The mourning after

The terrorist attacks in Madrid led to the election defeat of the Spanish government and left football uncertain when to play and how to pay its respects, writes Phil Ball

It’s not often that sport takes second, even third, place in the ranking of things in Spain, but the deaths of almost 200 people in Madrid on Thursday March 11 reduced football’s normal role as the country’s protagonist to the status of awkward bystander.

As on the evening of September 11, 2001, when FIFA were lobbied to call off Champions League fixtures (they refused), the football authorities were placed in an extremely difficult position. Four Spanish sides were involved in UEFA Cup games and none of them wanted to play. Barcelona were the first to petition UEFA to call off their game, at Celtic, followed later by the other three. The Federación Española de Fútbol backed the call, but the verdict was that the games would have to go ahead. Perhaps UEFA feared the legal implications (not just to them­selves) of postponing the matches, with so many sup­porters already having travelled and so many television cam­eras already in place, so opted for the morally more problematic but administratively more convenient way out.

That is not to pass judgment on their decision, because it was a tough one. By the Saturday evening, however, practically the whole of Spanish football man­aged to put together a dignified show of solidarity not often witnessed in a country torn by factionalism.

Only two games were scheduled for Saturday night, but each involved one of the two big sides from Madrid. Real were at home to their namesakes from Zaragoza and Atlético were playing in the Basque country, against Real Sociedad in San Sebastian. Had Sociedad been obliged to travel to Madrid, the consequences could well have been grave given the bad blood between the two clubs since the murder of a Sociedad fans six years ago and the fact that the central government was stubbornly sticking to its thesis that the Basque terrorist group ETA had been the perpetrators.

On Friday night, a group of Atlético’s ultras, Frente Atlético, had staged a sit-in at the Vicente Calderón stadium, outraged that the club were intending to play in the Basque country. The fact that the swas­tika-loving Frente Atlético had suddenly joined the moral majority was interesting, to say the least. In the end, the scene in San Sebastian was a moving one – the players coming out on to the pitch together with the flag of the municipality of Madrid, which they placed in the centre circle before the minute’s silence. In the troubled context of the Basque country, this was no mean feat.

The difficulty everyone was facing, of course, was that (soon-to-be-ex-) Prime Minister José María Aznar had announced three days of official mourning on Thursday. The FEF possessed sufficient autonomy to simply call off the whole weekend’s fixtures, but de­cided against it. For a change, the only people who got it right were the tabloid Marca, who led on the Sunday with the headline No era el día (It wasn’t a day for football), partly excusing Real Madrid for their wan performance at home to Zaragoza (1-1) but also pointing to a general feeling of awkwardness at the very act of turning out. Some players celebrated their goals with arms-to-the-skies gestures, the imagery clear. Other players failed to even celebrate the goals they scored, as if the occasion required sobriety for the whole 90 minutes. Both of Depor­tivo’s goals in Mallorca were studiously un­accompanied by the usual shirt-waving and cheek-kissing nonsense.

An interesting twist to the shock election result will be the changed sem­antics of the well worn phrase El equipo del gobierno (the team of the government) since the new Prime Minister, the socialist José Luis Zapatero, was born in Valla­dolid but supports Barcelona. This breaks the eight-year jibe that Real Mad­rid and the central government were as one, and for the first time in the history of Spain the government’s number one favours the Catalans.

But Zapatero’s home-town boys, Valladolid, were the only top-flight side to take Aznar at his word and displayed banners with the slogans meaning “No to terrorism” (fine) and “In favour of the constitution” (not necessarily fine). The latter message was the falling government’s last desperate attempt to use the bombings as a way of dismantling the secessionist proposals of the Basque regional government, but surely one can oppose terrorism and still question aspects of the constitution? Unfortunately, Valladolid’s of­ficials decided to display the sorry slogan from the centre circle, aligning themselves in the process to the Aznar government’s curious interpretation of what constitutes democracy – although from the TV evidence they appeared to be in a minority of one.

From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month