How was it for you? – Spain

A view on the media and public raction to Euro '96 in Spain. Phil Ball reports

Until the Daily Mirror’s outbreak of cultural sensitivity on Thursday 20th June, the Spanish press had, by and large, been serving up a positive view of all things English – describing in drooling terms the facilities on tap at the team’s hotel on the outskirts of Leeds, publishing photos of Zubizarreta signing an autograph for a smiling “bobbie” and of Caminero wolf-whistling at his English (female) security guard.

The good folks of Leeds were apparently smitten with their temporary guests, and the only fly in the ointment was the mounting criticism of the team’s perceived lack of ambition after the two opening draws against Bulgaria and France. Manager Javier Clemente, in an ill-conceived Tayloresque attempt to get the hacks onto his side, had invited the travelling Spanish press corps to stay in the same hotel as the players.

The plan soon proved a disaster, with the journalists quite rightly refusing to be bought off, complaining (with some justification) of Clemente’s over-cautious approach and reporting in fatuous detail the players’ daily routines – how many sausages they had for breakfast, how many times they brushed their teeth etc. Guerrero was reported to be sulking in his room after being dropped for the French match, and despite some knowledge of English was said to have refused to go into Leeds to help on any of the daily shopping excursions.

After they had scraped through against Romania, Clemente came to blows with a radio journalist who had been staying in the hotel, prompting speculation that despite getting into the quarter-finals, he would resign after the tournament. Fortunately for all, the Mirror saved the day. Nothing soothes internal warfare better than a sudden threat from the outside. The Spanish press in its entirety forgot all about Clemente and instead turned its attention to defending the nation.

On the Saturday of the game, Marca, Spain’s football tabloid, hit back with a front page picture of Gascoigne, tongue lolling, under the headline Los Toros bravos contra las vacas locas! (The brave bulls against the mad cows) and an article suggesting, among other things, that Gascoigne was an alcoholic.

But this sort of yah boo reaction was rather unconvincing and not particularly in step with the general tone of response. The Spanish psyche is a complex one, and its inherent sense of inferiority, though never explicitly stated, tends to manifest itself in an over-admiration of foreigners, especially northern European ones. The Mirror destroyed, in one fell swoop, Spain’s rather quaintly outdated view that England was still, despite the odd nasty hooligan, a fundamentally decent and clever country, famed for its democratic traditions and tolerance.

Andoni Goicochea, Clemente’s No. 2, waded in thus: “The English say these things because they believe everyone is below them. They still think they’re imperialists. Their decadence extends to Wembley, the so-called mythical stadium. The showers are worse than most Spanish Second Division clubs. It doesn’t say much about people when they say things so casually about a country, its traditions, its culture.”

At street level, indignation was mixed with total surprise. El Pais wrote that it was like inviting a guest to a dinner party, then setting him alight. El Mundo, taking its cue from the Guardian, asked how in England a person could be arrested for making monkey noises at a football match whilst a newspaper (with a “noble socialist tradition”) could announce quite legally to three million readers that the Spanish were a worthless load of lily-livered dagos. It remains a massive irony that Clemente, a Basque viewed with suspicion by the more patriotic sections of the Spanish press, was moved to complain that Gascoigne could not even behave himself during the Spanish national anthem.

It says a lot for the Spanish that, in the end, despite rooting for the Germans, they were prepared to recognize the quality of the English performance in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, on the Costa del Sol this Summer, it might be a good idea to leave the Union Jack shorts in the hotel room.

From WSC 114 August 1996. What was happening this month