Corrida of Uncertainty
How the cruelty of tiki-taka resembles bull-fighting
It is late September and in Barcelona's monumental stadium the Catalan crowd is chanting its olés and enjoying what it expects from heroes. Applause greets every moment of artistry, and it's getting noisy because the whole sumptuous repertoire of technique is on display. Languid phases of poise and stillness give way to darting swoops and thrusts. Most breathtaking of all are the intricately-worked patterns of passing. These are hypnotic, ingeniously inventive, sweeping. Some sequences seem to last for minutes. One side is giving an exhibition of intelligence and fluidity; the other can muster only a kind of sullen physical threat. The quick passing serves to establish mastery and wear down the resistance of the dangerous opponent. Poise and grace is trumping clumsy power. Yet as the beauty unfolds, as the crowd roars approval, I'm beginning to get a little uneasy. The blood is flowing. Soon will be the time for death.
Oh, I'm sorry. Did you think I was describing a football match? This is a bullfight. One of the last great ones in the city, as it happens, featuring the mesmeric José Tomás, a sort of torero equivalent of Xavi or Messi. The contest takes place in the high-sided Monumental bullring about five kilometres from FC Barcelona's ground. In terms of aesthetics, though, the distance between tauromaquia and tiki-taka is even less. Similarities between the spectacle on the sand of the Plaza de Toros and that now on offer at the greenly cavernous Camp Nou are uncanny.
In both cases, small men use their skill, courage and creativity to dominate a much greater physical force, and reduce it to the point where they can destroy it. In bullfighting, relatively tiny toreros overcome 500 kilos of hurtling horn and muscle. In football matches, the even smaller practitioners of tiki-taka are obliged to face the studs, elbows and scything boots of such footballing beasts as Nemanja Vidić, Pepé and Nigel de Jong. At Barça, one of Andrés Iniesta's trademark manoeuvres — the spin which leaves his lunging tackler bewildered and chasing shadows — is clearly based on the classic bullfighting pass known as the chicuelina. The frighteningly quick and precise coups de grâce performed by Lionel Messi, usually over the horns of much bigger defenders and goalkeepers, remind us of the so-called 'sword of truth', the matador's thrust to the heart of the bull which ends the faena.
Even the pattern of artistic development in both arenas has been similar. In bullfighting over the last century the tendency, from the 'golden age' of Juan Belmonte, Joselito and Manolete, through Domingo Ortega to José Tomás today, has been for matadors to get ever closer to the charging bull and make their sequences of passing increasingly complex and daring. (Just how daring is often forgotten: Joselito and Manolete were both killed by bulls, and José Tomás nearly died in 2010 when horribly gored in Mexico). Likewise, tiki-taka represents the latest stage of a remorseless speeding up and intensifying of patterns of football passing, calling for ever greater levels of daring and invention. Performing some of Barça's high-speed passing deep in the opposition half, in areas where boots are flying and defenders desperate, requires similar levels of nerve and precision to that required by the torero.
Needless to say, in Barcelona itself the suggestion that there might be parallels between bullfighting and what the blaugrana do would be considered heretical. Although many residents of city are immigrants from Andalucia and love bullfighting, others now take a contrary view. Partly this is a consequence of growing modern unease about the less palatable aspects of the corrida. PACMA (the Party Against Bullfighting, Cruelty and Mistreatment of Animals) last year gathered 180,000 signatures on an anti-corrida petition and managed to persuade the region's parliament to ban bullfighting in Catalonia altogether, a prohibition which came into force in January. Much more significant in this process, however, were the political forces which saw abolition of bullfighting as a way to advance the cause of Catalan independence.
In Catalonia, bulls are considered symbols of Spain and of hated Madrid. That's why, in the whole region only one 'Toro de Osborne' now survives and even that has been attacked by separatists. The Osbornes are the huge silhouette bull sculptures which once advertised sherry but now represent Spanishness. If you haven't seen one in the flesh, you may recall the one in the film Jamón, Jamón, directed by the Catalan Bigas Luna, in which it functions as a delirious metaphor for manliness and national identity. Two men, played by Jordi Molla (an actor from Barcelona) and Javier Bardem (an Atlético Madrid fan), compete for the love of Penélope Cruz. Bardem is machismo incarnate and dreams of becoming a torero, fights bulls naked under moonlight and makes magnificent love to Cruz under the giant Osborne. Molla, by contrast, is a pathetic mummy's boy who fails to have sex with Cruz under the same Osborne and vents his frustration by castrating the statue, smashing its great metal cojones with his fists. "You don't have balls," Cruz says, crushingly. Later, Bardem beats Molla to death with a phallic ham. Football doesn't really figure in the film, but Spanish football traditionally embodied much the same, anciently visigothic notions of machismo.
