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Uno! Dos! Hike!

A Claremont football team plays in Spain--ann andd tackles a cultural divide.

July 04, 2001|KELLY CANDAELE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VALENCIA, Spain — Claremont McKenna College student Brad Kertson holds a pizza in his lap as he rides a bus from Madrid to Valencia. His maroon-and-white shirt accentuates Arnold Schwarzenegger-size arms. During the four-hour drive to the Mediterranean coast, the 21-year-old international studies major offers an interpretation of why surrealist art took hold in Spain when it did. "I think Franco's period of authoritarian rule generated an artistic response," he suggests. "And Salvador Dali was influenced by Freud as well."

But Kertson is not here to analyze Modernist masters or the neo-gothic exuberance of Gaudi's architecture. He's in Spain to do something a bit surreal in itself. Kertson is here to play football, American style.

He and 40 college teammates--decked out in classic Southern California style, wearing baseball caps backward, baggy shorts and a few Lakers T-shirts--will play a Valencia team. The Valencia Firebats are among nine amateur clubs in Spain challenging European indifference and, at times, hostility toward American football.

And sometimes, toward Americans. Kertson committed himself to speaking to the opposing players in Spanish after being confronted by a number of Spaniards who told him that Americans can't pronounce their names, don't understand their culture or respect their history. "The thing I learned about the Spanish is the importance of honor and respect," he said. "So I'm going to speak in Spanish to whoever is across from me during the game and tell them to get ready for a long day. I think they'll like that."

Finding players in Spain, who practice from 10 p.m. to midnight after their day jobs, has not been easy. While hundreds of flag football teams have been established in high schools throughout the country, financial resources are minimal, and there is no developed youth system that teaches the basics and funnels players to higher levels.

In their Madrid hotel the morning of their trip, the Stags, the college's team nickname, had gathered around bags of football gear--dark red helmets with facemasks, bulky shoulder pads and, to Spanish eyes at least, oddly shaped oblong footballs packed in a bunch. An older Spanish gentleman picked up one of the footballs and pointed out to anyone who would listen that "here in Spain, football is something we play with just our feet." Then he made a gesture as if he were throwing a forward pass, wagged his finger back and forth, shook his head no and headed out the door.

He's right, of course, at least for now. Futbol , what Americans call soccer, is the country's primary team sport. The main professional league, consisting of 20 teams from Spain's biggest cities, recruits many of the world's top players and is considered one of the most competitive leagues in Europe. In Spain, soccer generates some of the most intense city rivalries you'll find anywhere in the world, and games often have political, regional and philosophical overtones.

Real Madrid, for instance, was considered "Franco's team"--the dictator used to schedule big games on days when protests were expected to lure the angry crowds away--while Barcelona, a center of anti-Franco resistance during the Spanish Civil War in the late '30s, embodies the independence and freedom of the Catalan province. Soccer, like most everything in Spain, is embedded in history.

So in bringing American football to Spain, there was no pretense that the game would be embraced or even understood. "I realize," said Claremont head Coach Rick Candaele before the game, "that American football may in many ways be culturally at odds with the Spanish national character. But I want our players to see and experience another culture, especially in a competitive arena." The Spanish trip is the second in a series of games Candaele has planned to introduce football, and his players, to countries in which the game is not prominent.

The coach also happens to be my brother. I joined his team as a minister without portfolio, a nosy journalist who wanted to see what was lost or preserved in the translation from American football to Spanish futbol . But I also came to play. At 47 years old, I ventured onto the field for the last five plays not for the sake of past glories but simply to throw on the pads one last time and to experience what it felt like to bang around with kids half my age.

Doug Kidney, a 21-year-old defensive back, grew up playing soccer in Chino, just east of Los Angeles. "Soccer is a game that continuously flows, a graceful game," he observes, eyeing the Valencia team during a pregame warmup. "The Spanish can enjoy 90 minutes of soccer with patience, but Americans need the intensity of a big play. I can see the beauty in each sport."

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