Published: June 2006
The Highlights of Soccer History in Spain
Robert Coover discusses some of Spain's best soccer moments
By Robert Coover

Spain, the summer of '82, hottest of the century. The smog cap over Barcelona was like the lid of a pressure cooker, ablaze with refracted sunlight, and up on the top tier of the little Sarriá soccer stadium, known popularly as the Bombonera, the Candybox, they seemed to have sold ten tickets for every square foot of space. We had to go an hour and a half early just to squeeze in at all. No way to sit, no chance to go for drinks, by the time the matches started it was even hard to breathe. My teenaged son spent one entire game hanging over an exit from a stair railing. Each day we said: if it's not bloody sensational, we'll go to a bar somewhere and watch it on TV, this is crazy. And each day we stayed.

We'd been here before. The other time, in 1977, it was raining and nighttime and turning cold. We stayed that time, too, huddled under an umbrella high up on the roof under the floodlights in the blustery winds and pouring rain in the only available seats, and happy to have them. That night we were watching a late-autumn Spanish league match between the two archrivals of this city, FC (Fútbol Club) Barcelona and Real Club Deportivo Espanyol (the Spanish Royal Sports Club), whose home field this was, a match that was far more than a mere athletic event.

In 1982 it was the setting for the second round of the World Cup and the teams were the national sides of Italy, Brazil and Argentina, all former World Champions—playing each other in a round-robin mini-league for a place in the semifinals (Argentina–Italy, Argentina–Brazil and Brazil–Italy, in that order). The games transcended the quotidian as war may be said to transcend debate.

These are, it sometimes seems to me, our only two universal games, war and soccer. They are to be found, both together, in all but a few rare and remote subcultures of the world (in Melanesia, for example, or here and there in North America) and always at the heart of the national experience. War is perhaps closer to the realm of fantasy, soccer to that of the real, but both share this ubiquity and centrality, as though arising, each, from some collective libidinous source, primary and intuitive. Perhaps they are simply variations of the same game, modern industrial era ritualizations of some common activity from the Dreamtime of the species, back when both used the same players and the same pitch—which is to say, all the men of the tribe and all of nature. Still today, they often fade into each other. Soccer managers "declare war," generals apply soccer tactics and terminology in their campaigns, warlike violence invades the soccer pitch, spreads into the stands and out into the communities (as when border tensions and the passions of World Cup qualifying matches blurred into the notorious and bloody "Soccer War" in 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador—ironically, two of the 1982 finalists, and yet again—or still—shooting at each other back home), soldiers wear their team colors into battle like guerdons or play the enemy in no-man's-land during temporary ceasefires, fan clubs are known as "armies."

In this inextricable commingling of battles on the pitches and the pitched battles elsewhere of war and rebellion, the World Cup twenty-four years later in 2006 could see such match-ups as Iran against the U.S.A. or England, or the Serbs against the Croatians, but in the summer of 1982 the war-of-the-day was between Argentina and England over a barren pitch known respectively as the Malvinas and the Falkland Islands, and both of them had teams at the 1982 World Cup. It was this war that overshadowed Argentina's defense of its 1978 championship, keeping their fans at home, draining their resources, demoralizing team and nation alike as the casualty figures mounted and their hopes for any kind of face-saving exit dwindled. Nevertheless, on the eve of the World Cup inaugural match between the reigning world champions and Belgium, the Argentine junta, facing imminent and catastrophic defeat, decided to keep the war going one more day, making every effort meanwhile to get live TV transmission of the game to the troops holding the islands, hoping for a miracle. Instead, as though to make the world share their sadness, they only lost a few more countrymen. Their world champions had courage on the day maybe, but no bullets, Belgium scoring the only goal of a crunching, cautious, somewhat tedious game. Whereupon, within hours, Argentina surrendered to Great Britain, the troops switched off the TV sets and returned to the mainland like disillusioned fans (a few citizens protested: they disappeared), and junta leader General Leopoldo Galtieri, presaging the fate of a lot of national team managers before the World Cup came to an end, "resigned." With a straight face, the London Times reported that, among senior military officers in the Falklands campaign, commando commander Brigadier Julian Thompson had been nominated "man of the match."

