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Lessons About Franco, Football and Freedom

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For three glorious weeks, football ruled in Europe. But that is all behind us now. Spain won the championship, and passions have died down -- that is except in Russia, where football fever is still gripping the population like some form of mass madness.

There is a good reason for that excitement, of course. To everyone's pleasure and amazement -- including mine -- Russia's team rose from its initial standing in 16th place after a dismal showing in the qualifying round to finish in third place overall.

Now even housewives who never cared about football before know that nothing like this has happened since 1988, when the Soviet team last made it to the European championships. Soccer coverage dominated the airwaves almost as much as Putin's Plan did before the presidential election.

But we heard much less about the fact that Spain last made it to the finals in 1964, when they beat the Soviet team. But it is worth recalling some of the events from that period, a time when Spain was locked in a duel with the Soviet Union. It was foremost a political battle. Spain, which hosted the championship game in Madrid, was still haunted by the memories of its civil war from 1936 to 1939. The republicans, supported by the Soviet Union, lost to Francisco Franco's nationalists. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted the Soviet team to trounce Spain in full view of the Spanish dictator. Just the opposite happened. In an intense game, the Soviet players missed the decisive goal in the final minutes and lost to Spain 2-1.

Khrushchev was beside himself with rage. His team lost to Spain in front of the caudillo himself. The defeat brought shame upon the red flag and dishonor to the Soviet state. The head trainer, Konstantin Beskov, who had assembled one of the best teams in the country's history, was immediately fired.

Objectively speaking, Spain's team was the strongest in Europe, with Real Madrid winning five consecutive European championship cups from 1956 to 1960. No team has since matched that accomplishment.

Spain's total obsession with football began in earnest under Franco in the 1950s -- a period during which Spain was viewed by most of the world as the "sick man" of Europe. It was a rogue state, one of the last dictatorships in Europe, scorned and criticized by other countries. It was poor, backward and stagnant. Its glory days as an powerful empire -- one that earned the world's respect for its amazing military victories, great voyages and geographic discoveries -- had long passed by the mid-20th century. Therefore, Spain found its much-needed self-esteem on the football field.

And not only football. In 1968, Spain was beside itself with delight when the Spanish singer Massiel won the Eurovision song contest in Britain. With her eloquently named song "La, La, La," she beat out Britain's future rock 'n' roll star Cliff Richard, who took second place. Even then, there were rumors that the voting process was rigged. Now, 40 years later, those suspicions have proved well-founded. Spain released a film documenting how Franco had the contest's jury members bribed in order to ensure a win and the boosting of his country's international reputation.

I don't mention this story to cast doubt on our excellent finish in the European Football Championship, Dima Bilan's recent Eurovision win, Sochi securing the 2014 Winter Olympics, Zenit St. Petersburg's UEFA championship victory or Russia's hockey win after so many unsuccessful years. All of those performers and athletes deserved the glory and honor that comes with victory.

But when celebrations over victories in athletic or Eurovision contests reach the level of hysteria, Russia becomes very much like Franco's Spain.

In fact, the histories of Russia and Spain have a lot in common. The great 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset called the two countries "the two poles of the great European axis." If we take his famous book, "Spineless Spain," and substitute the word "Russia" for "Spain," the reader will find the numerous parallels between the two simply amazing.

The regime that former President Vladimir Putin's built is in some subtle ways reminiscent of Franco's regime during its era of decline -- when, like the Sphinx without the riddle, all that remained of the harsh, bloodthirsty dictator was the uniform of the generalissimo. It is no coincidence that the system almost immediately collapsed after Franco's death and that his hand-picked successor, King Juan Carlos I, played a leading role in returning Spain to democracy.

As for the euphoria following athletic victories or artistic triumphs, yesterday it was the Bolshoi Ballet, today it is Bilan. Communist propaganda touted the success of Soviet hockey players, figure skaters and ballet dancers as proof of "the indisputable superiority of the socialist system." And the same propaganda reacted very negatively when famous Soviet figures, such as dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov and figure skaters Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, defected to the West. They were portrayed as the worst kind of traitors to the state.

Rooting for the success of Soviet athletes gave ordinary citizens a way to feel like they were a part of some great cause. It also allowed them to forget for a short time about their lack of freedom, their meager Soviet standard of living and their limited opportunities for personal success or prosperity. On the other hand, when all other channels for self-expression were closed, the mass interest in football served as a substitute for a full and healthy social life. Direct broadcasts of football games were practically the only Soviet television programs shown live, and they were a rare glimpse of the real world -- one filled with the drama, passion and suspense of a live global sport event whose results were not preprogrammed by the state. The only other live broadcasts were of military parades, workers' demonstrations on Nov. 7 and May 1, funerals for Politburo members on Red Square and, of course, "Vremya," the stiff government nightly news program.

Football is an outlet to express the people's patriotism without nationalistic excesses or xenophobia. It also allows them to make nonstandard pragmatic decisions that in other circumstances might be considered politically incorrect, such as inviting a foreign coach to head the national team. Football is perhaps the only issue that is subject to serious, hard-hitting and impartial analysis by the pro-Kremlin media.

In 1964, when Franco's Spain went head to head with Khrushchev's Soviet Union in the finals of the European championship, the two countries were on equal footing. By 2008, however, democratic Spain, which has long since moved on from its past as a dictatorship, twice routed Russia, a country stuck in its authoritarian past.

Perhaps this should be a lesson not only for Putin but for the football team's coach, Guus Hiddink. The team is overly burdened when so much of the country's pride and self-worth rests on its performance on the field. With this huge weight on each player's shoulders, it makes it very difficult to compete against more nimble football teams from free and democratic countries.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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