Q&A with Jimmy Burns: La Roja, Spain, and Politics

As a part of our on-going series of book reviews and interviews with authors, the BFB team interviewed Jimmy Burns, author of La Roja and Barça: a people’s passion (among others). Check out how you can buy the book or find more from Jimmy below the interview.

Barcelona Football Blog: Every year the season starts and every year there is a general consensus among those who watch La Liga that the Federation is playing at something when it doesn’t announce the times and dates. Will RFEF ever become a modern organization? How is its incompetence (or even seeming incompetence) hindering La Liga’s growth at a time when its top 2 teams are considered the best in the world and some of its teams have just dominated the Europa League? Does RFEF want to be a dominate force in international markets?

Jimmy Burns: I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories–or even guess work-as to what the Federation might or not be up to. What I do think is that the Federation is in need of reform, like so many other Spanish institutions—it needs more efficient, transparent, and accountable management and needs to take a serious look at its communications and PR strategy which has not really kept up with the modernization that say the media and marketing teams of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have achieved. Spanish soccer, whether at club or national level, is a successful brand that deserves a better international airing.

BFB: Spain has recently gone through a period of success in a variety of sports. Rafa Nadal, the national football team, even Alberto Contador. Yet the economy has suffered dramatically in that same period. Is there any sense that there were misplaced priorities or are sporting success seen as palliatives by the general public?

JB: I don’t think this is a case of bread and circuses, or as Marx put it, ‘opium of the people’. Of course sport can be an escape—but it can also been seen as a healthy activity, physically and psychologically. It would be crazy to argue that simply because Spain is in an economic and financial meltdown, we should have less sport. Spain needs its success stories, and its sportsmen do well. When it comes to soccer, I am however in favour in greater investment in schools and youth academies and encouraging pride in belonging to a Spanish club and aspiring to the national squad, rather than inflating foreign transfer fees.

BFB: Is Spanish football less politicized now than it was in the past? Given Sandro Rosell’s Catalan-centered message during his run for Barça president and Esperanza Aguirre’s recent comments regarding the Copa del Rey coupled with the “national unity” march in Madrid on that same day, is there a sense that these are the death throes of a nationalist movement, a last flaring before it is extinguished within the larger movement of globalization and worldwide marketing campaigns? Or is it the resurgence of embers somewhat dormant during more economically successful years as reactionary nationalism is wont to do in moments of doubt regarding national sovereignty (such as the slow-motion bank run to Germany and the larger questions of European economic unity)?

JB: To cut to the core of your question, I expect the rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid to remain for many years to come. It makes sense in commercial and political terms. The hyped up ‘Gran Clasico’ attracts TV viewers, sells shirts, and fuels sponsorship. Meanwhile in the short to medium term, there appears to be two politically opposed projects in the Spain of today—one that would like the EU via central government to take increasing control over the regions finances—to the point of full-scale intervention—and the other that wants increasing autonomous regions to the point of independence. I think the rivalry between the two clubs is bound to reflect, in some measure, this political tension.

BFBAre smaller clubs more or less susceptible to the shifts within the greater Spanish national and autonomous climate? Athletic has long been seen as a Basque stronghold (for good or bad) but currently has an Argentine at its helm who seems the opposite in a lot of ways of Javier Clemente; Bielsa came in after a change in president and San Mámes is about to embark on its final year as the team’s stadium, but is there a sense that they are appealing to a wider group than just Basques or is the club as deeply entrenched now in the local culture as it ever was?

JB: Barça shows us that just because you change stadium (from Les Corts to the Camp Nou) or create a bigger one, and have a foreign manager, it doesn’t change the sense of identity of a club that is deeply rooted in the politics and history of a region, not to say a nation. That said, Barça has never felt more itself that it has done playing with more players from La Cantera, a radical Catalan nationalist as president (Laporta), and a Catalan former player as coach—Pep Guardiola. So I think Athletic ‘s profile will get bigger but it will not lose its spirit, and its soul, by moving to a bigger stadium, or having a manager like Bielsa (who is hugely talented), or appealing to a wider fan base by playing better and being more successful than during the golden years of Clemente. Remember also this is the club of the great Mr Pentland, and that Basques have been among Spain’s greater travelers and exports.

BFBHow can any team other than The Big Two have a chance at winning a league trophy? Mauricio Pellegrino recently stated that it’s not just money that helps compete with Madrid and Barça, but is there any way other than through massive investment like Málaga’s?

