Rarely can sporting triumph have come as such a welcome distraction as World Cup victory has for Spain. After the trials of the past six months, the flag-waving and dancing in fountains that followed the extra-time winning goal were as much about relief as euphoria. The Spain of 2010 is a country wracked by a crisis of confidence. Its miraculous transformation from an isolated, authoritarian, conflict-ridden backwater into a modern, democratic and affluent society has felt like a distant memory.
The Spanish economy is at the root of the problem. It is a shambles, with unemployment hovering around 20 per cent and little prospect of a job-creating recovery. In politics the opposition seems more comfortable playing to the opinion polls than trying to build a credible alternative to a government whose popularity has suffered heavily. And, in spite of the victory for the national team, Spain’s nationality problem has not gone away: on Saturday night hundreds of thousands of Catalans demonstrated in Barcelona behind a banner stating: “We are a nation. We have the right to decide”, in response to a ruling by the Constitutional Court, made public the day before, that nullified important parts of a new statute governing Catalan autonomy. With Judge Baltasar Garzón’s dogged investigation of Franco-era crimes encouraging a fit of navelgazing, it is easy to see that the Spanish were in desperate need of sporting distraction.
The problems extend beyond the country’s borders. The World Cup started just as the ill-starred Spanish presidency of the European Union was coming to an end. Madrid faced the challenge of dealing with a confusing post-Lisbon treaty EU, with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the prime minister, and his foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos often having to take a back seat while Herman Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton, the two new EU supremos, built up their offices. The presidency, planned as a showcase for Madrid’s central role in Europe, ended up with Spain’s international reputation badly damaged as a result of the economic crisis. For a country in love with Europe, discovering that the EU can sometimes be a harsh taskmaster was quite a shock.
Thank goodness then for La Roja (the Reds) and their footballing rescue of a troubled nation. The style of the rescue was also important. While in economic terms Spain was depicted by its critics as one of the “Pigs” (the derisive term for the struggling economies of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) wallowing in the mud, on the pitch La Roja played with a style that was a credit to their nation. Previous Spanish problems of individualism were set aside by a team that moulded its remarkable talents into a true collective. Spaniards recognised the players as ordinary boys, rather than preening and overpaid superstars. Football revived a pride in the Spanish flag that 30 years of democratic progress had not been able to do. On Sunday, Spaniards were once again the “Prussians of the South”, as they had been dubbed by their EU partners in the late 1980s – well-organised hard-workers seeking a common goal.
So now competition is over, what next for Spain? There is an awareness that its economy is going to have to rely upon research and innovation rather than construction and cheap money, although moving from one to the other is obviously easier said than done. To reach a promised land of jobs and growth will first mean trekking through a desert of tough adjustments. These have already begun. Fearing that Spain might follow Greece on the road to international monitoring or even expulsion from the promised (euro)land, the government of Mr Zapatero staged a dramatic U-turn in economic policy, with a package of budget cuts, tax rises, labour market reform, and cuts in public sector pay and pensions. The public knows these measures are inevitable, but they hurt nevertheless.
The triumph on the football field may help people be more optimistic. After all, La Roja lost their first match but stuck to the task, and won in the end in an uncompromisingly physical final. The lesson Spaniards will take to their hearts is that, no matter how tough the challenge ahead, all you have to do to reach the promised land is persevere. Pigs can indeed fly.
This article first appeared in the Financial Times
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