More than a Game
To the untrained eye, chaos seems to erupt on the verdant field in Madrid, Spain, as the possession and control of a small, checkered ball becomes the unwavering focus of 22 driven futbol players from Barcelona and Madrid. To those who know what they are looking at, it is an elegant portrayal of teamwork and athleticism, but underneath the surface there is much more going on than just the game.
In the spring 2010 semester, nine California State University, Chico students were afforded the opportunity to examine this firsthand as they spent two weeks in Spain getting footage for a documentary. The film focuses on the intense rivalry centered on futbol, known in the United States as soccer, between Real Madrid and Futbol Club (FC) Barcelona, two of the top futbol teams in the world. Put together by Chico State alums Kelly Candaele, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and Cathy Growdon, the group set out to uncover the deeper social, political, and cultural implications of this rivalry that is representative of larger nationalistic tensions. As Matt Robertson, a graduate student in history, described it, in Spain “futbol is a dimension of politics … just wearing a jersey is making a political statement.”
The concept for this documentary is rooted in Candaele’s abiding interest in looking at conflict resolution and politics from a unique perspective. His premise for the project is that futbol acts as a “safety valve for group tensions” and helps diffuse the nationalistic conflict between Barcelona and Spain, furthering the efforts toward peace. Candaele and Growdon have a long history as supporters of Chico State students. They previously took a group of students to Northern Ireland to help film a documentary on the peace process, called When Hope and History Rhymed. For this futbol documentary, Candaele, the project’s director, and Growdon, the project’s producer, involved Chico State students Zac Fernandez, Suzanna DiBenedetto, Sam Johnson, Alex Nokoff, Matt Robertson, Devin Collins, Ryan White, Kyle Heise, and Hillary Fay. The students were responsible for camera, sound, and light operations, structuring the film and doing the editing, as well as doing research for and conducting the interviews.In preparation for this project, the students—whose majors include communication design, history, humanities, and political science, with a couple of Spanish minors thrown in—spent months delving into the historical and political factors that incited the deep-seated rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, the roots of which are primarily in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. As Suzanna DiBenedetto, who graduated in May with a degree in political science, pointed out, “As American students, we aren't taught very much about the Spanish Civil War, so it was fascinating to study the conflict and the role that futbol played in channeling the various identities of a divided country.”
As the capital for the autonomous region of Catalonia, Barcelona is seen by its residents as separate from Spain, but, as Robertson said, that sense of separation is primarily about creating a distinct “cultural, political, and linguistic identity.” In relation to Real Madrid, FC Barcelona fans consider their team to be “more in the fiber of Catalonia … it’s almost a way of proving yourself to be a Catalan—there’s more at stake for them,” Robertson said.
After meeting with several players from both teams, the students discovered that the fans, not the players, are primarily responsible for this rivalry. Fans of Real Madrid and Barcelona regard their teams as representing so much more than just their hometowns or a futbol team. The games, said Candaele, are larger representations of “conflicting versions of Spanish history, divergent political ambitions, alternative ideas about state centralization vs. autonomy, and disparate cultural identities.” They found that this rivalry, while intense and highly politicized, was not necessarily a bad thing. Robertson pointed out that “it’s good for the whole country to get it out of their system,” and while it is something they get worked up about, it is not something the fans are violent about. For the fans, the stadium is “a cross between a war zone and a rave … they get to exercise nationalistic fervor, … have a little war on the field, and then go home.”
A Vibrant Learning Experience
There is no doubt that this once-in-a-lifetime experience affected each student in a profound and personal way. The Spanish-speaking students were challenged linguistically, having to coordinate and translate the interviews. Through Candaele and Growdon’s efforts, in both Barcelona and Madrid the students were able to interview players, observe practices, tour the facilities, attend press conferences, and acquire incredible tickets to a game. The project's intense and diverse nature ensured that each student had to delve deeply into Spanish culture, history, and politics, searching out what she or he needed to know to become the expert in a particular field in relation to this project.
Robertson, the group’s historian, described it as his “most vibrant learning experience,” as he spent countless hours of research to be aware of all of the historical baggage associated with this project. DiBenedetto said, about the trip, “Being able to travel to Barcelona and Madrid and see for ourselves how a rivalry that was created so long ago has perpetuated itself through history was a truly enlightening experience.” Communication design major and aspiring filmmaker Zac Fernandez remarked that this experience “was definitely a skill-building trip for myself, and I am very glad I was a part of it and that I continue to participate in the film.”
Another student involved in the documentary, Devin Collins, was an invaluable asset because he spent part of his childhood in Barcelona and speaks Catalan. Known as a culé, a “crazy Barcelona fan,” Collins got to meet and talk with some of his futbol heroes, from players to the president of the futbol club—a veritable dream come true. But he also had to overcome his biases toward Real Madrid, which he did with professionalism, upholding the integrity and objectivity of the project.
The result of this literal and intellectual journey, a feature-length documentary, should premier at the end of the fall 2010 semester and will be aired in the United States and Spain.
—Jessica Young, Intern, Public Affairs and Publications
Public Affairs and Publications