JB: There is no doubt that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have formed a kind of duopoly and have benefited from a system that gives them the lion’s share of TV revenue. But in Barça’s case in particular we have seen great attention being given too to developing a style of football and seeing this philosophy ingrained at an early stage in the youth development programmes, and later reflected in the national squad. It’s also important to remember that these two big clubs have retained a strong sense of corporate identity by not surrendering to outside ownership. I am sure that many Malaga fans are delighted with their new found success—but at what price to their souls?

BFBHow does the success of Barça relate to/enhance Catalanisme? Do you see the club’s success having any influence on that independence movement?

JB: To the extent that Barça remains ‘mes que un club’, more than a club, i.e. rooted in the political and cultural history of Catalonia, its success I think will continue to fuel the spirit of those who feel more Catalan than Spanish. That said, however one can also argue that more Barça supporters have supported the national team, while its been successful—and Del Bosque, helped by Casillas and Xavi, have been instrumental in countering the negative impact on the unity of La Roja that Mourinho’s tempestuous first season at Real Madrid had. Thus we have seen a curious phenomenon in Spanish soccer in recent years- intensifying rivalries at club level, while a greater consensus at national team level. Things could well change if and when La Roja lose their status as champions, and Spanish politics become more radicalized.

BFBDoes the U.S. market matter in terms of the global success of La Liga? There is a new sports network that has U.S. domestic rights at a delicate time in the league’s foreign cycle, in that interest will never be higher. Are U.S. and the world ready for La Liga? Can La Liga thrive and reach its global presence goals as a duopoly?

JB: I have been struck by the considerable media interest there has been in the US in my latest book, La Roja, which I think is a reflection at a micro-level how Spanish soccer has raised its profile in the US market. My feeling is that in the US there is a growing public (not least in the Latino community) that really sees the beautiful game being played at its best in La Liga, and in La Roja, and which also has a huge interest in Messi and Ronaldo, probably the two greatest players in the world. The majority of Americans think Real Madrid and Barça when talking about Spanish ‘soccer’, so clearly the duopoly has been a key part of Spanish football’s projection, along with La Roja’s World Cup win. The US is a nation that values success and entertainment and both clubs and Spanish national team provide both.

BFB: What does the recent decision (if approved by the other clubs) to play the next SuperCopas in China represent, outside of an attempt at hoovering up spare Euros?

JB: It would be mad for Spanish soccer and the people who run it not to see China as an important growing market—and the plan to play the next SuperCopas there make sense in commercial terms—but I do believe it could be a step too far, which disenfranchises the clubs’ fans and risks turning Spain’s most successful clubs into mere travelling entertainers—like the Harlem Globe Trotters—or tools of sponsorship like Formula One drivers.

BFB: Does the success of the Spanish national team have any effect whatsoever on global interest in La Liga?

JB: I think it has an effect, yes, because La Roja focuses attention on some of the real talents that play in La Liga—and the style played by the best club teams.

BFB: Generally, what are your thoughts on the Financial Fair Play (FFP) system and its effects on FCB and Madrid? Do you believe this is the catalyst for possible American-sports-style salary caps in major European soccer to cap spending?

JB: I haven’t really give much thought to this topic. What I can say is that I am all in favour of more transparency and financial accountability—and discipline—in all major European soccer, and salary caps make sense in the troubled times we live in, when so many ordinary fans are struggling to get a job, let alone earn a living wage. Soccer, wherever it is played, has a public responsibility to be seen as fair.

Jimmy Burns is an Anglo-Spanish award winning author and journalist who has worked for over thirty years in British and international media. His just published book is US edition- La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World (Nation Books) ; UK Edition La Roja: A Journey through Spanish Football (Simon & Schuster).

His previous books include Hand of God: a biography of Diego Maradona; Barça, a People’s Passion, and When Beckham Went to Spain.

You can find La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World at Amazon and Amazon UK (where soccer = football, of course). You can also follow Jimmy on Twitter (@jimmy_burns) and visit his website at www.jimmy-burns.com.

Coming up tomorrow will be a review of the book.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in Germany with his wife and daughter.


  1. Messiah10
    June 10, 2012

    I heard Jimmy interviewed on BBC World Football. It sounds like a fascinating read and I can’t wait to start. Hats off to Jimmy for the research and work he did to complete the book. I’m proud that FC Barcelona’s philosophy and style has seeped it’s into the Spanish National Team. I don’t think Spain would be looking to 3peat without FC Barcelone’s influence.

  2. Huckleberry
    June 10, 2012

    Euro: Spain too slow. Are the Italiens the pitchkeepers?

  3. Jim
    June 10, 2012

    I thought Spain played really well second half. Could’ve had two or three but how good was Iniesta?

