Fiesta time: Spain World Cup team promotes unity in fractured nation beset by economic gloom

By Frank Griffiths, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

Fiesta: Winning World Cup team boosts Spain unity

MADRID — Spain’s football team returned home to a jubilant nation and a huge fiesta Monday after winning the World Cup, finally giving Spaniards a break from months of economic gloom, political squabbling and nationalist regions fighting for greater autonomy from the central government.

In downtown Madrid’s Royal Palace — normally used only for major state affairs — the team had drinks and chatted with King Juan Carlos. The monarch hugged many of the players and gave coach Vicente del Bosque friendly punches on the cheek and the chest.

“You are an example of sportsmanship, nobility, good play and team work,” the king said.

Team members then traveled to the Moncloa palace government headquarters on the capital’s outskirts where they greeted by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, several ministers and hundreds of ecstatic children.

“They won the cup but it belongs to all Spaniards,” shouted a delighted Zapatero, himself a keen Barcelona fan.

Next came an open-air bus ride through Madrid’s historic center, the epicenter of the celebration party for the second day in a row. Tens of thousands of people, most wearing the red and yellow national colors, lined the five-kilometer (three-mile) route as the bus crawled along with the players waving and showing off the trophy.

At the route’s end, close to the Manzanares river, organizers sprayed water onto waiting crowds putting up with 36 Celsius (96 Fahrenheit) evening heat.

But there were striking examples of cheering for Spain from unlikely places: The well-off Catalonia region that has long sought greater autonomy, and the separatist Basque region where anything pro-Spain is often shunned.

At least several hundred thousand fans were expected to line Madrid’s streets to celebrate Spain’s first World Cup title, after the team beat the Netherlands 1-0 on Sunday in extra time.

Dozens of airport workers cheered from the runway as the plane, flying Spanish flags from cockpit windows, taxied to a stop as cars driving by on nearby highways blared their horns to welcome the squad. A special slogan printed along the fuselage of the Iberia plane read, “Proud of our National Team. Champions.”

A roar of delight rose from the airport as team captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas stepped from the plane and raised the golden World Cup into the air. The crowd chanted “Campeones! Campeones!” (Champions! Champions! in English). Then the players, wearing their team jerseys, walked from the plane to a waiting Spanish football federation bus without commenting to journalists.

“It’s very important, it helps us forget a lot of things, like the economic crisis, for example, or people’s domestic issues,” said Javier Sanchez, a 42-year-old photographer from Madrid.

But will the ecstasy last? Could this be Spain’s moment to unite under a single flag, or is it a fleeting instance of patriotism?

The country has been depressed by a debt crisis, 20 percent unemployment and nationalist regions fighting to separate from Spain or at least win the right for much greater autonomy and near-nation status.

While the spotlight will be on Madrid when the team is cheered, the win led to a rare sight in Catalonia’s regional capital of Barcelona: Spanish flags waving side-by-side with Catalonia’s very own red and yellow flag.

“It has been very strange, but now it is being tolerated,” said Saray Lozano, a 31-year-old taxi driver from Barcelona who was happy for Spain’s win. “If it weren’t for football, you might get rocks thrown at you” for publicly displaying Spain’s national symbol.”

About 75,000 people celebrated the win in Barcelona, and about 2,000 people waved Spanish flags and wore the team’s football jersey in the Basque city of Bilbao — actions rarely seen because of the violent campaign led by separatist group ETA since 1968 to gain independence from Spain.

Just wearing the jersey on the streets of Bilbao ahead of the win was a sure way to get insulted, and risk being assaulted.

But experts said the idea of Spain overcoming its internal divisions and economic woes just because of the World Cup won’t likely turn into reality. In and around Bilbao, authorities blamed sabotage for an electrical outage that canceled an open air broadcast of the final game, and several people supporting the national team were attacked by separatists.

“I wouldn’t have thought the euphoria over the football will last very long,” said Paul Preston, a Spain expert and history professor at the London School of Economics.

As for Spain’s fragile economy, the win “may soften the blow of the economic news, but it won’t have a long-lasting effect,” Preston said.

Joan Foguet, a Barcelona-based journalist for the leading Spanish newspaper El Pais, noted that Catalonia has a “schizophrenic” relationship with the national team — and attributed the burst of enthusiasm to the fact that the team played well.

NGO worker Elisenda Siguerola felt some people were playing up the Spain unity theme.

“One thing is football and another is politics,” said Siguerola, “even though politicians try to mix the two.”

Contributing to enthusiasm from unlikely places was the fact that several of Spain’s best players are from Catalonia — Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. The team also included superstar Xabi Alonso, from the Basque region.

In Bilbao, Alejandro Munoz said his daughter was wearing a Spanish national team jersey on Monday, but noted that “she also has a Basque one.”

“I think the celebrations in the Basque region should be seen as normal and will improve relations between the region and Spain,” said Munoz, 48.

Other Basques, like 29-year-old Aitor Elexpuru, said Spanish politicians against greater Basque autonomy would use the win for political purposes.

“A lot people wanted Spain to win so they could show the Spanish jersey and flag to those of us who don’t feel Spanish,” he said. “They wanted Spain to win, but not for football.”

The win, however, brought at least some Spaniards from diverse backgrounds together, meaning the win accomplished “unfinished business for Spain, so it’s been good for everyone,” said Soledad Gonzalez, 51, a security guard from Madrid.

She added: “I hope that, God willing, finally, the Spanish flag means being Spanish and not being a fascist, as was the case not so long ago.”

During the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco (1939-1975), Catalans, Basques and others were forbidden from speaking their language and it was illegal to publish books in those languages. Spain did not change its flag after become a democracy.

Griffiths reported from London. Associated Press writers Ciaran Giles, Jorge Garma, Harold Heckle, and Joseph Wilson contributed from Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao.

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