At Barcelona, Gary Lineker was once known as 'el matador' because he hung around the penalty area waiting to make his kill. But this was an exception. More typically it is the players and fans of Real Madrid who like to indulge in bullring imagery. In 2008, the club captain Raúl celebrated winning the Spanish championship by performing, to thunderous ovation, a series of stately véronicas — the fundamental bullfighting pass — in the Bernabéu using a traditional cape emblazoned with the Real Madrid crest. (Sergio Ramos did much the same thing in Valencia last season.)
There are several levels of irony here. Raúl is perhaps the last great representative of 'La Furia Española' in which the ideal player was a sort of toro bravo, a fighting bull: strong, fearless, bathed in sweat, gamely charging after the opposition. According to Jimmy Burns, author both of a history of Barça and a forthcoming history of Spanish football, the essence of La Furia was "football con cojones", exemplified by heroes like Telmo Zarra, the granite-thighed centre-forward of the 1950s who was admired by Franco. (In the glossary to "Death in the Afternoon", Ernest Hemingway defined cojones this way: "testicles; a valorous bullfighter is said to be plentifully equipped with these. In a cowardly bullfighter they are said to be absent.") The doctrines of La Furia led to successive Spain teams being outwitted and beaten at World Cups. The adoption of tiki-taka, not only by Barça but the national team as well, thus signifies not merely a shift in tactics but a bewildering change of identities from bull to matador, from sacrificial victim to ritual killer.
Modern advocates of bullfighting insist it is an essential part of Spanish tradition and culture. Newspapers in Spain still carry reports of fights on the arts pages, not the sports ones. By contrast, anti-bullfight campaigners decry it as no more than a form of torture, a wholly sadistic practice.
Intellectuals have long argued about its precise nature. Hemingway insisted bullfighting was art — the only art in which the artist risked death every time he performed. He also stressed that it was not a sport "in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an equal contest, or an attempt at an equal contest." Rather, it was "a tragedy" in which there was danger for the man but certain death for the bull. Orson Welles, a torero in his youth, observed that the bullfight was a tragedy based on the innocent "perfect virginity" of the noble creature that is killed.
More recently the Scottish writer AL Kennedy has concluded that while elements of sport, dance and theatre are present, the omnipresence of death "set the corrida in its own, unique classification: part entertainment, part outrage, part sacrament." As blood sacrifice, its roots go back to both pagan bull worship and the Inquisition's auto-da-fe. When Kennedy witnessed her first bullfight, an inept provincial affair, she thought it "much nearer butchery and farce than art". Later, watching better toreros, she underwent a change of heart and noticed that the climactic dance of death between matador and bull carried a powerful erotic charge: "Matadors often liken the faena to making love... the matador appears to clear a way through the air with his muleta [cape] for exactly the path the bull desires to follow. Rather than tricking the bull [he] gives it the impression that he knows what it wants before it does, that he is there to help. This is the body knowledge of the lover, played out as theatre and execution.''
In football too, beauty, cruelty and what Ruud Gullit called "sexy football" are inextricably linked. The greatest players — the ones considered beautiful — are the ones who dominate and psychologically annihilate their opponents. This is what Barcelona do. It is no gentle process. Barça's sacrificial victims may vent rage or submit meekly. Either way, they'll end up being metaphorically dragged out by a team of horses. Of course, the death in bullfighting is agonisingly real, whereas in football it is symbolic. Then again, the suffering inflicted on teams by being slowly, stylishly, remorselessly slaughtered by tiki-taka cannot be underestimated.
Even the biggest, dumbest, slowest footballers are sentient creatures who feel pain. Indeed human victims are in some ways more vulnerable. No bull could ever feel the embarrassment and sense of professional humiliation visited, say, on José Mourinho when his Real Madrid side were disembowelled 5-0 by tiki-taka in November 2010. The uncomprehending, bewildered look on the face of the usually bullish Sir Alex Ferguson was pitiable to behold when his Manchester United were stylishly put to the sword in the Champions League final at Wembley.
Anti-bullfight campaigners see the corrida as a sick and degrading spectacle, damaging to children, an affront to civilised values, a spectacle with no more artistic merit than public garrotting. The more I learn about bullfighting, the more I wonder about this. Is there, say, a moral difference between bullfighting and the abattoir? If we eat meat, is it fair to object to the bullfight? Then again, perhaps the abolitionists are right. Maybe there is something depraved in taking pleasure from a form of culture in which the art lies in the ability to cause pain. In that case the conclusion is inescapable. Tiki-taka involves, in the name of entertainment, the infliction of suffering by small men on innocent larger creatures. Tiki-taka is therefore cruel; cruelty has no place in a civilised society: tiki-taka should be banned.