How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World

By Jimmy Burns Nation. 362 pp. Paperback, $16.99

For recent converts to the spectacle of international soccer, Spain is the sport’s ultimate showpiece. La Roja, as the national team is known, has won the three most important trophies of the past four years: the 2010 World Cup and two European Championship titles.

‘La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World’ by Jimmy Burns (Nation)

It has mesmerized audiences around the globe with an artful playing style that epitomizes the sport’s moniker, “the beautiful game.” Spain also boasts two of the most popular brands in professional sports, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. But as Jimmy Burns captures in “La Roja,” the country endured decades of pain before winning the sport’s grandest prizes and fulfilling its massive potential.

Despite a wealth of talent, a 100-year history and a wildly popular league that has attracted star imports since the 1950s, Spain was soccer’s bumbling underachiever. After winning the 1964 continental title on home soil, the national team failed to claim another major crown until the 2008 European title. (Spain won its 1992 Olympic gold medal in a competition for players age 23 and under.)

Burns takes readers on a journey from the sport’s turn-of-the-century introduction by British miners in Spain’s southern region to the 2010 World Cup triumph in Johannesburg. This is not, however, a book just about soccer. It’s also about culture, politics and religion. In meticulous detail, the author, who is half-Spanish, describes how soccer survived during the civil war, how Franco used his power to control the sport and how the national team’s lack of identity mirrored the country’s lack of identity — one fractured by provincial loyalty in the Catalan and Basque regions. Banned from the public arena, regional pride was expressed at the soccer arena. “Spain was a country politically divided within itself,” Burns writes, “and soccer provided an escape valve for suppressed emotions.”

Burns’s work is as graceful and entertaining as Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, La Roja’s modern-day geniuses.

Steven Goff