Jimmy Burns's new book La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World is published by Nation Books. HuffPost will be liveblogging the Spain vs Portugal game with Jimmy on Wednesday.
Spain may be down in the dumps financially, but, in its soccer, Spain has found something to retain some dignity over.
Its national soccer team -- popularly know as La Roja -- plays Portugal in the semifinals of the European Championships this Wednesday. If it wins and goes on to win the tournament, Spain will become the first national soccer team in the history of the game to win two European championships in a row (the last tournament was held in 2008) and the World Cup, where it emerged victorious in 2010.
While the favourite to win Euro 2012, La Roja still has some formidable hurdles to overcome. Portugal has in its team Cristiano Ronaldo, a superbly athletic and skilful player with Spanish club champions Real Madrid who has established himself as the best player in the tournament and possibly in the world.
If Spain manage nevertheless to beat the less-rated Portugal it will face one of two strong teams in the final, Germany or Italy. While Italy saw off a competitive England side with a penalty shoot-out after extra time on Sunday, it is Germany that has emerged as the team most of Europe find difficult to beat, and I am not talking about Chancellor Merkel's iron grip on bank lending within the Eurozone, but the toughness and goal scoring abilities of a new generation of young talented soccer players.
But it's La Roja that has earned the respect and following of soccer fans around the world for its creative and entertaining style of quick passing, attacking soccer, where players effortlessly exchange positions and do wonders with the ball at their feet, like a beautifully choreographed ballet.
It is a style which the national squad has copied from FC Barcelona, who have won almost as many league championships as Real Madrid. But in recent years, Barcelona's reputation has grown to be the best club in the world thanks to the quick touch and possession soccer, popularly known as tiqui-taca, which, when played at its best, mesmerises audiences and opposition alike.
For Spain, the success of its soccer has been a long time coming. Until its Euro championship in 2008, the national squad hadn't won a major tournament since beating the Soviet Union, in what was then called the European Nations championship, in 1964.
For over forty years, the Spanish national squad was internationally mocked as European soccer's "great underachiever," as a mixture of bad luck and bad play conspired against them. Spain's soccer success story began to take shape after it ditched La Furia, (the Fury), a virile and aggressive style of play that prioritised courage and individual sacrifice over precision and collective skill on and off the ball.
La Furia was encouraged by Spanish dictator General Franco who believed it exemplified the essence of Spanish nationhood based on militarist values and conquest. Its popularity outlived him in clubs like Real Madrid and in Basque Athletic Bilbao, who were the first to adopt the physical, spirited soccer brought to Spain by English engineers and sailors in the 19th century.
But the transition from La Furia to the more glamorous and inventive style of La Roja in recent years has reflected the influence on Spain of talented South American born stars like FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Dutch players like Johan Cruyff who contributed to the concept of "the beautiful game" -- soccer turned art form.
Much artistry will be in evidence when La Roja play Portugal, with Spain fielding quality players like FC Barcelona's mid-fielders Iniesta and Xavi and equally brilliant goalkeeper and captain, Real Madrid's Iker Casillas, to contain and counter the threat of a Portuguese team that sees Ronaldo not only as its key player but also as their talisman.
But the betting today is on a Spain-Germany final on Sunday, an even match between two giants of the international soccer stage, whose last encounter in the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup produced the best game of the tournament.
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