    • Helge
      June 10, 2012

      this belongs to the match commment post, we need a blog moderator!!! 🙂

      • Jim
        June 10, 2012

        But that’s only Matchday 2 comments . . . 🙂

  4. June 10, 2012

    Interesting questions, BFB. I think Mr. Burn can probably write a book about that nationalist question. Or is it in his new book? Looking forward to reading the review.

    My question for anyone who has read this book- is there a comparison between Spanish football to another national pastime in bullfighting?
    I’m just curious because a while ago I’ve read something comparing La “Furia” Roja and tiki-taka to the arts of bullfighting.

    Thanks for the answers, Jimmy 🙂

  5. olbucky
    June 10, 2012

    That was the worst managing job I’ve ever seen. Del Bosque was lucky to get out of this one with a tie. Obviously I’m coming at this fom a Barca view but he needs to use an in form Pedro. Obviously he plays well with Xavi and the gang. Jesus Nevas…really? And it should have been Fernando llorente and not Torres. llorente has bee playing a similar style all year and would have kept the rhythm of the game where as Torres would slow play.

    Just bad all around by Del Bosque. Now Torres is a total head case and potentially ruined for the tourney. Why couldnt he have saved Torres for Ireland? He got here on Pep and La Masia’s coattails and needs to remember that. I thought that 1-0 to china would be a wake up call but obviously not. You could see how barca players dominated play today. Having another in the mix couldnt hurt. At one point it was like Xavi and iniesta were just saying everone back off, we will take care of this, their interplay was that good. What a frustrating game to watch!!!!!!

    • June 10, 2012

      I’m with you re. del Bosque, but that was probably the best game of the tournament so far. Italy defending was spectacular. No hoof ball. Certainly a lesson for connoisseurs of bus-parking everywhere; you can defend and still make it thrilling!

      For a moment, I thought that Spain waited for Messi to magically appear somewhere. All I can say is, thank god for Iniesta.

      • Ryan
        June 10, 2012

        Replace “Messi” with “Villa” and that’s exactly what it felt like! Nobody to finish off the moves.

        • Laurentiu88
          June 10, 2012

          i don’t knwo if it’s just bias, but i thought Xabi Alonso was particularly out of sink today; besides wondering why Spain might need Busi and Alonso the later one just seemed to slow the game at every chance; he was giving orders all the time but rarely he seemed to control the game when given the ball.

          maybe Llorente is better than Cesc for a false nine position?

          • Huckleberry
            June 10, 2012

            Yes, Alonso was poor today. Unfortunatly he’s a starter no matter how he playes. VDB should go with a all Barça midfield.

          • olbucky
            June 10, 2012

            Alonso was like tits on a bull. As I watched him I wondered to myself how it was that Madrid had 100 pts. He’s slow was off target today. Del Bosque should have pulled out Alonso and moved Cesc to midfield. Then brought in Pedro and Llorente. If today is any indication of how he will manage the team Spain is in for a bumpy ride.

            Alba looked very ordinary again today. I’m not so sold on him coming close to being able to step into Abidals shoes. Our best options seem to be Alves and Montoya which I am ok with but this isn’t the first time with Alba,as a matter of fact it’s been quite a few times. I’m sure Barca is watching to see how he plays in the Euros as they negotiate.

          • Jim
            June 10, 2012

            Agree with the comment below about Alba. Wasn’t particularly impressed today. He turned his back on one cross and let another forward get to the byeline and put in a cross without causing him any grief. Still, it may have been a bad day. He certainly has pace to burn and was looking for the through ball inside the full back on a few occasions which with his pace would be dangerous and hard to defend.

            On a more general note, their defence is going to cause them problems. Apart from alba, Arbeloa isn’t up to it and Pique and Ramos are going to have to work on the concept of covering for each other if the one gets drawn out of position. At times today I felt they were kinda blindly sticking to what they saw as their own jobs rather than adjusting quickly.

            The goal was a great example. Busi made no kind of tackle on (I think it was Pirlo?), Pique steps towards him to block his run if needed. At that point Ramos should have moved over as cover rather than a belated jump backwards to try to catch Di Natale offside. However, check Alba’s positioning – it’s as if the move has nothing to do with him! He stood in the wide position with nobody to mark and made no attempt to tuck in so he could cover for Ramos if he had to cover Pique. No joined up thinking at all.

            In front of them I wasn’t impressed by either Busi or Xabi Alonso.

            It’ll be a shame if they continue to lose silly goals because you get the feeling Xavi and Iniesta have a great tournament in them.

  6. mega_tajh
    June 10, 2012

    Alba has been up and down this season, this Italy game he was in-between. I found he attacked well and defended well with nicely timed interceptions. His weak point was that he allowed to many crosses from his side. Maggio in-particular really had a go at him from the right.

