There is an inherent, but undeniable behavior that repeatedly rears its ugly head in the fanatic supporter of a sports team. Blind to the inadequacy of the preferred team the fan is still keenly aware of every fault of the other. Even intelligent, well-adjusted people find themselves unable to be objective and critical, reducing themselves to the intellectual equivalent of measuring how far the other can piss. It is child-like behavior, and in European football, it sometimes ends in grown men angrily sparring off in verbal spats about the manner in which a few guys (whom they will never meet) run around on a field of grass at a particular time.
While the social value of professional sports is debatable, it cannot be denied that most sporting events at least bring about passion in people, collecting them to share a common interest and have fun, regardless of the economic climate, social unrest, personal problems or family quarrels. And there is nothing wrong, of course, with being proud of where you’re from. On the other hand, it seems that sports can exacerbate the social tendencies of exclusion, prejudice, and meaningless, co-opted competition. (When some player makes a goal, or a basket and the surrounding people in the bar move beyond cheering into a chant of “USA! USA! USA!”, I feel like I have to go home, take a shower, and read some Dostoyevsky or Thoreau). I couldn’t even begin to count the times I’ve heard chest pounding and grunts such as: my team is obviously better than yours, (insert player here) sucks ass, especially (insert name here), Oh and I hate (insert team name here), but I really hate (insert team name here). And by the way, when people include themselves in the ordeal of a game by saying “we” when referring to their team, I want to stab myself in the eyes with a spork.
Anyway, I should clarify that I am not above all of this; regarding European football, I include myself in the masses of sports supporters, ridiculing and bad-mouthing teams, players and organizations. I watch games on a regular basis here in Madrid, and I’ll see more. Tomorrow I’ll be at some Irish pub, I’m sure, watching Barcelona and AC Milan. But I’ve caught myself actually attacking the personality of football players, as if I just shared a beer and an in-depth conversation with them, questioning their overall ethical sensibility or discounting the collective philosophy of an entire team. It is ridiculous, indefensible, and embarrassing. And it reminds me of how I saw the world when I was 10 years old.
Perhaps the behavior of a 10-year-old may be worth examination; at least it could be a window into the beginnings of our adult social habits.
I once wore an FC Barcelona polo while teaching in a kids camp in Mallorca, and as in almost anywhere else, I was punished for it. I expect to get a certain amount of static from people; it’s fun and a great source of conversation. Many kids playfully yelled “no, no!” when they saw it, others gave me the evil eye and then the cold treatment the rest of the day. One 8-year-old came up to me and actually yelled, pointing at my shirt, and delivered the well-rehearsed “Real Madrid good, you are crap!” I actually appreciated how his noble effort of political discourse in English, and I considered it a teachable moment. But I did find that these children often made a disturbingly quick connection between being mean to other kids and their chosen sports teams. Sometimes they use them as a conduit through which to take a side and minimize the other. There were other kids, at the same camp, who found it entirely appropriate to label two other kids who were supporters of Athletic Club (a team from Bilbao) as dirty and uneducated terrorists. Everyone knows kids often merely repeat what they hear at home, and obviously this was a case of taught animosity. But I was taken aback by the ease that these kids spoke their minds without the political correctness and tact of the developed adult, while pounding the crests on their jerseys, as if it was an expression of culture. In another situation, when our kids were broken up into groups, we made banners that were meant to represent teams for future group activities. When we were finished, all the groups were to vote on which one was the best. One of the groups, with two kids from Bilbao, called themselves Lasai, which is Euskera for “tranquilo” or “chilled out, calm.” The banner was colorful and creative, and at the bottom corner, the green, red and white of the Basque flag. The group got no votes at all, and later on, when I approached some of the more openly sadistic kids about it, they launched into an attack on these Basque kids’ language, family, and most of all their horrible, ugly flag. Of course, children can often handle more than we adults give them credit, but there was obvious defensiveness and posturing in these Basque kids, and a bit of hurt feelings in their eyes (who by the way were no kinder when referring to the perceived rich kids from Madrid). It was like watching a mini-play on the theme of imperialism and oppression, demonstrated right in front of me in the ironic setting of a beach-side town in Mallorca.
I have no preferences, no cultural bias, no secret affiliation with any of the communities in Spain that sometimes appear to have a problem being part of Spain. I don’t claim to identify with the struggle of Basque independence or a Menorquín fisherman’s aversion to using Castellano to order a coffee. My choice of football team has nothing to do with where I am from, where I live, or where I will live. It is almost completely devoid of meaning or reason. I don’t give an approving fist-pump under the table when [Barcelona coach] Pep Guardiola, sitting in a press room of international journalists, gives a jab to the perceived imperialist establishment by saying that a win for FC Barcelona is important for Catalonia (not Spain). Nor do I enjoy Jose Mourinho’s childish antics every time he steps on the pitch (ok, that’s entertaining). Most Madrileños sort of laugh off the fact that I support a football team from Barcelona, suspecting that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. And they are right. The fact is, when I noticed them in 1991, I thought they had cool-looking jerseys.
I care about these political undercurrents and nuances because I am interested in the country in which I live. As I slowly move deeper into this culture, with my slowly improving language and growing diversity of friends, I embrace every new thing that I can find out about Spain, both wonderful and disappointing. I appreciate when I am surprisingly disillusioned or if I can identify a specific frustration. It means that I am learning. I want my learning process to go beyond TripAdvisor maps and sangrías in Plaza Mayor. And as an outside observer, a foreigner, I can only say that Catalonian cuisine, the mystifying history of the Basque Country , the coastline and seafood of Santander and Galicia, the beaches and natural beauty of the Balearic Islands and Valencia all contribute to the diversity and appeal of Spain. Add all those things to the character and more volumes of history in Andalucía and the interior, and any half-awake tourist will find a country of immense diversity and depth. The wide range of food, language, landscapes, music, and sports teams all add to the country as a whole. I won’t pretend to fully understand how life works in any particular part of Spain, much less what life was like under the thumb of Franco, but I have noticed a pattern, time and time again, of one side criticising the other. (SIDE A: You are not in Spain! This is Mallorca! or Those fascist in Madrid, hanging their flags from their windows. SIDE B: Euskera is an ugly, non-marketable language. or yes, Catalán is basically the same thing as Valenciano, Mallorquín, and Menorquín). These are merely observations, those that can be filed in the disillusioned section of my learning experience, since I never cease to be surprised by this sort of confrontation that I’ve seen since childhood and all over the world, and since I inexplicably continue to participate in it. It should be said that it is unfair to generalize using the basis of a small sample of observations, and most people I’ve met here obviously are not mindless squabblers. In fact, if one must generalize, I’ve noticed a strong pattern of non-confrontation. There is still so much for me to experience here, and I hope that football doesn’t get in the way, but facilitates some more interesting, even contentious conversations and revelations.
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On a sidenote, here are some interesting sources of creative goodness that I’ve found recently online.
Culture-ist An online source for reading about cultural diversity and travel.
Juxtapoz A place for illustration, street art, graffiti, and creative videos.