After their opening embarrassment, Argentina did manage to win a couple of games to qualify for the second round, and so recovered a certain respect. Brazil was the big favorite going into the round-robin—indeed, the favorite of the whole 1982 World Cup— and the game between these legendary rivals was touted as the "Latin American Final," with the winner favored to go all the way. Less was expected of Italy, who had gotten through to this round with three dismal draws against unrated teams, but they were a dour defensive squad and could always be a spoiler. Which is how the first game, which the Argentines lost to the Italians 2–1, was read: a reliance on hard men, craft above beauty, an upset victory for "negative" football. The press complained afterward of Italian ruthlessness and brutality. "Anti-football," they called it, "something between defense and homicide," though later their memory of this match would be more generous (as with life, only the past is open-ended). Certainly the tenacity and commitment of the Italian players in the blistering heat was awesome, the crushed pride of the Argentines almost palpable.

It is perhaps this passionate commitment, together with that peculiar but universal tendency of a people to identify its national interest with the success or failure of its soccer team, that most reminded us of the last time we were sitting up here, in the wind and rain, watching that night game that was more than a game between the Culés or "Big Arses" of Barcelona (so called because in the old days the fans sat on open-backed bleachers, which presented to passers-by this now-commemorated view celebrated by generations of cartoonists) and the "Parakeets" of Espanyol. This was 1977—or Year 1 A.F. (After Franco) by the new Catalan calendar—that euphoric year of the destape (the popping of the cork, the lifting of the lid) which saw the almost instantaneous nationwide demolition of the structures of Francoism, broad political amnesty, the legalization of the Communist Party, free trade unions, the publishing explosion and the Pornographic Revolution, the first general elections since the days of the Republic, and in Catalunya the new cultural renaixença, sardana-dancing in the streets, and the restoration of the autonomous Catalan parliament, the Generalitat. This body had been operating in exile since the end of the Civil War, and one of the high moments of the autumn of '77 was the welcoming home from almost forty years of exile of its president Josep Tarradellas. This took place at the airport, in the streets and plazas of Barcelona (soon to recover their old pre-Franco Catalan names as though to erase from the communal memory the shame of the Castillian—which is to say, foreign—occupation), and finally at FC Barcelona's Camp Nou, that holy temple of Catalanism across town where the tribe had gathered on alternate Sundays throughout the Franco era in symbolic—and vociferous—resistance.

Mes que un club—"More than a club"—is the Barça motto, and it was easy to grasp its meaning, standing there in that massive soccer stadium (the second largest in the world with a supporters' club of 120,000 paying members and a waiting list years long; for the 1982 team photo alone, to be taken just after the World Cup, some fifty thousand people—more than you could even pack into the antiquated little stadium of Espanyol—would turn up just to watch the clicking of the cameras) alive that day with the fluttering red-and-yellow stripes of the heretofore-outlawed Catalan senyeres, interwoven with the claret-and-blue stripes of the club flags, listening to the thunderous roar go up when Tarradellas stepped into the president's box to exchange prolonged embraces with the almost tearful directorate. Then, after an emotional introduction, Tarradellas re-called in a quavering voice for all present his days as a Barça fan in the 1920s and 1930s, concluding with a throaty "Visca el Barça! Visca Catalunya!" ("Long live the Barcelona Football Club! Long live Catalunya!"). Whereupon everyone rose to sing, en masse, "Els Segadors," the long-suppressed Catalan hymn. Tarradellas, accepting the invitation, had said he'd come only if the club, playing Las Palmas of the Canary Islands that day, promised to win. For forty-five minutes it looked as though he might be disappointed, as the two teams slogged along in a 0–0 draw, but then, about a quarter of an hour into the second half, the old fellow looking like he was starting to doze a bit, Barcelona was amazingly awarded, not one, but two penalties in a row, and they then went on to defeat an understandably demoralized Las Palmas, 5–0. Benvingut, President!

