At noon the captain of the Span-. ish team went to Mass in the cathedral in the center of Seville. The cathedral is the largest in Spain, the tallest and most beautiful, and its paintings and stained-glass windows are admired by tourists from all over the world. In the streets outside—in the courtyards and alleyways—the sun was so hot that the flies appeared paralyzed and could be plucked from the air in mid-flight.
At the corner the man known as Estéban, who, it was said, had been selling lottery tickets there since Columbus discovered America, had fallen asleep. Seville, the Andalusian jewel, was suspended in sweaty delirium. From the cool back rooms of cafes and from beneath the awnings and sunshades on the porch of the Hotel Alfonso XIII came the nervous murmur of people talking about soccer and the game that would take place that night between the Spanish and Argentine national soccer teams in the big Seville stadium.
Much of the talk was of the legendary Luis Suarez, who had been voted the best player on the Continent by Europe's top sportswriters, and how he had left his native Spain this spring and had gone to Italy to play for Milan after that team had offered him $75,000 a year. It was too bad he had left, they were saying, but who could blame him, at that price. He had come from a poor family in the northwest, and when the boy was 9 years old his parents had told him to stop playing soccer because he was wearing out his shoes too quickly. "Take a choice," his mother had said. "Either stop playing soccer or we will make you wear wooden shoes and you will be laughed at by everyone in town." So Luis had played soccer in wooden shoes every day till he was 18, when he was spotted by a scout for the Madrid team, Real. Now he was still in his 20s and one of the highest-priced athletes in the world. It was said that the first thing he did with his money was buy shoes, dozens of pairs, just to look at.
They spoke of Alfredo Di Stefano, the star center forward of Real Madrid, which is the best team in Europe and which won the Coupe de l'Europe five years running, till it was captured this year by the Portuguese team, Benfica. (Everyone knew, however, that that game was an accident, that the Spanish goalie had been blinded by the sun; next year Spain would be on top again.) Di Stefano was an Argentine boy who had been bought by Real in 1953 and was now the best player in Spain, with such speed, strength and control that he was called the Manolete of Spanish soccer. He lived in a mansion outside Madrid and refused to tell anyone either his age or his income, though the best guess was that he was 36 and earned more than $200,000 a year—making him one of the richest men in Spain. Tonight, Sunday, June 11, he would play for the Spanish national team against his countrymen, the Argentines.
July 2, 1961
They talked of Francisco Gento, another Real man and captain of the national squad, who at this minute was inside the cathedral. Gento was a superb player, not as good yet as Di Stefano or Suarez but with excellent promise and a marvelous personality. Gento was a crowd-pleaser and something of an actor, too, and who could help but love him? It was he who had made soccer popular with the women. Tonight he would play outside left for the nationals.
A crowd had assembled by the cathedral, sitting on the curb and steps—children and old men, young men with their girls, workers and peasants, each of these last wearing his one Sunday suit, his Sunday shoes and his Sunday shirt. They spoke together about soccer, punctuating their arguments with delicate stabs at the hot air with their fingers and with great, vacant shrugs. They carried newspapers opened to the sports pages, and held tickets and programs. The names Real, Barcelona, Suarez, Di Stefano, Gento fell from their mouths with hypnotic frequency.
The service ended, and Francisco Gento emerged, hesitating on the steps as the crowd rose and came toward him. "Gento," sighed the women. "Gento, Gento," murmured the men, not in wild excitement as would Italians or Frenchmen, but with the quiet awe that bespoke adoration. The crowd moved in; Francisco Gento patted the heads of the children and shook the hands of the men in benediction. "Gento," they whispered. "Espa√±a, Espa√±a" He moved slowly down the street, talking with the crowd around him and, five blocks away, disappeared into the Hotel Cristina. There, with 10 tense, perspiring teammates, he huddled over a blackboard plotting the attack on the visiting Argentines.
The crowd disbanded and, like the thousands of others who had come to Seville from all over Spain that weekend, people moved into the restaurants and cafés to talk more and to eat and rest before the game. The streets were now deserted because of the heat. The ticket sellers had moved indoors. In the villages around Seville, roasting on the moonlike plains of Andalusia, fans squeezed into wagons, carriages and oxcarts for the long ride to the stadium, each carrying a small Spanish flag.
At the bullfight arena in town, the crowd sat silently through a poor corrida, and the matadors nodded angrily toward the empty seats. As the matadors and everyone else in Spain well knew, there is no corrida that can compete with a good soccer game, and the one that night would be good.
The importance of soccer in Spain and in Spanish life is a recent and startling phenomenon. The game is the national sport as well as the national distraction and dominates conversation in a way that bullfighting never has done. Like bullfighting, soccer has achieved a kind of mysticism and attracts the attention and time of professors, esthetes and intellectuals as well as the mass of Spanish citizens. Learned treatises are devoted to the art of the game; it has been seriously proposed that Spanish university students study soccer strategy as students once studied Napoleonic battle tactics. In bullfighting the Spaniards have found an expression for their sense of tragedy and bravery; in soccer they have found an expression for loyalty, duty, brotherhood. Each Sunday 600,000 of them watch soccer games somewhere in the country, a million more watch them during the rest of the week. Barcelona alone has four stadiums that hold 300,000 people, and at least 15 smaller playing fields. There are 3,600 stadiums in all Spain, far fewer bull rings. The best players, like the best matadors, are among the highest-paid citizens of the country.
The saying goes that "the government is nervous on Thursday," because then there are fewer soccer games than any other day of the week and the people are likely to start talking politics. There is no doubt that the government encourages the game for other than amusement purposes, but it has helped provide Spain with the best teams, the best players and the best stadiums in Europe.
