Claremont McKenna College student Brad Kertson holds a pizza in his lap as he rides a bus from Madrid to Valencia. His maroon-and-white shirt accentuates Arnold Schwarzenegger-size arms. During the four-hour drive to the Mediterranean coast, the 21-year-old international studies major offers an interpretation of why surrealist art took hold in Spain when it did. “I think Franco’s period of authoritarian rule generated an artistic response,” he suggests. “And Salvador Dali was influenced by Freud as well.”
But Kertson is not here to analyze Modernist masters or the neo-gothic exuberance of Gaudi’s architecture. He’s in Spain to do something a bit surreal in itself. Kertson is here to play football, American style.
He and 40 college teammates--decked out in classic Southern California style, wearing baseball caps backward, baggy shorts and a few Lakers T-shirts--will play a Valencia team. The Valencia Firebats are among nine amateur clubs in Spain challenging European indifference and, at times, hostility toward American football.
And sometimes, toward Americans. Kertson committed himself to speaking to the opposing players in Spanish after being confronted by a number of Spaniards who told him that Americans can’t pronounce their names, don’t understand their culture or respect their history. “The thing I learned about the Spanish is the importance of honor and respect,” he said. “So I’m going to speak in Spanish to whoever is across from me during the game and tell them to get ready for a long day. I think they’ll like that.”
Finding players in Spain, who practice from 10 p.m. to midnight after their day jobs, has not been easy. While hundreds of flag football teams have been established in high schools throughout the country, financial resources are minimal, and there is no developed youth system that teaches the basics and funnels players to higher levels.
In their Madrid hotel the morning of their trip, the Stags, the college’s team nickname, had gathered around bags of football gear--dark red helmets with facemasks, bulky shoulder pads and, to Spanish eyes at least, oddly shaped oblong footballs packed in a bunch. An older Spanish gentleman picked up one of the footballs and pointed out to anyone who would listen that “here in Spain, football is something we play with just our feet.” Then he made a gesture as if he were throwing a forward pass, wagged his finger back and forth, shook his head no and headed out the door.
He’s right, of course, at least for now. Futbol , what Americans call soccer, is the country’s primary team sport. The main professional league, consisting of 20 teams from Spain’s biggest cities, recruits many of the world’s top players and is considered one of the most competitive leagues in Europe. In Spain, soccer generates some of the most intense city rivalries you’ll find anywhere in the world, and games often have political, regional and philosophical overtones.
Real Madrid, for instance, was considered “Franco’s team"--the dictator used to schedule big games on days when protests were expected to lure the angry crowds away--while Barcelona, a center of anti-Franco resistance during the Spanish Civil War in the late ‘30s, embodies the independence and freedom of the Catalan province. Soccer, like most everything in Spain, is embedded in history.
So in bringing American football to Spain, there was no pretense that the game would be embraced or even understood. “I realize,” said Claremont head Coach Rick Candaele before the game, “that American football may in many ways be culturally at odds with the Spanish national character. But I want our players to see and experience another culture, especially in a competitive arena.” The Spanish trip is the second in a series of games Candaele has planned to introduce football, and his players, to countries in which the game is not prominent.
The coach also happens to be my brother. I joined his team as a minister without portfolio, a nosy journalist who wanted to see what was lost or preserved in the translation from American football to Spanish futbol . But I also came to play. At 47 years old, I ventured onto the field for the last five plays not for the sake of past glories but simply to throw on the pads one last time and to experience what it felt like to bang around with kids half my age.
Doug Kidney, a 21-year-old defensive back, grew up playing soccer in Chino, just east of Los Angeles. “Soccer is a game that continuously flows, a graceful game,” he observes, eyeing the Valencia team during a pregame warmup. “The Spanish can enjoy 90 minutes of soccer with patience, but Americans need the intensity of a big play. I can see the beauty in each sport.”