I'd been something of a follower of the Barcelona football club since my father-in-law, the team doctor for lower-division Gimnástic of Tarragona and a fervid Barça supporter, introduced me to the game in the late 1950s. To tell the truth, it was probably the astonishing intensity of the emotions aroused each year by the clearly political Barcelona–Real Madrid matches that first drew my attention, rather than the game itself. The left often objects to soccer (indeed to all spectator sports) as a bourgeois manipulation and exploitation of the working classes, deflecting their passions from the other-directed struggle for freedom and justice to the inner-directed mock-sufferings and satisfactions of team support—from the real, that is, to the artificial, the merely symbolic—and turning a quick buck or two while they do it. This may be so, but virtually all the young Catalans who joined the clandestine socialist and communist parties during the Franco era were also dyed-in-the-wool Barça fanatics, a paradox (if it is one) they had to learn, there being no release from such fandom, to live with.

"It's strange," one of them, a communist writer friend, told me at lunch a couple of hours before the Argentina–Brazil match. "Things dissolve. All our grand ideas are filled with ambiguities when we try to make realities out of them. Under Franco, it was all much clearer. Against Franco, we like to say, we lived better. Perhaps it is because the world itself seems more fragile, the universe now more familiar but also more unfriendly. That astronaut of yours did not know what he was doing when he played golf on the moon. And what you keep coming back to at such times is your family, your village, your culture. Your football club."

"And the World Cup?" I asked. "Has it been a good thing?"

"For Spain," he shrugged, "it is a complete disaster. We are like children. We think the world is full of millionaires who want to come here and give us their money. Then, even if we rob them and cheat them, we think they will still love us. We are still mystics, you see. We expect miracles. And we still love to be punished." He glanced at his watch. "Two hours before kickoff," he said with a rueful smile. Yes, already it was time to go, else ticket or no ticket there would be no way to see the game: out into the sweltering heat, grab a bus till it's forced to a crawl, push into the incredible pack-up around the stadium of Sarriá.

La Bombonera was never Barça's Camp Nou, nothing like it. Over there the Belgians, Russians, and Poles were fighting it out to decide who would play the winner of this group in the semifinals, and in that great stadium with its 120,000 capacity, there was ample space for the 819 carefully screened Polish fans permitted to attend (and half of these were said to have defected already somewhere between Spain and Poland), about as many Belgians, and as far as anyone knew, no Russians at all. Years later, after the Barcelona Olympics, Espanyol would inherit the Olympic Stadium, but in '82 the Candy-box was what they had. There had been tremendous pressure, of course, both international and local, to effect a switch: it would have meant at least three times as many ticket sales, not to mention the more generous aspect of giving the fans what they wanted. But there was too much pride at RCD Espanyol: this was one of the greatest moments in the club's history, and they were not going to surrender it. One of the directors, moreover, happened to be the president of the Spanish Football Association. It was a dead issue from the start.

It is important to grasp the historic difference between these two clubs. Barcelona, always Spain's major commercial and industrial center, was a principal beneficiary of the boom years of the apertura, the campaign by the new technocrats during Franco's enfeebled final decade to "open up" Spain. Tourism, industry, banking, business all came Barcelona's way. And the richer it got, the more it grew. By 1977 it had nearly 2 million inhabitants and the highest total income of the fifty provinces of Spain. Most of the new arrivals were not Catalans of course, but migrants from poorer regions come north to get a piece of the new prosperity, mostly as unskilled workers in the building trades. When they arrived, they were not made to feel all that welcome. Xarnegos, they were called. They formed a whole new bottom class, elevating the Catalan poor to the status of petit-bourgeoisie just by being there. They found that the Catalans tended to use their local language (a crude barking noise, it seemed to them) as a weapon against them, a secret code. It was difficult to get into a Barcelona game, and when they did go, they felt like foreigners. Besides, it was very expensive. So they started drifting over to Espanyol. It had a friendly name, it included everybody. People spoke Christian there. They called the club "Ayth-pan-YO," which made folks feel at home. The management was said to be pro-centrist, anti-Catalan. It was a smaller stadium, a bit tacky and rundown, they didn't get lost there. And it was cheaper. Thus an old rivalry between two Catalan clubs took on a new dimension. Barcelona became the club of Catalanism, of anti-Francoism, of the intellectuals, the tribal elite, the rich; Espanyol the club of nationalism, the old hierarchies, the working class, migrants, the poor. The local derby between these two teams during the highly emotional autumn of 1977, just a couple of weeks after the return of Tarradellas, could not be missed.

