La Roja: A Level-Headed Journey Through Spanish Soccer

The fundamental conundrum of watching Spanish soccer is how it took until 2010 for the national team to win on the largest stage. Given the country’s successful domestic league and development of fantastic players that dominated much of the early years of European Cup competition, how did Alfredo Di Stéfano and László Kubala fail to win the World Cup for their adopted country? Before them, how did Antoni Ramallets not hoist an international trophy? Why only in 1964 and 2008 were European international cups earned? What does 1992 have to do with 2010?

I started reading Jimmy Burns’ La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and how Spanish Soccer Conquered the World with some trepidation. I’d read his Barça: a people’s passion and thoroughly enjoyed it, but this was a much bigger question he was asking. His introduction closes with this:

This is a journey through some of the landscapes, cities, people, myths, and real circumstances that contribute to Spanish soccer’s transformation from pupil to master. La Roja is about how world soccer’s great underachiever became world soccer’s great champion. It is about the country I was born in and how its soccer became beautiful.

I thought immediately of Madrid-Barça, of Franco, of Athletic Bilbao in the early years, and even of Recreativo Huelva, Spain’s first team. I admit it: that made me happy. I was sure it would be a more lyrical Morbo, Phil Ball’s wonderful accounting of Spanish soccer, sure it would be Shelby Foote turned into 337 pages of the beautiful game.

It was neither: it is its own work and stands on its own merits. The book reads like a series of short stories, coming apart in some ways in that its narrative doesn’t flow as well as Barça did. Each chapter reads like a separate article about its particular topic, down to the players often being re-introduced despite their appearance in the previous chapter. It sometimes comes across as a series of articles that were written without the concept of a book and then voila, a book appeared and an introduction was written to piece them together, but the benefits of these mini-stories come across when you set the book down. I like to occasionally flip through history books and be reminded in 5 pages of what I had been thinking about and this is the perfect version of that. It’s not dense—it’s easy on the eyes, especially on the shelf next to my copy of The Ball is Round—but it’s nowhere near devoid of substance. It reads more like Football Against the Enemy or How Soccer Explains the World than Barça or The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.

That said, there were no real standout chapters. It’s too balanced for that, too even-keeled. There’s no hyperbole and no bold proclamations. Burns is most at home, however, or at least so it seems, when writing about superstars (he’s written books on Beckham and Maradona, after all, though I have not even so much as paged through them) and the pages he spends discussing a variety of players from the beginning of the sport until the present day are the books most entertaining. There are vignettes about Gorostiza, Samitier, Kubala, Di Stéfano, Cruyff, and Guardiola (among others). There are discussions of Javier Clemente, Helenio Herrera, and Fred Pentland on the benches.

There are interviews with a fabulously large number of the characters from throughout Spanish football, but the fundamental basis of the book is its knowledge and explanation of day-to-day political and social realities in Spain. There is not the artistic license of Soccer in Sun and Shadow, yet there is very personal and loving care taken in telling this story. Don Quixote and bullfighters feature as often as any other character, but that is only natural in Spain where artistry and insanity are merely extensions of each other (if the running of the bulls in Pamplona is any indication, anyway).

His knowledge of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Athletic Bilbao history is stunning. That comes through in multiple instances when he profiles penyas and presidents, but often the book ends up focusing on those three mammoth clubs at the expense of all the others. Real Betis and Sevilla are notable exceptions and of course Rio Tinto, Huelva, and Racing Santander under Pentland are given their fair shake. You wouldn’t know, however, that Atleti has more league titles than Athletic if you based things on this book. Deportivo La Coruña’s league title in 1999-2000 is literally never mentioned (Depor is mentioned twice in reference to matches against Celta during the Civil War on consecutive pages), but Charly Rexach is also only mentioned a single time.

The answer to the question posed in the book’s title—why Spain in 2010 instead of a completely different nation?—is not reducible to a short blurb, but it might be summed up by reading Iniesta’s shirt as he screams for joy after netting the winning goal: Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros. Espanyol vs Barça, pragmatic vs beautiful, and yet also children growing up together, feeding through the same system that had become tired of losing, of coming up short, and decided to do something about it. It’s also the product of a nation in political turmoil for a thousand years struggling to understand itself and its varied history. It’s about Catalans, Basques, Galicians, Castilians, and Asturians finding themselves in yet another mix of joy and fear, elation and nervousness: what is Spain? Who is Spain?

From the humble beginnings of Spanish soccer in the Rio Tinto mines of Western Spain (between Nerva and El Campillo, if you fancy a look on a map) and the foundation of Receativo Huelva in 1889 through the brutality of the Civil War to the modern day dominance of Barça, La Roja shows itself to be well-researched and solidly put together. It dissects some of the myths surrounding Real Madrid’s dominance in the 1950s, but pulls no punches with the club either. No one is safe from facts in this book: Barça gets put under the microscope (Boixos Nois, anyone?) as much as Athletic (Basque racism) or Atletico (Jesus Gil). Luis Aragonés may have set the stage for Vicente del Bosque’s successes, but that doesn’t make him an agreeable person. Raul may be a legend, but he is still a disruptive locker room force.

Okay, so there is something I’ll admit here: I was taken in by the random Mourinho slagging,but then again Brian Phillips elicited a cackle—an actual cackle—from me when he called the Portuguese “a pure creature of noise” in his Guardiola tribute. Jimmy Burns calls José “soccer’s agent provocateur” and blames him for nearly destroying the national team’s unity before it could conquer the biggest stage, though there is no reason Mourinho should care about the national team, it must be said. Burns is not particularly critical, I should say, nor does he bother with Mourinho more than a half dozen times, which is good. Constant mentioning of a very recent arrival wouldn’t make much sense.

Overall, this is a very good book. It’s certainly well worth the read and well worth your hard earned ducats if you’re into spending them on books. There are quibbles, but quibbles are just that and the value of learning about the history of the game is worth it. This is not a book about Barcelona and it is not a book for the sycophantic looking to hear of their team praised on high. It is history: sometimes dry, often fascinating, and always looking to explain modern misconceptions (Madrid was not Franco’s team).

For all my criticism earlier, I enjoyed the book. It is nuanced to the point of being about as level-headed a discussion of football as I’ve ever encountered. It’s personal—Jimmy was born in Madrid to merengues during the Franco regime and was raised on Di Stéfano and Cruyff—and yet absurdly impartial. What’s more, I am by nature a slow reader and yet it held my attention enough that it took just over 3 days to finish it, perhaps a personal record. My wife looked at me at one point while I had my nose buried in it and said “That must be one hell of a book.”

Pick it up and enjoy, I say, you’ll be all the wiser for it.

Jimmy Burns is an Anglo-Spanish award winning author and journalist who has worked for over thirty years in British and international media. His previous books include Hand of God: a biography of Diego Maradona; Barça, a People’s Passion, and When Beckham Went to Spain. You can find La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World at Amazon and Amazon UK (where soccer = football, of course). You can also follow Jimmy on Twitter (@jimmy_burns) and visit his website at