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How World Cup victory stirred Spain's forgotten patriotism

By James Montague, CNN
  • Spain's first World Cup win sparks wild celebrations across the European nation
  • Andres Iniesta of Barcelona scores the final's only goal against Netherlands
  • Spain's football team has been credited with an upsurge in national pride
  • Traditionally, some regional loyalties have caused tensions in the past

London, England (CNN) -- It will be an image burned forever into Spain's national consciousness: the sight of captain Iker Casillas in tears after La Roja banished decades of World Cup failure by winning their first title on Sunday night.

At a time when the Spanish economy is in crisis, with the highest unemployment rates in Europe, the country needed a good news story.

Spanish flags were flown from balconies across the country as millions took to the streets in joyous, anarchic scenes. In South Africa, players such as Carles Puyol and Andres Iniesta kissed their badges, newly minted with a single star above their left breasts to honor their achievements.

Even before the final, patriotism coursed through the team. "We dedicate this victory to Spain," gushed Xavi, Barcelona's playmaker, after the semifinal win against Germany.

The next day El Pais declared: "Not since the Spanish civil war have there been so many flags in the streets." Such has been the ubiquity of Spain's flag it has been dubbed "The Red Effect" in honor of the national team's exploits.

First World Cup crown for Spain

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On the face of it, such nationalistic, flag-waving sentiments are to be expected in the aftermath of a World Cup win. But in Spain -- a country where unique regional identities from the Catalans to the Basques to the Galicians have in the past taken precedence -- outpourings of national pride have been controversial and, paradoxically, divisive.

The flag is seen by many, especially the Catalans and the Basques, as a totem to the Franco era. Even the country's national anthem has been shorn of its lyrics, so not to reopen the old wounds left behind from the 1936-39 Spanish civil war and General Franco's subsequent dictatorship.

In fact, Spain's football failure has been put down to the tensions between regional and national loyalties, suggesting that not everyone was pulling in the same direction.

There is even a Catalan national football team, coached by the iconic Dutchman and former Barcelona star Johan Cruyff. Last December they beat Argentina 4-2 in a friendly with a team that featured Xavi, Puyol, Gerard Pique and Joan Capdevila, all of whom started on Sunday night.

Spain: The greatest team of all time?

Yet seven months later a Spain team led by Casillas, Real Madrid's Castilian captain, and powered by the Catalan brilliance of Barcelona's midfield, captured the biggest prize in the game.

"When Iniesta scored the winning goal, you could hear the reaction all over the city," explained Carolina Abellan, a reporter for the Spanish TV channel Cuatro who was in Madrid for the final. "The cheers were incredible and I saw lots of people crying."

The Spanish team is a metaphor for what Spain can aspire to be
--Spanish newspaper ABC

Many of this morning's newspapers in Spain have hinted that the victory could herald a new dawn for the country, where a sense of national identity might now take precedence over regional concerns. As ABC noted: "The Spanish team is a metaphor for what Spain can aspire to be."

Even Marca, the pro-Real Madrid newspaper, had time to praise the old enemy. "Iniesta [of Barcelona] took us up into heaven...We suffered, but it was worth it."

The transformative power of football, either by promoting national unity or through sparking a long-dormant national pride, can be overstated. But the sport, especially World Cup finals, has been known to have huge political significance.

The best example is the 1954 World Cup final -- the so-called "Miracle of Berne" -- where West Germany, a team of amateur footballers beat Hungary, then the best team in the world.

It came at a pivotal moment in German history, at a time when the country was still haunted by its complicity in the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War. It was here, argues the German historian Joachim Fest, that the modern Germany was born.

"It was a kind of liberation for the Germans from all the things that weighed down upon them after the Second World War," he explained. "July 4, 1954 is in certain aspects the founding day of the German Republic."

So is this truly a new dawn for Spain and its fractious regions? Not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon.

The complexity of the country's identity was highlighted just 24 hours before the World Cup final, when more than a million Catalans marched on Barcelona to protest government moves to curtail the region's autonomy. In comparison, an estimated 75,000 people took to Barcelona's streets to watch the final.

"In Spain, we have a problem with national identity," Abellan told CNN. "In some places in Spain, the Basque Country and Catalonia, above all others, it's extremely difficult to see a Spanish flag or a national team game without there being problems.

"But in this World Cup, there were more Spanish flags than ever in places like Bilbao or Barcelona. Many of the players on the national team are Basque, like Xabi Alonso, or Catalan, like Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, and they were the first ones to stand up and talk of Spain."

Only time will tell whether the ghosts of Spain's past are really put to rest. But there could be a far more immediate and much-needed impact from Andres Iniesta's extra-time strike.

World Cup final minute-by-minute

A Dutch academic study before the last tournament in Germany discovered that World Cup-winning countries have enjoyed positive economic growth following all but two finals, thanks to a mixture of increased confidence and heightened prestige.

According to Ruben van Leeuwen and Charles Kalshoven's 2006 study "Soccernomics," that bounce can be worth an extra 0.7 percent of GDP.

With the country's economy teetering on the verge of its own Greek-style debt crisis, and with unemployment hitting 42.9 percent among 16 to 24-year-olds, Spain's World Cup victory could not have come at a better time.

But as the tears and the joy from Johannesburg to Madrid to Barcelona prove, La Roja's legacy could mean much, much more.

"Well, that can only be answered in time," cautioned Abellan. "But, for the moment, we've seen thousands of people celebrating the Spanish victory in places like Bilbao or Barcelona, and that was never the case before."

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