    He also saved Ramos a couple of times in that game.

    Like many other plays, he will improve his game when with us.

  7. Barcaleya
    June 10, 2012

    I thought Arbeloa played badly. Busi had to stay on his side to support him which led to Busi not playing so well either.

    Xabi Alonso was also not controlling the ball well and he, Arbeloa and Busi (the least) gave away the ball too much.

    Xabi couldn’t even initiate any kind of forward movement as you can be sure that when the ball goes to him, he passes it backwards. The only time we went forward to attack was when the ball goes to any of the Barca players – particularly Iniesta and Xavi.

    Everyone else seemed rather useless to me except for the Barca players. Busi and Xavi and even Iniesta had to fetch the ball from the backline….and then only Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc tried to create chances in front of goal as well.

    The ball would not leave the backline if there were no Barca players and neither will any kind of chance on goal be had without them. So not only do they have to work hard from the back, they also had to work hard in front. It’s kinda crazy to see both Xavi and Iniesta so deep and then so far forward.

    Navas was okay but I would rather have had Pedro in place of Silva. Then perhaps Llorente instead of Torres.

    That kind of formation where we had four defenders, with no fullback really adept at attacking (ala Dani Alves), three defensive midfielders which were what Xabi, Xavi and Busi were and 3 midfielders would be okay if everyone performed their roles. As it is, Busi and Xavi have to cover for Arbeloa and Xabi….and I give up! Essentially, the Barca guys had to do all the work. And Casillas. Hats off to him.

    I would have Javi Martinez partner Pique, Ramos will move back to the right. I would have a double pivot of Xavi and Busi, Cazorla, Iniesta, Pedro and Llorente.

    There! This should win the tournament for Spain.

    • Ryan
      June 10, 2012

      Good luck getting Spain to drop 2 Madrid players! I completely agree with you, but I just don’t see it happening, especially the dropping of Alonso.

      • Barcaleya
        June 10, 2012

        Oh I know 😀 VdB will never drop Alonso unless he’s injured.

        But did you see?? He was completely useless. Xavi was actually recovering more balls than him, I think. And…he could only pass backwards. Which meant Xavi had to stay behind him for Alonso’s pass then dribble the ball forward to link with Ini and the rest. So what was Alonso there for?

        So frustrating.

        And the one time he was called upon to do his Usually good long range shot – he had time to line his shot, no one was there beside him but he just had to rush to kick the ball!

        Ugh. I hate this cause I actually loved him during his RSoc days and Liverpool. He just became bad at RM.

        • vivaespana
          June 10, 2012

          I think people are going overboard with the Alonso bashing. Agreed he wasn’t particularly good yesterday and even I have never quite understood why VDB always has to play the three CMs, but Alonso’s role is crucial because of his long pass ability (something different when the pass-pass-pass-pass doesn’t seem to work). For what its worth Busi was equally “ineffective”.

          But Italy defended brilliantly yesterday. It was good old school defending – not the non sense we’ve seen from teams like Chelsea. It was zonal, structured and well worked out. Spain’s lack of a number 9 of course made it look even harder considering how Silva-Cesc-Iniesta kept passing the ball even inside the box.

          Defending was poor. As has been mentioned no really co-ordination between Pique, Ramos and Alba. Alba is just another of those attack minded full backs with little defensive abilities.

          • Ryan
            June 10, 2012

            See, I don’t really see the need for Alonso’s long passing in this Spanish side. The team’s short and mid-range passing does great, plus they don’t exactly get many chances for those long, counter-attacking passes that Alonso does so well. He is very skilled, but he’s more suited to a more direct kind of team.

          • Barcaleya
            June 11, 2012


            In this Spanish side, for Alonso’s long range passing to be of use, we need tall players to hold the ball up (and we only have either Llorente or Torres) or players hugging the touchline to pass to. Neither of which were present until late in the game. For the players we had, Xavi’s passing is more than adequate. And as mentioned, we are not a counter-attacking team where his long passing would be invaluable for the counter-attacker.

            I like Alonso. So when I bash him, he deserves to be so bashed. His control in this game was terrible, he gave away many balls and he couldn’t even recover any, which is what he should be doing as a defensive midfielder. Xavi did this work for him which made Alonso redundant and a liability.

            I couldn’t be more thankful for the excellent goalkeeping of Cassilas and my first two sentences specifically stated Busi’s bad game as well.

            I support Spain so I would love for all the players to do well in international competitions irrespective of their club affiliations. My comments have nothing to do with the emnity between RM and Barca.