Any more than 1982's sensational match-up between the two greatest Latin American teams of the prior decades. The little stadium was more impossibly oversold than ever. General admission tickets such as we had were said to be going on the street for hundreds of dollars, but we didn't even listen to the hawkers' offers to buy, pushing excitedly through the turnstiles with our brightly printed pieces of paper treasure. By then almost everyone in Spain, their own national team fading into ignominy, was a Brazilian fan, and the Sarriá stadium was packed solid with their gold-and-green colors. A flag the size of a basketball court tented an entire section at one end of the field, kites flew, balloons rose, a multitude of drums beat out a rest-less samba rhythm. It was like a home game for them. No team since the great Hungarian side of 1954 had been such a unanimous favorite for the championship, not just because they were the only team left at this stage of the tournament with a perfect record, but because they were so beautiful. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, in one of his daily newspaper columns in Spain before Brazil's opening-round victory over the Soviet Union, likened the football pitch (am I mistaken? perhaps the only two universal games are sex and soccer...) to a vast pubic patch covered with an "inciting greenish furriness," and a goal to "an orgasm by which a player, a team, a stadium, a country, all of humanity suddenly discharges its vital energy." If each country "plays soccer according to its sexual idiosyncrasies," he speculated, then the Brazilian "is unhurried and titillating, he caresses the ball tenderly before kicking it, it is difficult for him to separate himself from it, and instead of putting the ball in the goal, he prefers to put himself into the goal with the ball. The Russian footballer, contrarily, is sad, melancholy, and violent, given to unpredictable and self-contradictory outbursts, and his relations with the ball are reminiscent of those of the Slavic lover with his sweetheart in those verses and laments that end always in bursts of pistol-fire."

Even the Brazilian pre-match warm-up was exciting. Watching them was like sinking into some sweet sensuous fantasy. It was wonderful, a nonstop carnaval, and we all wanted to be part of it. We all wanted to wear the yellow shirts and carry the silky flags and beat the drums. Above all, we wanted to run around on the field with Junior and Eder and Falcao and Zico. It looked so easy. The ball seemed to glide, whispering, between their feet like the marker on a Ouija board, as though it had a spirit of its own, aroused and guided by the transcendent consciousness of the team as a whole (this seemed to radiate from the black shaggy head of their larger-than-life captain Socrates, moving softly, serenely, through the midfield, a head or two taller than anyone around him)—yet released now and then for inspired individual runs, improvisational flights of fancy. The Argentines put all their heart into countering this Brazilian magic with a show of their own, but to no avail. The goals were credited to Zico, Serginho and Junior, but were so communal they might as well have been given to the goalkeeper. Ramón D'az scored a late consolation goal for Argentina, and then the great Brazilian festival moved out into the streets and around the world. In Brazil, actually, they overdid it a bit: there were two deaths and six thousand injuries attributed to the all-night celebrations.

So Italy and Brazil were going into their decisive match with a victory each over Argentina, but with Brazil ahead on goal-difference: they needed only a draw to reach the semifinals. Though still the overwhelming favorites, the Brazilians no longer had the stadium to themselves: all week long Italian supporters had poured across the border and down the coast into this little highrise neighborhood, compounding the terrible congestion, trying to prove yet again that there's always room for one more angel on the head of that pin. Some had quit their jobs, others had closed down their businesses, walked out on family holidays: nothing was moving, they said, in all of Italy, and perhaps because there was no one around to take his place, the government of Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini, threatened with collapse during the disastrous first-round ties, with the recent good news seemed stable again.