While the National Football League does have a professional league in Europe, most of the players come from the United States. Barcelona’s team, the Dragons, has only two Spaniards; the rest are former NFL or U.S. college players who still want to play. While attendance is up throughout the six-team circuit--Barcelona attracts between 8,000 and 10,000 fans for home games--American football will not be supplanting soccer anytime soon.
A national lack of enthusiasm has not deterred Jose Miguel Alonso, however. At 35 and in his last year of playing, he is the Firebats’ vice president, captain and center. Alonso has spent the last 10 years trying to build a popular presence for “Futbol Americano” in Valencia after learning about the game while studying in the United States.
He has succeeded in extracting some money from the city government and from local sponsors--the Firebats’ jerseys carry advertisements for a local resort and the City of Valencia--and he has been responsible for recruiting new talent. “Our quarterback is from Mexico,” Alonso said, laughing. “And we found him on the Internet. Usually, I’ll just visit different gyms in Valencia and ask anyone who is big if they want to play lineman on our team.” At 6 feet, 185 pounds, Alonso took the center position because no one else would do it.
The Claremont team’s arrival a week before the game gave it the opportunity to experience the more languid and elegant pace of Spanish life. On their first day in Barcelona several players headed straight to the Hard Rock Cafe that sits at the northern end of the exotic chaos of Los Ramblas Boulevard. Others were more adventurous. Ben Baumer, a linebacker who is spending the summer studying Spanish in the university city of Salamanca, decided to commit himself to “Vivir Sin Dormir,” living without sleep, for at least one night in Barcelona.
“The habits are so different here,” he said. “People don’t go out to eat dinner until 10 at night. And you see old people walking around on the streets at 5 in the morning just soaking it in. The Spanish call it being tranquilo , taking it easy. In America, we’re in a constant rush.”
The team also took time to put on a clinic for junior high and high school flag football players. On a borrowed rugby field near their hotel they showed 50 enthusiastic young boys how to run pass patterns and protect the ball when running. Ben Scott, a wide receiver from Carpinteria, took time to show two young boys how to wear helmets.
“They went crazy for the pads,” Scott said. “I think the Spanish would embrace this game if they had enough exposure to it.” Rafa Serratosa, a 14-year-old Junior Firebat still too young to join the team, reinforced Scott’s view. “My friends think I’m crazy,” he said, laughing. “But soccer is too calm for me.” And then there was the game--played 20 yards from the ocean on a converted soccer field. A couple of hundred people showed up, some family and friends, some out of curiosity.
Claremont won 35-6, slowly wearing down an enthusiastic but unpolished Valencia team. “The Americans own this game,” Valencia halfback Jose Albors observed from the sidelines. “This has been a great experience and a step forward for us.”
In “Homage to Catalonia,” George Orwell’s classic autobiographical book about his participation in the Spanish Civil War, he wrote that the largeness of spirit and unabashed generosity of the Spanish was almost embarrassing. Some things don’t change. The Valencia coach handed out medals and trophies to every Claremont player after the game and insisted that the team join them for dinner at a local restaurant.
The Claremont players gave the Valencia players their team jerseys. At dinner, they agreed the Valencia team was tough and played a good game. On the ride home the coaches and players reflected on the trip. Coach Candaele remembered the clinic. “I’ll never forget the sight of that little boy running through the parking lot with a football we gave him held high over his head, shouting, ‘Touchdown.”’
Baumer mused on this place where the pull of history and community has weight. “There is a center of town in every Spanish city that is the core of a strong, rich, old culture,” he said. “Being alone is a very American thing, so almost every night I would go down to the plaza and meet Spanish people under the town clock to talk .... I think we could use more of that type of community back home.”
Kidney pushed his seat back and looked out the window toward a horizon that, at 10:30 p.m., was still bathed in waning sunlight.
“We beat them in a football game, but I’ve seen amazing art, architecture and history over here,” he said. “Tonight, I’m looking at the world through a different set of eyes.”