((a post I gave to a tumblr blog, click on link, tickytocka, run by my friends Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi))
The crowd at La Nacional, New York City, after the final World Cup match in 2010.
Three tournaments in a row I followed them. For three centuries they owned us. Even as I write this, I say damn, that connection is specious. That Spain ruled the Philippines for three hundred years (mostly through a bunch of Dominicans and Augustinians, plus on-and-off, frequently exiled Jesuits) has nothing to do with the pleasure I have had watching the great Spanish team, whom I used to call Barcelona con Iker menos Messi—soccer watchers are in love with fallacies, and the biggest fallacy of all is that a sports team equals its country and its history. Team Spain is no more the Spain of the Bourbons that overran America and stumbled into Asia than the underdog Team USA is the United States of imperialism. And yet I felt the need to explain in an FB status in 2008 why, though I was writing about the Philippine revolution against Spain, I was rooting for Spain’s revolution in soccer. As if I were apologizing for my recolonization.
Spain mesmerized me: they made a soccer fantasy real. Xavi plays in the future was how his Barcelona teammate, Dani Alves, described Xavi Hernandez, “heartbeat of Barcelona—and Spain” (and lost twin brother of Robert Downey, Jr). He imagined the run before the players did, conjuring space where there had been none. These metaphors of magic keep bubbling up when I try to capture the way I felt as I watched Spain play, an unimaginably skilled team so tightly unified and astonishingly precise that when they lost the ball it seemed like a space-time aberration, an erratum in the laws of the universe. Amid a packed crowd at La Nacional, New York’s Spanish club on Fourteenth Street, I watched Fernando Torres score the winning goal against Germany in the final game of the Euro Cup in 2008, and that palpable sense of a new order dawning was both eerie and irrefutable. Finally, Spain had stopped being the butt of tournament jokes—up till then, as my soccer friends at Hopkins used to say, they were the most reliable chokes in big games. The identity of a country in soccer has a curiously fatal permanence—until the country, for whatever reason, changes. And Spain changed: it was a Cinderella story, with cleats. And in 2010 they won the World Cup with their 1-0 wins, a score line that, for me, defined elegance (though watching it play out created agony). And to clinch their dominance, in 2012 they won yet one more Euro Cup.
A trifecta of wizardry.
For three tournaments in a row, I had the privilege of watching Spain invent a way to play the game that was new to me (I had never seen Ajax play)—but more than that, they played with what I experienced as a kind of beauty, a term I usually reserve for spatial poetry in Raphael’s School of Athens, the loose perfection of tercets in the Inferno, or structural invention in the novels of Georges Perec. I was never bored by Spain, even in the long moments of non-goals. I was hypnotized by a precision that made indeterminacy look inevitable, that turned space into prophecy.
It was a privilege to watch Spain play. They were calm, impervious to remarks about their art, for which critics baptized a clumsy term that matched their (to me, weird) scorn for what looked like possession for art’s sake, tiki-taka. Still, Spain stuck to their one-touch geometries, their triangles of passes. Because they could. I used to read articles on the Dutch team Ajax with Cruyff, or Brazil with Pele, or that goal by George Best in the Euro final against Benfica at the Estadio da Luz—and I’d feel this weird pinch, somewhat like envy, though it was aimed at no one I can think of, for not having been there, alive, to watch those games. A soccer game, like theater, is essentially ephemeral, despite its fake permanence on youtube. This is because, like a theatergoer, you are aware as you watch a great team live that what unfolds before you has never happened before, you are in the middle of Fate and her twin, Heartbreak, watching history unravel, and yes, the pundits and the replays will have their say, but what you witnessed will not happen again—a soccer game gestures to the fact that we cannot hoard time. It’s why sport seems primal: a great soccer game watched live is basically orgastic, never to be repeated, recuperated, or remade. It was a privilege to watch Spain beat those fit monsters, a different set of young Germans, 1-0, in that nerve-wracking game that sent Spain to the championship final of the World Cup for the first time ever, winning with a pass from a corner by Xavi to that header by Puyol. (I choose that semi-final moment to enshrine Spain, not their 4-0 win over Italy in Euro 2012—that’s another story.) A moment clinched in mid-air after seventy-three minutes of nail-biting, eternal passing. Xavi made 563 passes during that 2010 tournament—563 touches into the future.
That was then.
My friends lamented on FB posts—?que paso, España?—when Spain lost twice before the first week of this World Cup was over. But why be sad? It was a privilege to have watched Spain for those years when they were as mythical as Ajax, as wondrous as Pele, and (thankfully) more enduring than George Best. We were there in the moment to watch greatness passing, the art of time unfolding before our eyes. Why be sad? We were there.
!Long live Chile!