Indeed, the way the game began, he might have even made Caesar, as Italy, through Paolo Rossi, scored first. But Brazil had been a goal down before—against both Russia and Scotland in the first round—and still won the game. It was almost a pattern: as though they might be too considerate at heart to invade another's privacy without provocation. Provoked, Socrates set up Serginho with two or three brilliant opportunities, but the big forward, who just wasn't in the same class with most of his teammates, missed them all. Finally, about five minutes after Rossi's goal, the tall bearded Brazilian captain decided to take matters into his own hands, or feet rather; he drifted in from the midfield as though out for an evening stroll, and, after an exquisite exchange with Zico, which left the Italian defender Claudio ("The Black Beast") Gentile floundering, evened the score with a ball slipped neatly between the flying goalkeeper's out-stretched fingers and the near post. The game settled down then into a pitched battle for the midfield, with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, some of it spectacular to watch, some of it (as when Gentile revenged him-self by chopping down the clever Zico and got booked for it) not so. Then, about midway through the first half, one of the Brazilian defenders, apparently not even seeing Rossi, casually thumped the ball squarely to another defender: Rossi intercepted it and beat the Brazilian goalkeeper with a cleanly struck shot from the edge of the area. This was the goal that set Rossi on his way to being the 1982 World Cup's top scorer and voted the best player of the tournament, yet ironically (I can live with irony and that's good, because it runs deep in soccer) it seemed to me at the time that the only reason he was hanging back there was due to his lack of fitness: it was hot, he hadn't played for two years (the famous "Bambino d'Oro" was caught in a bribery and game-fixing scandal and banned until just a few weeks before), he'd been thrown cold into a tough series with a game every three days, he was just too bushed to move his ass. If the Brazilian defense had pushed up a bit, they'd have left him offside, and the Italian manager might even have decided to give up on him and pull him off. Instead, Italy had a new national hero. The half ended with the Italians 2–1 up, and the favorites in a lot of trouble.

Around us, the ecstatic Italian supporters, stripped to their shorts in the blazing midafternoon heat, then toga'd in red-white-and-green flags and decked out in scarves and funny hats, were shouting, singing, howling, seemingly transported to some other realm. Indeed, there is something oddly otherworldly about the hardcore soccer fan. Invested with his team or national colors, making strange aggressive noises with airhorns, whistles, trumpets, drums and fire-crackers, crying out the holy name ("EE-TAHL-YA! EE-TAHL-YA!") or singing repetitive liturgical chants, falling out of historical time and geographical space into a kind of ceremonial trance, timeless and centripetal, he does not seem a spectator so much as a participant in a sacramental rite (soccer and religion? or is it that war and sex and religion are the only universal games, soccer something more serious?)—indeed, in his despair or ecstasy, he often fails to see the game at all, experiencing it rather at a level that is blind, irrational, profound, innocent. Technique, philosophy, the merits of the opposition, peculiarities of the match are of little interest to him. He has come, not to reflect or spectate or be entertained, but to participate, to surrender, to suffer. (There is a lot of pain involved in keeping the faith, as any true supporter will tell you. "Football would be a happy thing," someone has said, "if it weren't for the games.") He absorbs the ceremony into himself, experiencing it as an inner conflict, feeling the movements of the teams, the ever-changing patterns, as one feels health and disease, becoming one with the game, the pitch, the players.

