7 Days in Spain: Creating a Culture
(Photo: Mark W. Wright)
by Mark W. Wright
So ... if I'm honest, and I have to be honest, what I saw on Sunday, Feb. 9 at Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastián, Spain, blew my mind. This writing exercise is really a bit therapeutic, so forgive the occasional stream of consciousnesses.
Some context first: I'm a sports journalist — been there, covered that, hard to impress. I'd never seen a La Liga game in person. Never seen tailgating like this — never seen fans born with an undying devotion to their teams like I did in the Basque derby, the name of the local fútbol derby between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao.
The atmosphere was … sick. The Sociedad faithful brought the heat with a chorus of songs and chants, never taking their seats, oohing and aahing every touch and every successive connected pass.
I'll spare you the game details — Real won the match 2-1, and second-half subs Alexander Isak (for Real) and Athletic striker Iñaki Williams provided the thrills I couldn't begin to describe, even though describing sports is what I do for a living.
I couldn't help but look on with some envy — OK, a lot of envy — hoping that soccer in America might reach these heights one day; that Charlotte's new MLS team would not only win on the field, but bring a starving fan base with it — for generations to come.
While in Spain — where I got to visit four La Liga clubs (Athletic Bilbao, SD Eibar, Alevas and Real Sociedad) over seven days — I realized something I thought I knew, but now completely understand: Soccer, for all of Spain, is in the people's DNA.
Javier Casero, who works for La Liga, explains it this way: “You have to understand that for soccer in Spain, most towns couldn’t begin to tell their story without fútbol, and that doesn’t happen in the US. The teams [in the United States] just need time ... and I know nowadays sports, and especially in the US, patience is not the easiest thing to find. But it will come; the US has a strong history of building - the NFL and NBA are the best leagues in the world. America might not have [soccer] history like Spain, but you can still create identity - something that makes the people feel closer to you and part of it.”
And that's where the Mint City Collective can really lead the way (and we're already doing the work). Yes, building that culture will take time; there's no timetable for when that magic happens. It was truly the experience of a lifetime — a weeklong crash course in fútbol for journalists like myself who are fairly well-versed in the sport.
No question, we don’t share the same mentality toward the sport — we are fans of it; fútbol is not part of who we are. But that hardly means we can’t share the love while growing and building our own identity. Getting there, I realize now more than ever, is a marathon we might not finish; we might be starting the race for our kids to finish. And, that's OK. That's what Spanish fans told me — that this is how we build generations of fans.
So, carry on — continue singing the gospel of the game. Tell our growing fan base that this team is for them.
Let's take a brick-by-brick approach — a tiki-taka style, if you will. The goals will eventually come.
Spain all but guarantees it.