Q&A with Jimmy Burns: La Roja, Spain, and Politics

As a part of our on-going series of book reviews and interviews with authors, the BFB team interviewed Jimmy Burns, author of La Roja and Barça: a people’s passion (among others). Check out how you can buy the book or find more from Jimmy below the interview.

Barcelona Football Blog: Every year the season starts and every year there is a general consensus among those who watch La Liga that the Federation is playing at something when it doesn’t announce the times and dates. Will RFEF ever become a modern organization? How is its incompetence (or even seeming incompetence) hindering La Liga’s growth at a time when its top 2 teams are considered the best in the world and some of its teams have just dominated the Europa League? Does RFEF want to be a dominate force in international markets?

Jimmy Burns: I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories–or even guess work-as to what the Federation might or not be up to. What I do think is that the Federation is in need of reform, like so many other Spanish institutions—it needs more efficient, transparent, and accountable management and needs to take a serious look at its communications and PR strategy which has not really kept up with the modernization that say the media and marketing teams of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have achieved. Spanish soccer, whether at club or national level, is a successful brand that deserves a better international airing.

BFB: Spain has recently gone through a period of success in a variety of sports. Rafa Nadal, the national football team, even Alberto Contador. Yet the economy has suffered dramatically in that same period. Is there any sense that there were misplaced priorities or are sporting success seen as palliatives by the general public?

JB: I don’t think this is a case of bread and circuses, or as Marx put it, ‘opium of the people’. Of course sport can be an escape—but it can also been seen as a healthy activity, physically and psychologically. It would be crazy to argue that simply because Spain is in an economic and financial meltdown, we should have less sport. Spain needs its success stories, and its sportsmen do well. When it comes to soccer, I am however in favour in greater investment in schools and youth academies and encouraging pride in belonging to a Spanish club and aspiring to the national squad, rather than inflating foreign transfer fees.

BFB: Is Spanish football less politicized now than it was in the past? Given Sandro Rosell’s Catalan-centered message during his run for Barça president and Esperanza Aguirre’s recent comments regarding the Copa del Rey coupled with the “national unity” march in Madrid on that same day, is there a sense that these are the death throes of a nationalist movement, a last flaring before it is extinguished within the larger movement of globalization and worldwide marketing campaigns? Or is it the resurgence of embers somewhat dormant during more economically successful years as reactionary nationalism is wont to do in moments of doubt regarding national sovereignty (such as the slow-motion bank run to Germany and the larger questions of European economic unity)?

JB: To cut to the core of your question, I expect the rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid to remain for many years to come. It makes sense in commercial and political terms. The hyped up ‘Gran Clasico’ attracts TV viewers, sells shirts, and fuels sponsorship. Meanwhile in the short to medium term, there appears to be two politically opposed projects in the Spain of today—one that would like the EU via central government to take increasing control over the regions finances—to the point of full-scale intervention—and the other that wants increasing autonomous regions to the point of independence. I think the rivalry between the two clubs is bound to reflect, in some measure, this political tension.

BFBAre smaller clubs more or less susceptible to the shifts within the greater Spanish national and autonomous climate? Athletic has long been seen as a Basque stronghold (for good or bad) but currently has an Argentine at its helm who seems the opposite in a lot of ways of Javier Clemente; Bielsa came in after a change in president and San Mámes is about to embark on its final year as the team’s stadium, but is there a sense that they are appealing to a wider group than just Basques or is the club as deeply entrenched now in the local culture as it ever was?

JB: Barça shows us that just because you change stadium (from Les Corts to the Camp Nou) or create a bigger one, and have a foreign manager, it doesn’t change the sense of identity of a club that is deeply rooted in the politics and history of a region, not to say a nation. That said, Barça has never felt more itself that it has done playing with more players from La Cantera, a radical Catalan nationalist as president (Laporta), and a Catalan former player as coach—Pep Guardiola. So I think Athletic ‘s profile will get bigger but it will not lose its spirit, and its soul, by moving to a bigger stadium, or having a manager like Bielsa (who is hugely talented), or appealing to a wider fan base by playing better and being more successful than during the golden years of Clemente. Remember also this is the club of the great Mr Pentland, and that Basques have been among Spain’s greater travelers and exports.