Spain's leadership in European soccer came neither easily nor quickly, though the history of Spanish soccer goes back to the 19th century, when British settlers and tourists introduced the game to the Spaniards. Real Madrid was founded in 1898, but not until 1920, at the Olympic matches in Antwerp, did Spanish players attract international attention. The '30s and early '40s, when Spain was torn by revolt and depression, nearly marked an end to national interest in the game and to Spanish participation in European and international championship matches. The big break came in 1953, when Real Madrid acquired Di Stefano from Argentina. In 1956, when the European cup matches began, Spain swept the boards and remained European champion till this year, when the Portuguese Benfica squad upset them at Bern, Switzerland.
In the world championship, which will be played in Chile in 1962, Spain is certain to be one of the strong favorites. The Spanish national team has already whipped Wales in preliminary eliminations, and in November will meet Morocco for the division championship. Spain is conceded a 99% chance of victory, which will entitle her to a place in the Chile finals.
One of the principal problems of Spanish soccer has been careless organization by promoters and officials. No Spaniard will forget the man named to select the national squad for the 1954 international games. Admittedly unfamiliar with soccer, he fretted for months without making his choices. A week before the team was scheduled to play its first match, the man was stricken with a toothache. His dentist cured it so quickly and painlessly that the soccer "expert" rewarded him by letting him select the national squad. The dentist protested that he knew nothing about soccer; the expert insisted he knew less. No one knows how the pair of them finally picked the team, but the poor Spanish showing that year suggested that they had thrown darts at the sports pages. Fortunately for Spanish soccer, the expert was replaced the following year.
Teams like Real Madrid are masterpieces of administrative as well as athletic organization. Real's success at the ticket window has enabled it to construct a 130,000-seat stadium in Madrid and to undertake plans for a 70,000-seat addition—which will make it four times the size of the largest bullfight arena in the world.
The only real fear of Spain's soccer-men is television. Construction of the new addition to the Real stadium has been slowed pending a decision by the government on whether major matches will be televised. Real's president says, "A trip to the stadium is an expensive, troublesome affair for the Spaniard. We are pleased that we can attract as many people as we do each week from their homes and into the Real arena. We do not like the thought of having to lure them from restaurants and cafes where they can watch the games for the price of a glass of wine."
Television and wine presented no problems on Sunday in Seville, though the game that night was to be what the Spaniards call amigable. "A meeting of blood brothers," the Argentine captain put it. Since Argentina and Spain play in different geographical divisions, there was no competition between them for the international semifinals. Argentina had, in fact, already won its division championship and was automatically qualified to play at Chile in '62. The Seville match was intended to introduce the Argentine team to Spanish players and fans and to demonstrate the virtues and weaknesses of each. Both teams possess distinctive, even contrary, qualifications. The Argentines are superb technicians but are handicapped by a lack of speed. Their physical training and practice is less rigorous than that of the Spaniards, who are fast, better organized, tougher. The Spaniards were confident but far from complacent.
As twilight fell over Seville, 50,000 soccer fans were asking these questions: Could Spanish speed and endurance and the ascetic, almost priestlike training of the Spanish national team match the technique and power of the Argentines? What of Di Stefano, the "Blond Flash," aggressive and highly intelligent as well as a gifted player, who was born in Argentina and played there till he had been purchased by Real? Could he be depended on in an admittedly friendly match against his former compatriots, all of whom he knew well and most of whom he had played with?
The first half went slowly, but the amigable atmosphere that had reigned earlier disappeared the moment the teams came from their dressing rooms. Argentina was a surprise; better organized and faster than it had been at the Stockholm games in '58, it kept the ball agonizingly close to the Spanish goal most of the half. It was led by Federico Sacchi and Hector Guidi, two tough lads from Buenos Aires. There was serious concern among the Spaniards, for both Gento and Di Stefano were careless. José Vicente, Spain's Catalonian goalie, at 22 playing for the first time on the national squad, was the savior of the first half.
When the Spanish team emerged from the dressing room after the interval between halves, the players were boiling with excitement, and the first minutes were marred by offsides and fouls. Soon the balance shifted almost imperceptibly to Spain, and the Argentines retreated to the defense of their own goal. At 20 minutes into the second half Luis Del Sol, a 24-year-old Real player, captured the ball from Argentina at mid-field and, unsupported, carried it past most of the Argentine backfield. As Del Sol approached, the Argentine goal was undefended except for the goalie and a back. The 50,000 rose from their seats, Del Sol swerved to escape a defender. Then he kicked and sent the ball squarely through the posts.
From then on, it was as if Spain were alone on the field. The Spaniards toyed with the Argentines. Di Stefano and Gento carried the ball clownlike back and forth across the field while the opponents tripped and trailed behind. It was a victory for Spanish training, speed and endurance. The Argentines tired easily in the second half; the clever teamwork with which they had opened the game fell quickly apart.
Although Argentina was impotent offensively, the South Americans seemed determined to hold their defeat to 1-0. Many in the crowd stood and stretched and prepared to leave, and not everyone was watching when Gento and Del Sol captured the ball in their own territory and started trotting toward Argentina. The crowd turned to see Del Sol and Gento hurtling past mid-field trailed by two breathless Argentines. Just ahead of them was Alfredo Di Stefano. Everyone rose to watch the inevitable. Del Sol, alone, dodged two Argentine backs. Two other defenders converged on him, and Del Sol passed to Di Stefano. Twice Di Stefano circled the Argentine guarding him. He spun the ball up to his knee, and as it fell, hit it hard and perfectly into the goal.
For a few moments Del Sol, Gento and Di Stefano had held the 50,000 on their fingertips. The roar that followed Spain's second goal seemed to rattle even the stone columns. The smiles of the winners, as broad as the Costa Brava, bore profound joy and the promise of inestimable victories.