcelona and Real Madrid tend to dominate La Liga by the privileged  access they have to the bulk of TV revenues, and major sponsorship.  I believe this makes the rivalry even more exciting with clubs fielding great foreign stars like Messi and Ronaldo while investing in the development of their youth teams.

FB: Given the rather unique combination of history and sports in the book, who is your intended audience?

JB: I hope that my book La Roja will appear not just to people interest in soccer, but also to people interested in Spanish history and politics- as I’ve said it’s what gives then narrative its uniqueness.

FB: What efforts are being made to promote the book?

JB: On Google and twitter its getting some great promo.  It’s getting a good airing across all media platforms on both sides of the Atlantic-TV and radio interviews, newspaper and magazine reviews, websites, blogs, podcasts, twitters and others social networks.

All the commentary  has been positive and much of it hugely enthusiastic- I’ve picked this up on both of what I’ve read and what I have experienced directly from my growing army of fans at the speaking events I have been doing in Ireland,Britain, and Spain.

I am really looking forward to doing a couple of events in New York in the last week of June.

FB: Finally, do you have a pick for Euro 2012?

  JB: I suppose you have guessed it already- Spain-although it’s going to have to play even better than it did in the World Cup of 2010 if it is to win the tournament. I think Germany remains an important rival but generally the quality of this Euro competition is very high. I would like Spain to win the championship on its own merit.