The explanations advanced for soccer's intense mysterious power, the trancelike quality of great matches, its worldwide domination over all other sports, have been many, some finding in it a vivid reenactment of the prehistoric ritual hunt, others echoes of the matriarchal dream, initiation rites, pastoral dreams of a lost golden age. There is, akin to these, the game's inherent theatricality—not the razzamatazz of an American halftime, but the inner dramas of sin and redemption, the testing of virtue, the pursuit of pattern and cohesion, the collision of paradoxical forces: soccer has often been compared to Greek tragedy, or seen as a kind of open-ended morality play. Perhaps the difficulty in scoring (and thus the usual narrowness of margins of victory, even between teams of markedly unequal ability, the everpresent danger of a sudden reversal of fortune) intensifies this sense of theater, causing the denouement—or the collective catharsis—to be withheld almost always until the final whistle. Nor, until that whistle, is there relief from the tyranny of time's ceaseless flow: once you've fallen into a game, there is no getting out. The player must stay with that flow, maintain the rhythm, press for advantage, preserving all his skills, his mind locked into the shifting patterns, and the spectator, though less arduously, shares this experience.

Which in turn suggests another of the game's dreamlike qualities: its ahistoricity. One is left at the end, not with data, but with impressionistic images of bodies in motion. Nothing of importance can be statistically recorded about a match except corners, shots, goals and saves (the American effort to record assists is admirable but—since it's sometimes a complete mystery, even with TV replays, who's scored the goal—a bit desperate), and these will tell you almost nothing about the game itself. The player who actually wins the game may be the one who moves into space at the opposite side of the field, drawing a defender, forcing a new configuration upon the defense and making virtually inevitable a goal which was before impossible, but no one—not even he—may be aware of this. It's all narrative, and thus subjective: no two match reports are ever alike, even the goal-scorers are often different from newspaper to newspaper. Each is a story, a sequence of ambivalent metaphors, a personal revelation couched in the idiom of the faith. No game I know of is so dependent upon such flowing intangibles as "pattern" and "rhythm" and "vision" and "understanding." Which may all be illusions. And at the same time it is also a very simple game: like dreams, almost childlike.

It was cold, blustery, on that autumnal night of '77, the rain sheeting down past the floodlights, the night vaulting closely over us like a second umbrella. But we weren't alone in feeling the extraordinary pull of this game, the little stadium was packed out, full of the blue-and-white flags of Espanyol, but also of Catalan senyeres. "SEÑOR TARRADELLAS: WE ARE CATALANS, TOO!" declared a huge sign at one end, and the message was repeated, even more eloquently, over the loudspeakers before the game: it was clear that feelings had been badly hurt. Though recently adopted by the Castillian occupying army and then by the southern migrants, Espanyol was originally created by Catalan university students in 1900, only a few months after the founding of FC Barcelona, as the first all-national team, including Catalans, most other teams in that early era of the sport being made up largely of foreigners who had brought the game to Spain.

The sides were not equal. Barcelona, with their expensive Dutch mercenaries Johan Neeskens and the world-renowned Johan Cruyff, were fighting for the championship, just three points behind the leaders and bitter rivals Real Madrid, while Espanyol, at the bottom, were struggling to avoid relegation to the second division. Barcelona, in enemy territory, wanted—needed—both points. So did Espanyol. For Barcelona it was a chance for glory; for Espanyol, a matter of survival. The referee Pes Pérez was young, one of the "New Wave," as they were called, a socialist active in the effort to professionalize the refereeing trade.

Pes Pérez wasted no time in putting his stamp on the game. Espanyol had a controversial black Brazilian up front named Jerem'as, who had an unpleasant way of niggling defenders when the ref wasn't looking to make them lose their cool when he was. Pes Pérez caught him at it and started to book him, but Juanjo, the aggrieved Barcelona defender and longtime enemy of Jerem'as, had already had enough: he gave a lunging kick at the Brazilian and Pes Pérez threw him out of the game. Which was not even ten minutes old yet. Passions started running high. The Espanyol home fans, inured to suffering, suddenly tasted blood and it tasted sweet: revolution! They were on their feet. But, though Barcelona was down a man, Espanyol seemed to lack the conviction to attack. Old habits. Or perhaps there was too much at stake for them. Relegation to the lower divisions is a kind of death, and the fear of it seemed to paralyze them momentarily. Instead, it was Cruyff who ruled. Johan the Great. His midfield moves, even in the heavy rain, were graceful, lucid, surprising. He was in rare form, magnificent; it was maybe his best game of the season. The defenders, unable to stay with him, had no choice but to take him down. They got booked for it by Pes Pérez. One of them got a second booking about a half hour into the game and so had to leave it: the sides were even again at ten men each. Cruyff, understandably, began to find more room. Barcelona now dominated, and only brilliant goalkeeping kept the game scoreless till halftime.

