I attended a very problematic event in Madrid about a week ago. A “Corrida” – bullfight – at the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. A well trained crew of humans demolished about ten hopeless beasts during a three hour session.
A well known American Football quarterback, Michael Vick, recently spent nearly two years in jail for his involvement in dog fights.
This is a cultural difference though it must be said: The breeding of dogs for fighting is a cruel process intended to transform a basically friendly animal into one that can turn on it’s own kind. The bulls killed at Las Ventas lived a nicer and longer life than any animal in the food for humans industry.
The aim of this post is not to discuss the morality of bullfighting, which I believe should be stopped.
For me one of the most striking impressions of the bullfight was the obvious influence this ritual has had on Spanish sports. This became clear at some point during the evening when an outraged audience rose to it’s feet and booed the Matador following the slaughter of the animal.
As it was unlikely that 25,000 people were suddenly appalled by the killing of a living being for the sake of entertainment, I asked a man sitting besides me what exactly enraged the crowd.
“The bull was still very strong”, was the reply. Ideally the Matador and his assistants should have the run this upset and bleeding animal a bit longer before the kill.
Eureka! In a blink I suddenly acknowledged something profound about Spanish sports. The elegant Barcelona passing game and the brutal long rallies of the tennis super-warrior Rafael Nadal are very similar. And the old metaphor of “the Spanish Bull” used to describe Spanish champions is entirely wrong. The Spaniard at his best is the Matador. The Italian or the English may be the bull.
When you watch the bull being exhausted to death you realize that the ultimate victory in Spanish sports is not a last minute goal or a 4-3 thriller. It is draining the will and energy from an opponent, until total physical and psychological surrender.
Often during a Grand Slam 5-setter, when you feel Nadal can finnish his opponent with a few powerful strokes, he seems to be purposely and patiently lengthening the rallies. Preferring the unforced errors of a depleted opponent to his own majestic topspin winners. A player on the circuit once told me: “We love playing Federer, for the experience. We are terrified to be drawn against Nadal.”
It is much the same with Barcelona. It’s brigades of followers often miss the main aspect of the battle plan. This is not “open attacking football” in the normal sense, though it is done with ball possession in opposition territory. It is total tactical and psychological attrition: the beautiful ball control with the small psychological humiliation. “It is all about ‘Rondos’”, Xavi Hernandez recently told The Guardian. ‘Rondos’ is the Spanish name for “Piggy in the Middle”. Barcelona training involves hours of keep ball while tiring a chasing defender.
Similarly the ceremonial “O-le” from a football or bullfight crowd is not to ridicule the defeated. It is psychological attrition. With Barcelona it’s often the off-court antics. Blaming opponents for “not trying to play”. The losing team, after doing it’s best, after being masterfully neutralized, is condemned to Johan Cruyff lecture about attacking football. Some things are worse than death.
Often during the Corrida a man on a horse approaches the bull from it’s blind side and stabs him in his nape. This unjust intervention is even more outraging to the conscience than the killing. Much like a red card from Busquets theatrical simulation. Fueling the victim’s sense of injustice.
One thing is clear to me. Messi’s second goal in the CL Semi Final first leg, was the perfect kill of an an exhausted irritable bull.