Friday, August 15, 2008

Madrid - A flag and an identity crisis

Spain have just won their first European football trophy since 1964. At this stage we have all heard on numerous occasions about Fernando Torres' winning goal, the ominous absence of Raul, the outspoken manager and of course the triumph of the glorious Spanish passing game. How and ever something that has passed most people by was that the real story was never on the pitch, in the stadium or even on the training ground. It was instead on the narrow streets of the capital city. Afterall this was the first time that the country as a fully fledged "democracy" has had reason to celebrate such a prestigious victory on the world stage. Indeed on few occasions since the fall of the Franco dictatorship has Spain had the opportunity to collectively celebrate itself as a triumphant nation.

Just as Ireland but on a far greater scale, Madrid has experienced an unprecedented influx of immigration. As can be expected of course but not necessarily condoned, there has been quite a negative reaction from a large part of the native public who don’t believe that Spanish economic prosperity is there for the sharing. All of this has only served to marginalise the immigrant communities whose Spanish born children are already reaching their late teens. These youths are therefore slow to identify with their european country of birth and yet at the same time they are also quite unable to feel Moroccan or Ecuadorian given that they have never even been to these distant lands for which their parents so often pine.

However while the new Spaniards of foreign ancestry have been shy and perhaps prohibited from embracing the Spanish flag, so too have the Spaniards themselves. Modern Spain is a complex country that has never been very comfortable with their red and gold standard. Furthermore it has in recent years become increasingly and exclusively associated with fascist ideals and nationalism…two very dirty concepts in today’s Spanish society. It therefore follows that any celebration of flag or colours stirs the innate fear in many that the sleeping beast might be awoken yet again and make a successful return to national politics. Consequently simple and well meaning patriotism is frowned upon as it invokes uncomfortable memories of despotic propaganda and oppression.

Thus the curious combination of teenage identity crisis in immigrant neighbourhoods, ghosts of a regretful political past and a cynicism due to traditional Spanish under-achievement in soccer tournaments all resulted in a very subdued build up to the Eurocopa. Nonetheless when Spain suddenly did advance dramatically to the semi-finals the city began to get excited and the shared mood on the streets began to change.

Nowhere is the multi faceted Spanish society more visible than on Line 3 of the city metro which serves the military neighbourhoods at one end and the typically Puerto Rican and latino barrios at the other. Hence on the afternoon of one match I watched as two young Indian sisters with faces painted yellow and red spoke enthusiastically to their uncle in Spanish while he replied happily from under his red hat and in his native Indian tongue. A few stops later a Brazilian mother hauls her two young sons clad in Spanish jerseys onto the carriage. With the usual taunts that an older brother inflicts on his younger sibling, he challenged his frustrated brother to choose between Brazil or Spain.

The European cup final became in essence a “Spaniard Factory”. Suddenly every child and teenager of Moroccan, Peruvian, Columbian or Puerto Rican descent was declaring himself to be ESPAƑOL. The new all encompassing Spanish spirit was also quite evident amongst the adult immigrants as they competed just before kick-off with their Spanish neighbours for the last remaining "warm" beer in the local Chinese corner shop. It seems it took an international football final to tackle in many ways a question that the government has been too inept and too aloof to deal with. Amazingly no amount of social integration programmes could ever have been as effective as the Iker Casillas penalty save against Italy!

Meanwhile on the streets after the game the public righteously stole back their national flag which for too long had been considered the private property of the exteme right. This time however the flag belonged to everybody just as did the night of celebrations ahead. As can only be expected there were always a few resurrected Falange flags on display but they were drowned out, ignored and hardly noticeable amongst all the colour and honest, uncorrupted patriotism that excuded from ecstatic city streets.

Spain had finally come to terms with itself. At least for one night anyway.

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