Monday, June 30, 2008

Other Countries (Part I): Spain is Cool

Spain lost its collective mind sometime on Sunday evening and doesn't hope to recuperate it for say...another 44 years.

That's how long it has been since the Spanish selection won a major soccer tournament, which is quite a wait for a people who deserved better.

Many of you know the highway scribe has an enduring history and passion for Spain. He has visited Spain, lived in Spain, and staked his career on a signature novel for which the country serves as backdrop and protagonist alike.

A first visit came in 1968 when the country was a pariah to the rest of the world; hardly existed.

Firmly ensconced in the 19th Century by the policies of a dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the country was still largely transported by burros and ruled by a terrifying combination of fascism and state Catholicism.

Or so history tells us.

What the scribe remembers was a primarily agrarian culture centered around drinking, relaxation and lousy service. A place where children could roam freely unescorted about the cities because no criminal in their right mind would touch them for fear of the consequences.

It was then that the scribe first heard about the Real Madrid and Barcelona soccer clubs. Skills picked up that summer playing futbol in the plaza of tiny Langreo in northern Spain would help him stand out a few years later back in America.

The country remained unchanged on another visit two years later, and three years after that, when the scribe's family took an American Express tour called the "Iberian Beachcomber," that featured a completely undeveloped Costa del Sol where they ate sardines seared on a spit, and mounds of finger-nail size clams in garlic, olive oil, and parsley.

Franco died in 1975 and, in 1980, the scribe returned to a country in political ferment, where the left was a fashion for young people celebrating freedom (political anyway) for the first time; a period that has marked him to this very day.

And so on, until 1992 when the scribe cashed-in, checked out and went on to live the greatest adventure of his life, writing a novel, five screenplays, all the while traveling up and down the Iberian peninsula on the hunt for some of the world's most beautiful young women in some of its thinnest, and most romantic white-washed streets.

Throughout it all, the country's apparent passion for soccer and success at what they call the "club" level, seemed to clash with an inability to win at the international level, with a lingering sense that somehow Spaniards, and those of us with Spanish blood, were inveterate losers: held back by natures too passionate, temperaments more focused on beauty than outcome, and plagued by tempers short and explosive.

In 1984, the Spanish selection (as the national all-stars are known) lost the EuroCup final to France, a team it has never beaten at anything, but exhibition matches, thanks to Napoleon's romp through the country early in the 19th Century.

In 1986, an exciting team choked in the World Cup quarterfinals against Belgium, and their unappealing goaltender Jean Marie Pfaff, durig a penalty shootout.

A few years later, when the scribe was working as a script reader at Creative Artists Agency, Pfaff was peddling a movie adaptation of his own courageous autobiography. The story department passed it onto the nut who'd just returned from an expatriate's turn (yours truly) and that nut promptly blemished the piece with a "no recommendation" tag.

In 1988, Spain failed to qualify for the second round of the EuroCup marked by another familiar loss to Italy. In 1990, Yugoslavia knocked the Spaniards on their asses in the (again) quarterfinals. A year or two later Yugoslavia was dismembered as a geographic entity (and rightfully so).

In 1992, the country failed to qualify at all for the EuroCup and in the 1994 World Cup went down to a heart-wrenching defeat at the hands (feet really) of Italy's (again) Roberto Baggio in the 89th minute of play.

Spain got knocked out in the (again) quarterfinals of EuroCup 1996 by England in (again) a penalty-kick shootout for which the national character seemed particularly ill-suited.

A squad stacked with what were now considered international stars, failed to get out of the opening round in the World Cup of 1998 by failing to defeat soccer giants Nigeria and Paraguay...yes, Paraguay.

In 2000, the scribe and Mrs. Scribe watched a match against France in the 2000 EuroCup from a bar in La Cala de Mijas, Spain. Bar Nuestro to be precise. Its world famous striker, (Spain, not the bar) Raul, missed a penalty kick at the end of the game and France won yet again.

In 2002, the World Cup was held in South Korea where a superior Spanish squad lost to the home team during the (you guessed it) quarterfinal round.

the scribe was sitting in front of the television watching hordes of hysterical Koreans jump for joy when his mother-in-law, not very knowledgeable about these things, asked, "Did Spain win?" unleashing the scribe's fist upon the nearest piece of furniture, setting the mother-in-law to jumping out of her seat, and drawing Mrs. Scribe from the rear of the house, screaming all the way about the value of her coffee table.

In 2004, the EuroCup moved to Portugal, which is only a train ride way, but geography was no assistance in preventing another dismal showing.

More anguish awaited in the last World Cup, which was held in Germany where Spain lost to, you guessed it, France.

But there was something different about that squad. Something physical and daring that many attribute to its being comprised of the first generation not born under the shadow of dictatorship.

Maybe, maybe not, but it sounds good...a Team Democracy.

In spite of their loss, it seemed clear the Spanish team's extreme youth - for they were all around 20 years old - coupled with the fact they played for big teams overseas like Liverpool and Arsenal, seemed to suggest their time would (maybe) come.

Which it did.

Spain are champions of EuroCup 2008, which was held jointly in Austria and Switzerland. The team gave up the fewest goals (2) scored the most, and took the hard road to victory by facing down phantoms of the past; beating Italy first, followed by Germany in the final; the most respected names in the international game.

Long viewed as victims and lousy losers, the Spaniards gave as good as they got.

More importantly, they turned their signature one-touch passing style into something more than an interesting side dish on the major tournament menu. They turned it into a beautiful way of winning and demonstrated that a team could attack and defend simultaneously.

After Liverpool's Fernando Torres (picture) scored against Germany the Spaniards did not retreat into their end with a plan to withstand 75 minutes of Teutonic target practice.

Instead, they attacked relentlessly with speed and grace and valiance.

The whole long process was strikingly akin to making a young Spanish girl. So much resistance, so many twists and turns that when you finally bed her down, the pleasure is boundless.

On the home front, a nation long-characterized by its multiple separatist movements danced in the streets to Manolo Escobar's "Ole Espana"; a sixties anthem for tourists long considered an embarrassment to any Spaniard with a functioning thinking cap.

Some marketing genius came up with the idea of putting the black-bull silhouette of the Osborne sherry empire on the nation's flag and in one felled swoop rescued it from decades of fascist and right-wing monopolization.

Now the flag is cool...Just like Spain.

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