BFBHow can any team other than The Big Two have a chance at winning a league trophy? Mauricio Pellegrino recently stated that it’s not just money that helps compete with Madrid and Barça, but is there any way other than through massive investment like Málaga’s?

JB: There is no doubt that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have formed a kind of duopoly and have benefited from a system that gives them the lion’s share of TV revenue. But in Barça’s case in particular we have seen great attention being given too to developing a style of football and seeing this philosophy ingrained at an early stage in the youth development programmes, and later reflected in the national squad. It’s also important to remember that these two big clubs have retained a strong sense of corporate identity by not surrendering to outside ownership. I am sure that many Malaga fans are delighted with their new found success—but at what price to their souls?

BFBHow does the success of Barça relate to/enhance Catalanisme? Do you see the club’s success having any influence on that independence movement?

JB: To the extent that Barça remains ‘mes que un club’, more than a club, i.e. rooted in the political and cultural history of Catalonia, its success I think will continue to fuel the spirit of those who feel more Catalan than Spanish. That said, however one can also argue that more Barça supporters have supported the national team, while its been successful—and Del Bosque, helped by Casillas and Xavi, have been instrumental in countering the negative impact on the unity of La Roja that Mourinho’s tempestuous first season at Real Madrid had. Thus we have seen a curious phenomenon in Spanish soccer in recent years- intensifying rivalries at club level, while a greater consensus at national team level. Things could well change if and when La Roja lose their status as champions, and Spanish politics become more radicalized.

BFBDoes the U.S. market matter in terms of the global success of La Liga? There is a new sports network that has U.S. domestic rights at a delicate time in the league’s foreign cycle, in that interest will never be higher. Are U.S. and the world ready for La Liga? Can La Liga thrive and reach its global presence goals as a duopoly?

JB: I have been struck by the considerable media interest there has been in the US in my latest book, La Roja, which I think is a reflection at a micro-level how Spanish soccer has raised its profile in the US market. My feeling is that in the US there is a growing public (not least in the Latino community) that really sees the beautiful game being played at its best in La Liga, and in La Roja, and which also has a huge interest in Messi and Ronaldo, probably the two greatest players in the world. The majority of Americans think Real Madrid and Barça when talking about Spanish ‘soccer’, so clearly the duopoly has been a key part of Spanish football’s projection, along with La Roja’s World Cup win. The US is a nation that values success and entertainment and both clubs and Spanish national team provide both.

BFB: What does the recent decision (if approved by the other clubs) to play the next SuperCopas in China represent, outside of an attempt at hoovering up spare Euros?

JB: It would be mad for Spanish soccer and the people who run it not to see China as an important growing market—and the plan to play the next SuperCopas there make sense in commercial terms—but I do believe it could be a step too far, which disenfranchises the clubs’ fans and risks turning Spain’s most successful clubs into mere travelling entertainers—like the Harlem Globe Trotters—or tools of sponsorship like Formula One drivers.

BFB: Does the success of the Spanish national team have any effect whatsoever on global interest in La Liga?

JB: I think it has an effect, yes, because La Roja focuses attention on some of the real talents that play in La Liga—and the style played by the best club teams.

BFB: Generally, what are your thoughts on the Financial Fair Play (FFP) system and its effects on FCB and Madrid? Do you believe this is the catalyst for possible American-sports-style salary caps in major European soccer to cap spending?

JB: I haven’t really give much thought to this topic. What I can say is that I am all in favour of more transparency and financial accountability—and discipline—in all major European soccer, and salary caps make sense in the troubled times we live in, when so many ordinary fans are struggling to get a job, let alone earn a living wage. Soccer, wherever it is played, has a public responsibility to be seen as fair.

Jimmy Burns is an Anglo-Spanish award winning author and journalist who has worked for over thirty years in British and international media. His just published book is US edition- La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World (Nation Books) ; UK Edition La Roja: A Journey through Spanish Football (Simon & Schuster).

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 www.jimmy-burns.com.

Coming up tomorrow will be a review of the book.