The power of social knowledge: Spain’s rise to the top of the football world
It’s 1st July, in Kiev, Ukraine, and Spain’s men’s national football team are facing Italy in the final of the 2012 European Championships. If Spain win they will create history by being the first men’s team to win 3 consecutive international football tournaments.
However, Spain weren’t always such a feared opponent. Before 2008, Spain had the reputation of being perennial losers. They were known as a nation who produced talented players but always seemed to fail in international tournaments. The only international trophy they had won in their history was Euro 1964, 44 years ago.
Interestingly, Spain’s international football success (or lack of success) runs parallel with their history. Fascist dictator Francisco Franco isolated Spain from the rest of Europe from 1936 until his death in 1975. During his reign, Franco banned foreign footballers from playing in the Spanish league as well as all languages other than Spanish.
In the 1920s and 30s before Franco isolated Spain from the rest of Europe the Spanish national football team won 61% of their matches played. However, during their years of isolation, Spain’s win percentage dropped to 48%.
Spanish football was cut off from the rest of Europe’s footballing expertise, unable to share, build on their own learnings and grow as a footballing nation because of their isolation. However, following Franco’s death and Spain’s entry into the European Union in 1986, Spain’s results improved rapidly. In the 90s Spain’s win percentage rose to 58%, in the 2000s it was 71% and from 2010 to August 2017 it stands at a staggering 83%!
So why the rapid improvement? Although not the only reason, social integration and learning with the rest of Europe played a big part. Following the end of Franco’s ban on foreign footballers, Spanish clubs started to import foreign players such as Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona and increased their intake of foreign managers such as Terry Venables and Fabio Capello. Spanish footballers and coaches could share and learn with a variety of foreign footballers and coaches with diverse backgrounds, ideas, tactics, playing styles and experiences. A lot of the credit for the upturn in Spain’s performance has been credited to legendary Dutchman Johan Cruyff and his work with F.C. Barcelona to create their famed youth academy La Masia. La Masia has helped to develop world stars such as, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets who have been influential in Spain’s recent success.
Foreign imports weren’t the only benefit of social integration with the rest of Europe. The Spanish national team’s improvements coincided with Spanish players going abroad to play football. For example, Spanish internationals such as Fernando Torres, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas went to play in the English Premier League and shared their learnings from a different football culture, style and mentality with the national team – adding to its collective knowledge.
These factors contributed to Spain’s journey to the 2012 European Championship final against Italy. At the end of the match Spain had outclassed Italy 4-0 and became the first men’s international football team to win 3 consecutive international football tournaments. Without the ability to accumulate social knowledge, Spain may have never been able to stake their claim as the greatest men’s international football team of all time.