Those prone to see national fates reflected in a country’s performance on the football field may have clucked knowingly, earlier this week, at the improbable demise of both Barcelona and Real Madrid to arguably inferior teams in the European Champion’s League semifinals. All-conquering Barca failed to get past the ten men of Chelsea, while Real were dumped out on home turf in a penalty shootout with Bayern Munich. No surprise, practitioners of the dismal science might say: What else would you expect in a competition between Spain, languishing in an ever-deepening recession, and Germany, leading light of Europe’s economy? They might even be tempted to claim that Spain’s football boom — the dominance exerted by Barcelona, and by the Spanish national side, over the past four years — will inevitably follow that country’s economy down the toilet. And this thesis will only be amplified by Barca coach Pep Guardiola leaving at the end of the season after deciding not to renew his rolling one-year contract. But the Spanish football doomsayers would be wrong, at least on the basis of the available evidence.
Look, you’d certainly be advised to hedge any bet on Spain dominating this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament (pitting the national sides of Europe’s top 16 teams against one another in a mini-World Cup) in the way it did at the 2008 tournament, and in the 2010 World Cup. Spain’s national team is currently based around a core of Barcelona players, particularly in the midfield, where Messrs. Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Fabregas have looked off form and exhausted in recent weeks. (That can happen when you beat all-comers at a domestic, European and international level for four straight years.) Madrid, whose contribution to the national squad is more limited and defensive in nature — goalkeeper Casillas, defenders Sergio Ramos, Arbeloa and Albiol, and midfield anchor Xabi Alonso — also floundered in Europe, losing out to a German team. And if football was following Europe’s economic league table, Germany would have to be favorites for Euro 2012. After all, among the traditional contenders, Spain, Italy and Portugal are struggling, and Holland has been plunged into a new season of turmoil amid a popular backlash against austerity economics. That leaves the Germans to simply stroll to the title denied them by Spain in 2008. (Spain also knocked the Germans out at the semifinal stage of the 2010 World Cup.) Picture Vrau Merkel smiling smugly in the box seats, alongside Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, as her boys remind those lazy Mediterraneans who is boss in Europe. She loves that sort of thing.
But football results rarely follow the twists and turns of political economy. National soccer teams often thrive when their economies are struggling. And anyway, club teams rarely reflect a “national” character these days. Barcelona is something of an exception in terms of its predominantly “homegrown” character: Only four of the 14 players Real Madrid used in the match against Bayern are Spanish; among the 12 players used by Bayern, by contrast, ten were German. Ironically, perhaps, two of the stars of Real’s midfield, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, are mainstays of the German national side. And on the B-side of that particular irony, among the scorers for Chelsea, which featured just four Englishmen in the 14 players it used against Barca, was Fernando Torres, hero of Spain’s 2008 win over Germany, who probably won’t get a game for the national team this summer.
On the international football stage, however, the “model” represented by Germany stands in sharp contrast to that of Spain, at least in respect of issues of immigration and national identity: Ozil is the son of Turkish immigrants; Khedira’s father is Tunisian. Defender Jerome Boateng’s father is Ghanaian; Dennis Aogo’s is Nigerian. And strikers Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose were both born in Poland, while Mario Gomez’s father is Spanish. German soccer success, these days, is all about integrating immigrants — although that’s not a message you can expect to hear from Vrau Merkel, who is not exactly a cheerleader for immigration.
Spain, by contrast, currently has no players of immigrant origins on its squad. Italy has the mercurial Ghanaian-Italian Mario Balotelli — if they risk his propensity for red cards in order to harness his sumptuous talent — but he’s an exception. Portugal has a long history of fielding players from its former colonies — its greatest ever player, Eusebio, was Mozambican, and today’s squad includes Manchetser United’s Nani (Cabo Verde), Chelsea fullback Bosingwa (Congo, which of course was never a Portuguese colony, but his family hails from neighboring Angola), Real Madrid defender Pepe (Brazilian) and a number of occasional players from Africa and Brazil. And around half of the Dutch national squad these days are players of immigrant origins.
But none of these “macro” factors such as economic performance and immigration policy offers much by way of short-term indicators of the likely performance of various national teams. There are many reasons, including dumb luck, that account for Real Madrid and Barca’s failure to reach the Champion’s League final. And it could, indeed, be a grim portent for Spain’s Euro 2012 hopes that the brains and heart of its all-conquering midfield looks exhausted and bereft of form. Just as no empire lasts forever, so does no generation of players remain dominant for more than a few years.
Still, rumors of Spanish decline are greatly exaggerated. As football sage Simon Kuper points out, Spain’s Under-21 and Under-19 teams are also champions of Europe. And while Barca and Real are recognized among the global elite of four or five teams, and can be expected to reach the final stages of the Champion’s League, it may be more telling to look at the Europa Cup — the second tier competition featuring teams that finish immediately below the Champion’s League qualifying spots in their domestic leagues, as well as those eliminated at the group stage of the elite competition. This year’s Europa League final pits Athletic Bilbao against Atletico Madrid — and a third Spanish side, Valencia, was among the defeated semifinalists.
Nor was this any kind of fluke: Atletico Madrid won that title two years ago and four years ago it was contested between Sevilla and Epanyol, Sevilla having won it the previous year. Among Bilbao’s scalps along the way to this year’s final was mighty Manchester United, who the Basques demolished 3-2 at Old Trafford, before comfortably winning the home leg 2-1. Bilbao, under former Argentinian and Chilean national coach Marcelo Bielsa, have been a joy to behold, adopting many of the virtues of the Barcelona high-pressing game but playing at a higher tempo and also making use of a more classic target-man striker in the prolific Fernando Llorente. Indeed, Bilbao’s exploits are likely to make not only Llorente, but also defender Andoni Iraola, centerback Javi Martinez and midfielders Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta members of the Spanish national side in years to come. (If Barcelona tends towards a certain regional chauvinism in its preference for Catalan players, Bilbao takes it to the extreme in its all-Basque policy — although Basques will tell you it wouldn’t have to be that way if they could field a national side in international competition in the way that Wales and Scotland do.)
Sure, Barca found themselves lacking a Plan B against Chelsea, and coach Pep Guardiola relinquished the reins on Friday — although he’d been expected to do so for some time, now, having been the most successful boss in the club’s history. But nobody’s expecting a sea change in Barca’s football culture, let alone Spain’s. There’s a lot more to its dominance than Guardiola, Xavi and Iniesta. Even if Spain doesn’t retain their champions of Europe status this summer, and even if the country’s economy remains in the toilet, only a fool would bet that Spain will slip from the pantheon of top tier football nations any time soon. After all, like beer, football as an industry is recession-proof.