Interview: Journalist Sid Lowe on Spanish football ahead of 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival appearance

This article is from 2014

Interview: Journalist Sid Lowe on Spanish football ahead of 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival appearance

Author of Fear and Loathing in La Liga, which explored rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid

It’s not often that a book about football comes along which blurs the lines between a story of the beautiful game, political intrigue and historical epic, but Sid Lowe has done exactly that this year with Fear and Loathing in La Liga.

Telling the story of El Clásico, the rivalry between Spain’s two greatest football teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Lowe pulls back the curtain on one of the most politically charged and fascinating rivalries in sport. Colin Robertson caught up with Sid before his appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

How do you feel being a sports writer involved in a festival which largely deals with literature with a capital L? Are you excited?
Yes, very. I didn't really realise that until I saw the catalogue. That was quite humbling and also a little daunting but above all it is pleasing, very flattering. In a way, it reflects one of the aims of the book and one of the central arguments: it is broader than sport alone and certainly broader than the two clubs as simple football teams. On one level, however overblown this pretence risks being, the football is a mechanism to look at Spanish politics and society, and one of the key fault lines. But, fundamentally, of course it is a football book, albeit one that I wanted to have a human story element. Much of the second half of the book is almost an oral history. Different people have said they liked/disliked different bits of the book, which I suppose reflects that shifting character and different perspectives. I hope it works.

I read that it was your studies which first brought you to Spain. How did you end up writing about Spanish football?
Yes, I came to research a PhD in theory. I was already doing some sports writing, mostly but not only for The Guardian, and the timing was fortuitously perfect. The Champions League was becoming bigger, so was Spanish football, then David Beckham came to Madrid and it grew from there. In fact, it was an explosion. The balance tipped for me – more journalism, less historical research. Eventually, I had to get back to the history and finish it off: on the roots of the Franco regime and the causes of the civil war, through the evolution of the political right.

Do you think the off-field, socio-political aspects of the rivalry are equally important to those on-field ones?
Yes, absolutely. Although none of the elements live in isolation of the others. If they were not the two biggest football clubs in purely sporting terms, it would not be the same of course. The sheer number of incredible players they have – and have had – is mind blowing. That is what draws people in and continues to drive the rivalry. But that search to be the best – that obsession – has those deeper sociological roots. They need each other, they are mutually dependent, and that is about more than just the football.

Why did you call the book Fear and Loathing in La Liga?
I'm a little uneasy about the 'robbery' from Hunter S Thompson, not least because in part it is born of admiration for his writing. I certainly don't want to equate myself to him, and I didn't drive between the two cities with a trunk-load of drugs. But I think it scans well, captures the attention and encapsulates the rivalry well, as well as echoing that sense of madness, illusion, power and society. I also hope that it conveys the idea that the book is a bit different than if it had just been called 'El Clásico' or something like that.

The book is full of insane anecdotes. If you could pick one that epitomises the rivalry, what would it be?
I was delighted to track down Fernando Argila, the only surviving member of the Barcelona team that lost 11-1 to Madrid in 1943 in very mysteriously political circumstances (he is 94 now). Michael Laudrup's telling of crossing the divide and Luis Figo talking about the infamous and symbolic pig's head is important, but the anecdote I like best is probably Josep Maria Fuste telling the story of the time he met Franco. Fuste was a Catalan, whose father was left wing and pro-independence, who did not like the regime, but who played for Spain, and then celebrated a little too much and in a rather frowned-upon way when they beat the Soviet Union, communist enemies, in the European championships in 1964. He tells this incredible story of how Franco dealt with his misdemeanour, which is not only a great anecdote that I loved hearing, feeling almost giddy that he shared it with me and told it so brilliantly, but which is also, when unpacked, an eloquent comment on politics, survival, image, reality, and a reminder that it is rarely clear-cut or obvious.

The amount of detail in the book suggests it was a pretty epic undertaking. As this is your first book – how did you find it?
It was actually my second; 'Catholicism, war and the foundation of Francoism' was first. But, yes, this grew and grew and by the end of it I was exhausted and a bit sick of it. There was always something more to check or to read or someone else to speak to and I still think there are holes and flaws in the book. All in all though, I think it came out OK and it does feel rewarding now. Some of the researching was fascinating and really, really enjoyable. Being able to interview some of the protagonists was a real honour. I also felt like I had gone back a bit to the historian I had sort of stopped being.

Do you plan to write any more books?
Just after I finished I think I would have rather shot myself than write another one, but I always knew that at some stage I would be open to the idea again. I had an idea in my head, and one that I had even started researching well before I started Fear and Loathing in La Liga, so perhaps I'll go back to that. I have been assisting someone with writing theirs recently, so that’s taken up my time as well. I’m not sure another book will be the same but this one was partly an unplanned undertaking too, so who knows?

Sid Lowe: When Barcelona met Real Madrid, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0844 373 5888, Sat 16 Aug, 4pm, £10 (£8).

Sid Lowe

The Guardian’s Spanish football correspondent is one of the most perceptive and articulate writers in his field. Not surprisingly then, Sid Lowe’s study of the epic rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona is more than just a story of Messi v Ronaldo. Fear and Loathing in La Liga paints a picture of Spain since the civil…