Spain lyrically divided

Lyric-less for years, Spain’s national anthem has been the cause of many disagreements. The latest dispute over the melody highlights the enormity of Spain’s prickly political sensibilities and regional insecurities.

The Spanish national anthem, La Marcha Real, was written in 1761 by an unknown composer and has only had lyrics during the 1886-1931 reign of King Alfonso XIII and when Franco was in power. The lyrics which were written in Franco’s era were dropped three years after his death in 1975 because of their associations with his dictatorship and the anthem has been without words ever since. Failure to agree on suitable lyrics and endless arguments involving the national anthem emphasizes just how politically divided the country is.

Last year the head of Spain’s Olympic Games Committee launched a competition to find suitable lyrics for their national anthem ahead of Madrid’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. After a phenomenal response of approximately 7,000 entries, a winner was picked but later dropped. The lyrics were accused, not only of being banal and compared to a song for the Eurovision Song Contest rather than a matter of national prestige, but also for highlighting the country’s right-wing past and failing to display Spain’s modern-day diversity.

In a country consisting of diverse regions boasting different identities and languages, some of which have a difficult relationship with the Spanish state, finding suitable lyrics for the national anthem was bound to be a difficult task and almost certain to cause controversy. Words to the anthem therefore need to accomplish lyrical genius to satisfy the many religious, nationalist and political factions. Not an easy task. Sounding too patriotic would be uncomfortably close to memories of the former dictator General Franco, but words without patriotism would run the risk of being redolent of the republican left-wingers on the other side of the Spanish civil war. The conservative values of Spain’s powerful Catholic Church needed to prevail, likewise the autonomist aspirations of Catalans and Basques. The end result being, as last year’s competition proved, lyrics that are too focused on being politically correct, they are both inoffensive and uninspiring.

It should be the most patriotic of occasions; instead the sports men and women of Spain remain in the same dilemma, awkwardly humming along to an old-fashioned, military tune because countless attempts to put words to it have failed. As well as the difficult task of finding the words to galvanize national unity in a country that seems to be in the clutches of an identity crisis, it cannot be ignored that the lyrics to most of the world’s national anthems were written many years ago, in a different era, and could be considered somewhat embarrassing today. Therefore Spain’s mission to cease old-fashioned connotations whilst producing modern lyrics that are to be taken seriously for a tune that was first played in 1761 is proving an almost impossible task.

The most recent dispute involving Spain’s deeply contentious national anthem came at the beginning of the Copa del Rey final between the Catalan team Barcelona and the Basque team Athletico del Bilbao, which are arguably the two regions in Spain where regional nationalism and autonomy are most prevalent. La Marcha Real at the beginning of the match was accompanied by feet stamping and wolf-whistles from supporters of both teams, an event witnessed by the Spanish King Juan Carlos who was among the 55,000 spectators. The Spanish state television network TVE, who broadcast the match live, hastily cut away from the national anthem and the mockery it received. The self-censorship caused outrage and was accused as being “deplorable” by the channel’s committee and TVE’s head of sport Julian Reyes was forced to resign. Javier Pons, director of TVE, commented on the sacking of Reyes,

“He was responsible for not emitting the national anthem live. I consider that unacceptable.”

Spain’s national anthem seems to be an excuse for dragging up national biases, and in a country of such political diversity, achieving political neutrality in their national song is proving a mission impossible. Although it seems the individuals who should be most affected, namely Spain’s sports men and women, are fairly blasé about the subject, albeit a little embarrassed. Iker Castillas, the goalkeeper for the Spanish national football team said:

“Before games, when I hear the French or the German, or the players from another country singing their national anthem, we seem a little strange.”

It does seem somewhat ironic that in a country so vocal and with such a zest for singing that Spain’s national anthem is without words.

David Beckham once said that he got more nervous singing the national anthem before a game than when he was actually playing. The search may still be on for Spain to find appropriate lyrics for their national anthem that appease the prickly political sensibilities of Spaniards whilst still being inspiring. Perhaps then football fans will be less inclined to mock and belittle what should be a proud and patriotic occasion.

Gabrielle Pickard for RT