*With the World Cup comin’ up, this was a piece I wrote for the New York Times in 2006, just after Spain had lost to France in the World Cup. It was the last time the national side were to really suffer from the ‘Quixote effect’, and looking back, it’s interesting how the piece quietly predicts the changes to come. If you prefer, the original is here:
I recall a time when Rod Stewart was still able to write songs. He composed a ditty entitled “Every Picture Tells a Story” some time way back in the previous century, and I remember the opening lines well:
Spent some time feeling inferior
Standing in front of my mirror
Combed my hair in a thousand ways
But I came out looking just the same
I was reminded of this stanza at the end of Spain’s game against France on Tuesday night, the game that condemned them once again to dream, like Sisyphus, of one day pushing the rock to the top of the hill. Maybe the national team is simply destined to fail – a part of an anthropological plan to make everyone else feel better about themselves. Certainly the country as a whole has a certain reputation for feeling too keenly an inferiority complex towards anyone north of the Pyrenees, which of course includes France. This complex is never stated, of course. It just exists, as an integral part of the Spanish psyche. It manifests itself in various ways, for example, in its overblown reaction to its individual sporting successes (Nadal, Alonso) and in its almost paranoid tendency to undercut the ambitions of its national soccer team.
Too many times has the press deluded itself, and its audience, that all was about to change, only for the same old disappointments to kick in. So by 2006, the beginning of yet another World Cup campaign, the country was looking sideways at the TV screen only to be suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by the rare sight of success: 4-0 in the opening game against Ukraine, the best side in the group according to many. It was almost too much to bear, like finding the treasure on the first day on the desert island. How was the nation supposed to react to this twist in the plot?
According to wise hindsight, Spain’s failure to beat France and confirm their new-found confidence (standing in front of the mirror) was due to their other great Achilles’ heel. The football tabloid Marca called Spain’s exit “Quixotic,” stating that although the team had played well and won the respect of the neutrals for their dedication to playing attractive football, they had nevertheless fallen into the old trap of believing the hype. Cervantes’ book “Don Quixote,” considered by some to be the greatest novel of all time, put forth the view that the Spanish were a noble and optimistic people, with a fatal tendency to believe what they preferred to believe, as opposed to the facts staring them in the face. Always one remove from reality, according to Cervantes, the Spanish were destined to stumble, like the knight Quixote, from pueblo to pueblo, seeking meaning in a parched landscape that they were determined to see as green.
Cut to the eve of the knockout phase, and of the game against the experienced but off-color French. Of the six previous official meetings, France won five; the other game was a draw. History was on France’s side, but Spain was the team in form. A game against Brazil was to be the quarter-final prize. The press was fairly bullish in its belief that Spain would win, given the side’s relative youth. But as the teams took to the pitch, with Spain combing its hair in a thousand ways, France looked more the part – even in the way they lined up for the national anthem. As the main camera passed the French players one by one, they looked like the nightmarish crew from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” gnarly and experienced, ready to swab the decks. The Spanish, by contrast, seemed fresh-faced and insubstantial, a kiddies’ crew out for a day trip on the gentle waves.
Thus it proved in the game, with the Spanish playing pretty football, but lacking the punch, the cutting-edge that has eluded them for so long. France seemed cannier, almost sly in their obvious belief that their opponents would tire themselves out with their prancing and pirouetting, bullfighters without swords. And when they tired, the French moved in for the kill, with embarrassing efficiency.
Nevertheless, Spain’s campaign changed something in the Spanish air, if only for an Andy Warhol fifteen minutes. The TV audience for the French game was massive, and although the country has since shrugged its shoulders in a Rod Stewart kind of way, and accepted that the haircut is basically still the same, there was some pride in the fact that the team gave such a good showing – dedicating itself to the cause of good football, playing in a sporting manner and creating a momentary illusion of success. Instead of the usual vilification from press and public alike as the squad flies into Madrid, this time they will be treated like heroes, albeit slightly tragic ones. The consensus seems to be that it was the innocence of youth as much as the Quixote effect that lost them the game in what was potentially their finest hour, but that it was not ‘lo de siempre’ (the same old thing), where Spain arrives at the competition trumpets blaring and drums a-thumping, only to traipse home via the back door, their tails tucked firmly between their legs. The squad is young, the possibilities endless. “We’ll be back,” screamed the headline from Marca. No more Mr Inferior.