Spain's national soccer team breezed by Italy last week to earn its second consecutive European Cup.
After being accused of "boring" play in earlier matches, the Spaniards achieved a dazzling 4-0 win that captivated the crowd in Kiev's Olympic Stadium and millions of others who watched on screens around the world. Since they had captured Euro 2008 and the World Cup in 2010, Spain completed an unprecedented third straight victory in a major tournament by beating Italy.
"Three titles is almost impossible," Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque said afterwards. His team, fondly known as "La Roja," is now the best in the world and the odds-on favorite for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Many celebrities, including Spanish athletes Rafael Nadal and Pau Gasol, witnessed the match in person. Along with the footballers and Alberto Contador, winner of several Tours de France, they are the most visible representatives of the boom in Spanish sports during the last decade.
The flourishing of sports in Spain could not come at a more crucial time for the country. It finds itself in the midst of its worst crisis since the bleak post-Civil War years: a national debt approaching 75 percent of GNP, an unemployment rate near 25 percent, a collapse of the "brick" — the construction industry that had been the motor of the Spanish economy — and confusion in the financial sector, even after the pending $126 billion rescue from the European Union.
As if this were not enough, the political polarity between right and left and the regional divisions that were the main causes of the Civil War have become more bitter. The semi-autonomous Catalan government's recent abolition of bullfighting — once known as the "national spectacle" — has been the most obvious sign of the country's split.
Spain's sports victories come at the end of a long, slow evolution. The country was a sporting wasteland until well after World War I. By the early 1930s, Ernest Hemingway noted that "Madrileños whose only exercise used to be walking to the café are all going in for sports, picnics in the country and for walking trips in the Sierras."
The Civil War of 1936-39 halted that trend in a brutal way. During the long night of Generalísimo Francisco Franco's dictatorship, soccer, like bullfighting, became a "social drug," an important part of the "culture of evasion," a Spanish panem et circenses for distracting the people from their isolation, poverty and oppression. Then the tourist boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s brought sports-minded foreigners to cities and beaches, opening Spaniards' eyes to their own idleness.
After Franco's death in 1975, with the rebirth of democracy and greater prosperity, the sports revolution began. It led to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, where the media barrage and the phenomenal success of Spanish athletes, who won 13 gold medals, created an awareness of sports that was unparalleled in the country's past.
Meanwhile Miguel Indurain was stringing together five straight victories in the Tour de France, a record finally broken by Lance Armstrong. And in tennis a "Spanish Armada" of men and women brought home trophies in the 1990s and the first decade of this century: Conchita Martínez, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Nadal, who is one of only seven men to win all the Grand Slam tournaments. Five of the world's top 20 players among the men are now Spaniards (the United States has two).
Now Spain has the right to be proud, to celebrate as a nation, to enjoy the moment while the grass is green. "La Roja" could be on its way to becoming the greatest team in soccer history; Nadal will no doubt win more Grand Slams; the country's athletes will continue to occupy the world stage for the near future.
But the bone in sports cannot heal the financial bust. The current euphoria should not become a social drug as it did in the Franco years. Sports — however mesmerizing, even electrifying — do not solve any country's problems.
Edward F. Stanton, a University of Kentucky professor of Hispanic studies, is the author of books on Spanish history, language and culture.