            I would add that I watched the Argentina-Brazil game yesterday in New Jersey. Di Maria and Higuain played badly. Bad control, easily dispossessed, no finishing. Messi was excellent despite hardly seeing the ball. He probably stood around 90 percent of the time, intently watching the game unfold and making runs when he needs to. It’s difficult for him to be involved when the ball is hardly on the ground. They were mostly passing it in the air and heading from one to another. But he made the most of the few chances he had. The Real Madrid Argentine players played bad. The Barca players (Messi and Masch) played really well. This observation has nothing to do with the club affiliation of mentioned players.

  8. June 10, 2012


    I found this article on Mundo Deportivo website.
    From Google translate, it basically suggests that Tito’s playing progress at Barca was hindered because of Cruyff. Cruyff’s daughter dated some dude and he was allowed to train and play at the expense of Tito’s development (that’s what I got from the translation).


    MD’s alliance with Rosell is showing. Why need to create this back and forth? I just don’t get our club’s drama sometimes.

  9. barca96
    June 11, 2012

    There was a lot of talk previously of the dream pairing of T. Silva and Pique. Unfortunately I never had the time to respond to that.
    My respond would be, whatever happened to sMasch???!!

    Last nights match again proved to me that Pique simply can’t be our first choice CB. He was lost.

    I know Casillas is the captain but somebody needs to tell him to stop whacking the ball down the field. Every time he does that, Spain loses possession.

    • Jim
      June 11, 2012

      Not sure which bits you’re referring to, Barca96, but I didn’t see them, other than a general lack of understanding with Ramos. He certainly wasn’t exposed one on one the way Ramos was. Masch may learn his trade but he cost us big time in the vital matches last season. He’s not a CB at the moment in terms of decision making or positioning for me.

  10. barca96
    June 11, 2012

    Since there was no more reply button so I will just reply here;

    Xavi was actually recovering more balls than him

    I don’t think that is true. Alonso was recovering the balls a lot and he was sliding tackles all over the pitch. He gave the midfield an added steel.

    Alonso’s role is crucial because of his long pass ability

    But like with Barca, a long pass is almost unnecessary because there is hardly any space for because most of the time we, Barca and Spain is in opponents half.

    And whenever he attempted his long balls, it didn’t meet its target.

    I do not like it at all that Alonso is in the team because they actually can be more attacking without him but sometimes I understand why he is in the team because Busi alone isn’t enough as Busi doesn’t provide that steel.

    But the con’s outweigh the pro’s of having Alonso in the team.

    • Barcaleya
      June 11, 2012

      I don’t really know the stats 😀

      I thought Xavi did more as his recoveries were probably magnified in my mind since that wasn’t his main job. And he stole balls off opponents feet cleanly too.

      While Alonso, I thought, recovered the balls he lost in the first place. Which means they dont count. Haha.

      And I don’t particularly care for him to be sliding tackles all over the place and risk yellow cards and injuries to opponents. That he slide tackles usually means he’s very late. It’s good if he really had to do heroics and had to cover for someone but if he was supposed to be in better position in the first place then he’s just slow. Which is no good.

      Anyway – since we have to live with him, I hope he plays better in the next games. Play well and leave the space where Busi functions best to Busi for there to be any kind of logic to having both of them on the field.

      Re Torres – I’m disappointed he didn’t score yesterday but his presence and his initial movements definitely gave us more chances for goals. I hope he learned his lessons too and calm down and get those goals if he is on the pitch again.

      • Ryan
        June 11, 2012

        My favorite Xavi recovery was when he bossed Pirlo off the ball. Pirlo also had a great game; it was so fun to watch both midfield maestros on the same pitch!

        If Torres can’t be calm enough to score, then at least pass to open players. He does that plenty for Chelsea!

        • Barcaleya
          June 11, 2012


          I must have sounded crazy to the other people in the bar cause I was cheering Spain players on but everytime Pirlo gets the ball and does well, I would say – Oh, I love Pirlo. Haha.

          That was a good game.

          I was so scared for Spain whenever Italy hits their long balls. It is almost always accurate and someone is always on the other end to receive it. When Spain does that – I get nervous because it ends up in a giveaway most of the time.

          Italy played really well. We would be five goals down if Iker wasn’t at his best. Silva is usually good but yesterday he wavered too much and opted to pass than to shoot. Argh. I thought that they all had responsibilities of shooting since in fact they took the place of forwards. Yeah, I’m sure Torres will now learn to pass too. They would have rewatched the game and adjusted.

          Anyway, well done to both.

          I hope we both make it out of the group stages.

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