In football terms, tonight’s match promises to be a bit of a blockbuster, and certainly for England, a measuring stick on which to mark the progress that Fabio Capello has made during his time in charge of the Three Lions. Victories over Croatia and Germany have suggested that the Italian has finally managed to get the best out of what is undoubtedly a talented player pool, but what better test than against the recently crowned Champions of Europe?
And yet, although the ‘friendly’ label is one that can never really be accurately applied to a football match, because all players want to win at the end of the day, this one could rumble over a bit more than most. Much hype has surrounded the racial abuse that has marred recent encounters between these two sides with Spain’s fans aiming terrible verbal chants at some of England’s black players, and rightly so. It’s a disgusting facet of football and one which we hoped we had seen the back of, and perhaps in England we have (bar the odd idiot who will never be entirely stamped out, unfortunately).
Yet, there is also quite a history between the two countries. As far back as Renaissance times there were slight clashes between England and Spain which weren’t entirely settled by Henry VIII’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon, a Princess of Spain, and indeed, that marriage ended badly. However, in recent times especially, a sort of jovial rivalry has sprung up between the two countries with no outward dislike, but more a sort of respectful competition.
Much of this comes down to the fact that Spain is such a popular holiday resort for millions of English tourists every year. We like nothing more than to go and soak up some Spanish sun and drink ice cold beer by the swimming pools and on their beaches, and if anything, there seems to be a touch of resentment towards the English for this, that we almost ‘use’ their country so obligingly. Of course this is tinged by the fact that were it not for the Brits, their tourist industry would take a huge hit, and so something of an uneasy friendship with a slight undercurrant seems to exist between the two countries.
In football terms, there is quite a rivalry between the domestic competitions of the two countries, which are arguably the best in the world. The Premier League is the most high profile and money spinning of the leagues and famed for it’s fast paced, fully committed action, while La Liga is home to some of the world’s most technically gifted players, and seen to be more a form of entertainment than passion, the quality of football is arguably higher for this. So there is another edgy sort of competitiveness between the countries, which each believe that their league is superior, and in many ways, the differences between the leagues almost embody two different styles of football that polarise one another.
The English leagues retain the essence of the more traditional, blood and guts, heart and soul, 100% commitment approach to the game which saw it firmly established as the working man’s game during the countries development. One classic image I retain of the idea of going to a football match is Lowry’s ‘Going to the Match‘ in which you can see the little matchstick men for which Lowry’s work is famous, making their way towards the ground, and you are inspred with the certainty that these men have come from the mines, or the factories, or some other job where they work really hard for pittance. They certainly aren’t high society, and they just want to see some good, honest football.
Those are not the sort of men who you traditionally picture going to watch matches in Spain. I’m not saying that there are no committed fans over there, indeed, I remember reading a story in Four Four Two about the rivalry between Real Betis and Sevilla that saw them explain the antics of a few particularly insane fans (dead season ticket holders, giant crest shaped baked goods and live parrots in hats among them). But the fact remains that fans in Spain go to the game not to encourage the team and to play a part, but to be entertained, as if it were a movie. I think one of the most memorable images in football proves this, and that is of the Nou Camp as dissatisfied fans wave their white handkerchiefs to let the players know that they are not happy with the performance.
In this way then, the coming together of the national sides of these two countries not only reignites a centuries old rivalry, as well as a current one that simmers under the surface of holiday makers and hotel owners Europe-wide, it also sees a clash between the two opposing views of football itself. Is football more than entertainment? Or is it simply a spectator sport? Should the players go crashing in to crunching tackles or crashing to the ground under the slightest touch? Of course, none of these questions will be answered, but we may witness two opposites repelling one another in Seville.
Of course, at the end of the day, this is just a football match, and it doesn’t actually mean anything. But it will mean something to England’s black players if they are abused in the same way again. It will mean something to all black British people, and I imagine, possibly even more to black Spanish people. It will mean something if England’s fans react to possible abuse in a way in which we have been infamous for for many years. Our reputation as hooligans and thugs on the continent is, at last, decaying slightly, and it would be a shame to reignite it now.
So this game is more than a friendly. Week in week out we see matches in the Premier League and La Liga, and all the English and Spanish Leagues, that have far more riding on them than this. But this match, optimistically labelled as a ‘friendly’ is one that can go a long way to causing a lot of trouble beyond football. It can have a very real and very large impact on the lives of many people who might be affected by certain events and on the countries themselves. It is a match, in short, that shows that though football certainly is more than a game, it is not the be all and end all of life.
So I’m hoping for a great game tonight. I hope England can win, and if possible, win in style, it would be a great boost to our team that suffered a huge blow in not making the European Championships to conquer it’s number one team. But mostly I hope that we can get through it without what could be termed as a ‘major international incident’. At the end of the day, football is simply a game. It is a game that means a hell of a lot to a lot of people (myself included), but it is not something that should make people’s lives worse. Come on England, let’s keep the focus on the pitch with a great performance.