After the interval, the storm worsened. Sometimes you could hardly see the field from our rooftop perch. But we stayed, the crowd stayed. There was an excitement building up, and something like fury. Ca' Rabia or the House of Fury, was the stadium's other nickname, and it was living up to it. Time was massing up in here like a cold wet wind out of the past. Down on the field, in spite of the referee's firmness, there was still a lot of pushing and kicking, egged on by shouts from the crowd in high xarnego accents with Catalan retorts: "Take the whores down! Let them eat your boots!" The ground was heavy, making deft moves difficult, a lot of players fell on their faces trying, but Cruyff appeared not to notice—only a few minutes into the second half he shook off his defenders (he seemed almost to float through the muck, they seemed knee-deep) and un-loosed a cannonball of a shot that brought a spectacular save out of the Espanyol goalkeeper. Before the game was over, he'd make another dozen like it (someone explained: it's easier for a goalie in the rain—it takes the pace off the ball), augmenting Espanyol's anxiety, Barcelona's frustration. Jerem'as jabbed and niggled, Johann Neeskens and others retaliated, but Pes Pérez only had one pair of eyes. Even so, he saw plenty, and there were more bookings—ten altogether in the match. "Assassins!" the crowd screamed, whenever a Barça man made a move. "Pigs! Animals!" The scoreless draw was finally broken about fifteen minutes from the end when Neeskens of Barcelona rose unmarked through the pouring rain to head in a powerful goal from a corner. The Big Arses raised a din of "Visca el Barça!" but they were drowned out by the home crowd, drenched and embittered Parakeets now, squawking for blood. When Cruyff lashed back after an Espanyol defender, fouling him, ripped his pants off (both players were booked), they yelled: "Kill the dirty bastard! We want his leg! Bring us Cruyff's leg!" Four minutes from the end, Neeskens was booked for dangerous play near his own penalty area. There were more appeals for capital punishment from the stands and on the field the momentary threat of scuffles—the Espanyol players were clearly getting pretty pissed off at Neeskens—but Pes Pérez was able to keep it under control. The free kick was taken, the Barcelona goalkeeper punched it away, an Espanyol striker took it on the half-volley and scored the equalizer: 1–1. The place was going wild. The fans were all on their feet, throwing their cigars in the air, demanding miracles, umbrellas bobbing up and down as though being pumped. Both teams were scrambling now for the winning goal, especially Barcelona who all along had dominated the game, and now felt robbed. The players were caked in mud, soaked through, bruised and battered, but playing as though their lives depended on it, and the crowd, by their cries, suggested this might be so. Neeskens, bony elbows out, went galloping through the mud toward goal, and one of the Espanyol players, taking the cries of the fans literally, had a serious go at breaking his legs—and then, while he was still tumbling in pain over by the sidelines out of play, Jerem'as also got the boot in. This was too much. Juanjo, the Barcelona player who had been sent to the showers at the start of the game but hadn't gone, jumped up off the bench where he'd been hiding and went for Jerem'as. Soon both teams, trainers and all, were into a fullfledged knock-down drag-out brawl. In the heavy rain, it was like mud wrestling. The fans were trying to climb the wire fence that separated them from the pitch to join in. It was a very joyous occasion, and when it was finally over, Pes Pérez decided he'd handed out enough bookings, he'd let the whole thing pass. "Didn't see it," he smiled and let the game go on. It ended two minutes later in a 1–1 draw. Almost no one left the stands until the field was completely empty. It was hard to believe it was over. It was almost like waking up from a wonderful dream.

