Spanish Conquistadors

The Spanish national soccer (football) team earned the title of World Champion for the next four years, after its 1-0 win over the Netherlands on Sunday, July 11. The following day the national team returned to Spain, specifically to Madrid, for a triumphal procession through the capital city where they greeted throngs of screaming fans. Their chariot—an open-air bus—proclaimed not only their championship but also their conquest of the world.


The statement on the side of the bus, “El poder de la Roja conquista el mundo,” makes use of a much historied word, one which has become a synonym for “success.” In colloquial Spanish, one can say that Spain has “conquered the title” or “conquered a point.” Products such as television programs sometimes “conquer the world.” Spain could have “conquered the World Cup” without raising any eyebrows. But the headline demonstrates the slippage of the adjective “world”/mundial into the noun “world”/mundo; the world itself rather than the cup has been conquered. This subtle shift from “campeón del mundo” to “conquista el mundo” is indicative of a nostalgia for “the good old days” of Spanish geopolitical power that thrives in many—but certainly not all—sectors of the Spanish population. Spain’s empire effectively ended with the Spanish American War of 1898, when the U.S. Navy made short work of the outdated warships docked in the harbors of Havana and Manila. While Spain’s presence in Africa during the twentieth century should not be dismissed, there has not been a legitimate claimant for the title of “Spanish conquistador” for centuries. As a first-time winner of the World Cup in 2010 Spain, in a way, has conquered new territory.

Closer inspection of the bus in the photo suggests that the athletes were merely actors directed by a power greater than their physical and tactical abilities (no, not Paul the octopus): Spanish fury. “El poder de la Roja conquista el mundo,” which literally means “The power of the Red conquers the world,” packs quite a few references into that short sentence. First, “the power of the Red” may be said to refer to the jersey pictured on the bus: a sartorial adaptation of the national flag that, in turn, symbolizes imperial oppression for many people within and beyond the geographical limits of the Iberian peninsula. More about that below. Both the flag-inspired red jersey and the Spanish national team are known alternately as “La Roja” (The Red), “La Furia Española” (The Spanish Fury), and “La Furia Roja” (The Red Fury)—phrases that allude to a specific instance of horrific Spanish military power/abuse. If in 2010, the power of the Red Fury beat the Dutch team and conquered the World [Cup] in South Africa, in 1576, Spanish Fury sacked Antwerp, effectively destroying the city’s textile industry and damaging Spain’s global reputation as an imperial power. The sixteenth-century Spanish fury was a result of frustration at financial setbacks in Spain’s imperial conquest of the world, in particular, the Low Countries.

The conquest by the twenty-first century Spanish Fury has other political implications. Ironically, the excitement over the recent matchup between Spain and the Low Countries and the attendant Spanish flag underscores present-day internal imperialism within Spain. The current Spanish flag was created in the eighteenth century, loosely modeled on the flag of the Crown of Aragon. Since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, it has been a symbol of centralizing state power and the suppression of linguistic, legal and cultural autonomies, in other words, geopolitical force and internal imperialism. The unity among Spanish citizens and inhabitants, from north to south and east to west, who chose to wave the state flag and cheer on the national team during the past few weeks might appear to have reached a degree that Generalísimo Franco could only have dreamed of. The power of the Roja was undeniable. Even the “Empire State” of New York recognized La Roja, the iconic skyscraper illuminated with the colors of the Spanish flag.

Some fans were offended that Catalan players Puyol and Xavi Hernández wrapped themselves in the Catalan flag, the senyera, (different from the Spanish flag) to celebrate their victory, thus fracturing the power of La Roja. But others suggested that the ensuing polemic over the flags was excessive. As Elvira Lindo wrote in a popular opinion piece for the left-leaning daily El País about the “triunfo tan noble como el que perpetró La Roja” [most noble triumph that La Roja has perpetrated], flags really don’t really symbolize anything at all.

Hay veces que los colores son folclóricos y festivos. Inocentes, como esos niños de mi barrio de procedencia latinoamericana que el domingo paseaban tan ufanos con la camiseta de la selección y la bandera pintada en sus mofletes oscuros. Este es el país al que llegaron sus padres y que han hecho suyo. Y visten los colores de su equipo. Esa es la única manera posible de entender la bandera en esos momentos, con la naturalidad deportiva con que la defiende un niño.

[Sometimes the colors [of the flag] are simply folkloric and festive. Innocent, like the children of my neighborhood of Latin American heritage who were proudly out in the streets last Sunday wearing the Spanish jersey and with the flag painted on their dark cheeks. This is the country to which their parents immigrated and they have made it their own. And they wear the colors of their team. This is the only possible way to understand the flag at the present moment, with the playful naturalness with which a child defends it.]

The innocent and “natural” adoption of Spain’s colors by Latin American children—whose acceptance along with other immigrant groups in Spain by and large has yet to be seen—reads like a flashback to the supposedly easy conquest of Amerindian peoples by the first conquistadors. “Wonderfully attached to us,” “simple,” “desirous to possess any thing they saw with us,” wrote Christopher Colombus about the peoples he met during his first days in the Caribbean. Lindo’s opinion piece represents a common view and demonstrates an enduring belief in the power of Spanish imperialism (today symbolized by the flag) to draw (foreign, conquered) people easily into the fold of the state, even as she repudiates the colors’ ideological value.

The Spanish team certainly conquered the World Cup in the guise of a nation, but the language of furia and conquista hint at the perennially imperial m.o. at work in Spain. Extreme state nationalism, wrapped up in the Spanish flag, continues today to lean towards imperialism vis-à-vis other historical sovereignties within Spain: The Basque Country, Galicia and Catalonia. Indeed, the Spanish victory in South Africa provided fanfare appropriate for the conservative legal victory that had taken place just days before. As La Roja appeared to conquer the world and unite all of the inhabitants on its soil under its power, Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal debated the meaning of “Spain.” In brief, the conservative Partido Popular challenged Catalonia’s right to nationhood and the legality of its Constitution, the Statute of Catalonia, a move that effectively reasserted the conquest of Catalonia and its subjection to the Spanish state. Late last week, the Constitutional Tribunal confirmed this view. While 75,000 people showed up in the streets of Barcelona to celebrate the national soccer team’s victory, they were but a shadow of the 1.1 million who had showed up the day before to protest the decision denying Catalonia’s nationhood. ;According to the current interpretation of constitutional law, there is but one nation in Spain, the Spanish nation, ¿La Furia Roja?


  1. Photo Gallery
  2. Lindo, Elvira. “Banderas”

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