Off the football pitch, Spain is going through something of a crisis at the moment.
That wider anger could now extend to the country's national sport and unofficial religion, as a draconian new government law includes a rule that prevents the playing of football in 'non-designated' areas.
A new bill entitled ‘The Citizens’ Security Law’ has been proposed, and it contains some rather specific pieces of legislation that will find stern opposition, both domestically and at EU level.
Particularly eyebrow-raising are proposed fines of up to €600,000 for ‘disrupting electoral processes’ or unauthorised demonstrations at strategic government sites such as airports or nuclear plants; €30,000 penalties for offences such as burning the national flag; and up to €1,000 fines for insulting or threatening police officers.
These proposals seem geared solely towards limiting embarrassment to the government as it goes about its business under admittedly difficult circumstances, with the bonus of pleasing senior citizens, many of whom hark back to General Franco's 'legacy of order'.
But another law stands out in particular, one that is set to provoke widespread anger among the young and the old.
For anyone breaking an absurd regulation regarding ‘the practice of games or sporting activities in spaces not designed for this’ will be fined between €100 and €1000.
That’s right, the country whose street football culture has spawned the back-to-back European champions and defending World Cup winners is set to ban kickabouts.
Xavi, who describes himself as 'a player from the street', grew up playing on a concrete square in Terrassa, a smallish city near Barcelona. The Plaza del Progreso (the irony is not lost on us) was the site of his development, and Xavi is furious that Spain’s football future is being limited.
“They’ve made it very nice, very modern, but they’ve screwed it up for kids who are like I was — they have no chance of playing football there now,” the Barcelona midfielder said.
Spain has one of the highest percentages of active players and the largest number of qualified coaches. Kids grow up playing on the little Plazas near their homes, with the small-scale, makeshift concrete pitches helping fine-tune excellent first touch, close control and short passing.
Like Brazil’s favela football culture and the Dutch obsession with maximising space, Spain’s architectural quirks have helped develop a technical niche within the game. For 'technical niche', read 'tiki-taka'.
So what is the wider context to these proposed new laws?
Spain was hit particularly hard by the global recession, its previously popular centre-left government bore the brunt of public anger – particularly from younger voters – at a cost-cutting programme that hit the very people whose support it relied on.
After a humbling 2011 election defeat, the Socialists were out of power. But the victorious People’s Party – a considerably more right-wing entity – has an even greater inclination towards reining in spending and, while not entirely devoted to reducing the size of the state, prioritises law and order over the provision of public services.
That has not proved popular with those previously disenfranchised by the Left and, with youth unemployment at over 50%, public anger and daily demonstrations show no sign of softening
The ruling People’s Party grew from the more progressive embers of Franco’s fascist dictatorship and, while considerably less authoritarian, its core support has little time for demonstrations, collectivism and public disorder.
So what better way to tap into the distaste of its increasingly ageing electoral base than introducing draconian new laws to curb public displays of disaffection?
But despite severe economic woes, the Spanish people have remained buoyed by the success of their football team, and other sportspeople such as tennis star Rafael Nadal.
The law has serious potential to backfire. The Spanish government and judiciary has been accused of failing to act against doping in sport for fear of upsetting an apple cart that has wide public support. Taking away the people’s football culture seems nothing short of political suicide, certainly in the long term.
Long-term thinking rarely applies to populist politicians though. The People’s Party is banking on older voters supporting its wider agenda, and the impact of such a policy will not be felt for a generation. And La Masia’s academy, among others, will continue to develop fine players sourced both locally and abroad.
But the People’s Party would do well to seek precedent in such legislature. In the United Kingdom, the deeply unpopular 1994 Criminal Justice Act featured a similar raft of authoritarian amendments, including controversial curbs on the right to public assembly, not to mention the despised ‘repetitive beats’ law that made it illegal to congregate on common ground while listening to dance music.
British bobbies felt pressured to invoke the 1994 CJA when dealing with barbeques on the local recreation ground; groups of kids listening to tunes on a summer’s day would be moved on using a law it was claimed would curb a rave culture that tutting Express readers felt was out of control.
The 1994 CJA ultimately helped cement John Major’s Conservative government’s reputation as being the ‘nasty party’, with Home Secretary Michael Howard bearing the brunt of criticism.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said: “This measure was conceived more to curb dangerous sports like skateboarding or rollerskating in public zones than to stop children playing football.”
It’s all very well asking anonymous government spokespeople to reassure the football-loving public, but in practice the Spanish police has a strong authoritarian streak and tendency towards heavy-handedness.
There is an additional UK precedent regarding street football, when the 1980 Highways Act made it illegal to play on or near a public road for safety reasons. Which was all very well and good, until councils and housing authorities placed 'no ball games signs' at communal open spaces. While such rules were unenforcible by law, they created a culture where children playing football in the street were deemed anti-social. And look where that got us.
While it may foster short-term support among existing voters, The Citizens’ Security Law could prove fatal for the People’s Party in the mid and long-term – it took the Tories a dozen years before they could be deemed palatable by the wider electorate. They lost a jilted generation – their Spanish equivalent could lose a nation.
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