Below us, the Brazilian and Italian teams were already back on the field after their halftime break, their gold and blue patterns, now familiar, flashing and shifting on the sunlit pitch like moving diagrams on a green blackboard, the ball chalking out the only possible connections. The Italians used a kind of fluid wedge with Rossi alone at the tip, the rest pulled back into a pulsing wall, fused and organic, essentially stable, with only the occasional speculative sprint up the wing like an escaped particle. The Brazilians embraced this creature, wove patterns through it, retreated, searching out the entire space of the field as though they'd lost something on it. Their fans were edgy but, even as throughout the halftime interval, the steady samba beat went on: ceremonial, insistent, yet somehow soothing. It did not seem meant to incite the team so much as to remind them of the constancy of their followers: it was a love murmur, and only its interruption needed to be feared. Responding to it, the Brazilians devised scheme after scheme to pierce the Italian defense. Many of them were spectacularly successful, but the forty-one-year-old Italian goalie Dino Zoff was in equally spectacular form, parrying shot after shot. He was finally beaten about halfway into the second half by a splendid individual goal by Falcao, Brazil's man of the match, and one of the most exciting players at the World Cup. This 2–2 draw, of course, was all the Brazilians needed to go through to the semifinal against Poland, but instead of settling back into a negative defensive formation (only Socrates drifted back a step or two, that seemed enough), they kept up the pressure on the Italian goal. It wouldn't have been fun otherwise. Consequently, fifteen minutes from the end, they fell victim to yet another Italian counterattack, giving up a corner kick this time, the Italians' (this is an amazing statistic) only corner of the game. They made the best possible use of it: two or three people got a touch of the ball as it came into the box before Rossi deftly deflected it into goal for his hat trick. The Brazilians then put everything into attack, Socrates moving up into the box, Junior into the midfield, but all to no avail: the party was over. It was the Italians who would go on to beat Poland and West Germany to win the 1982 World Cup. In Brazil there were suicides, burials of the manager in effigy, widespread mourning, death threats to the players' wives. But in the end everyone was forgiven: theirs was the greatest team at the 1982 World Cup and they knew it. One has to learn to live with tragedy.

World Cup Record

FIFA Ranking: 5
World Cup Appearances: 11
World Cup Champions: 0
Federation Name: Real Federación Española de Fútbol
Confederation: UEFA
Founded: 1913
FIFA Affiliation: 1904
Nickname: Furia Roja
Manager: Luis Aragones
Stadium: various
Home Uniform: red/dark blue/dark blue
Away Uniform: all white
Provider: Adidas

1930: Did not participate
1934: Second round exit
1938: Did not participate
1950: 4th place
1954: Did not qualify
1958: Did not qualify
1962: First round exit
1966: First round exit
1970: Did not qualify
1974: Did not qualify
1978: First round exit
1982: Second round exit
1986: Quarterfinal exit
1990: Second round exit
1994: Quarterfinal exit
1998: First round exit
2002: Quarterfinal exit

Matches: 45
Wins: 19
Draws: 12
Losses: 14
GF: 71
GA: 53
GD: +18
Points: 69

Spain is 7th on the all-time World Cup table
Path to Qualification for World Cup 2006
8-Sep-04 Bosnia-Herz. 1 Spain 1 D
9-Oct-04 Spain 2 Belgium 0 W
13-Oct-04 Lithuania 0 Spain 0 D
9-Feb-05 Spain 5 San Marino 0 W
30-Mar-05 Serbia & Mont. 0 Spain 0 D
4-Jun-05 Spain 1 Lithuania 0 W
8-Jun-05 Spain 1 Bosnia-Herz. 1 D
7-Sep-05 Spain 1 Serbia & Mont. 1 D
8-Oct-05 Belgium 0 Spain 2 W
12-Oct-05 San Marino 0 Spain 6 W
12-Nov-05 Spain 5 Slovakia 1 W
16-Nov-05 Slovakia 1 Spain 1 D

Spain qualified by finishing second in Group 7 of the European Zone and beating Slovakia in a home-away playoff