"Spaniards let me invade their living rooms; I love them so much for that"
When Michael Robinson ended his playing career at Osasuna, he decided to do something different
When Michael Robinson first arrived in Spain after signing for Osasuna, the omens were not good.
"I went to training and while I was warming up I saw the director of the hotel I was staying at, wearing this tracksuit and playing with the ball," he says. "I thought: 'What a host he is!' I went back to the hotel and told my wife: 'We're going to get relegated for sure. You know the director of the hotel? Well, he's the boss, and he's congregated some of the worst footballers I've seen in my life. Instead of signing me they should have signed David Copperfield, because he's the only person who could get us out of this mess. But never mind, what's Osasuna like?' She said: 'Osasuna doesn't exist Michael; that's the name of the team. The place is called Pamplona'."
Robinson, who grew up in Blackpool and began his playing career with Preston North End, had won the European Cup with Liverpool three years before, but was now at Osasuna, a team that had spent the majority of its existence outside the top division and had never won a trophy. He was only the second foreigner to play for the club and had swapped a glamorous life in west London to live in Pamplona, a sleepy city of under 200,000 people where nothing happens for 51 weeks of the year (the San Fermín festival occupies the 52nd). Despite the culture shock, he still has fond memories of Pamplona.
"I enjoyed myself in Pamplona," says Robinson, sipping on a gin and tonic in the bar of a Madrid hotel. "Normally when people are in the autumn of their career, they finish badly. I finished playing in one of the most important leagues in the world, in a full stadium every week, with my people adoring me."
Robinson was forced to retire from the game due to a persistent knee injury but was invited by Televisión Española to commentate on the 1990 World Cup in Italy. He proved such a hit with Spanish viewers that he was asked to co-present a weekly soccer program on national television, El Día Después (The Day After). Robinson soon added a comical touch to the show, scanning crowds at games in search of fans doing strange things.
"We made the public the protagonist," explains Robinson. "In Italy I realized football wasn't about who scored the goals, who missed and who got sent off. There's so many more stories."
El Día Después quickly became the most popular sports show on Spanish television, and Robinson the most popular sports TV personality, with its unique blend of in-depth analysis and humor proving a winning formula.
Robinson left the program in 2005. He now commentates on La Liga matches for Canal Plus and presents a monthly in-depth sports show, Informe Robinson (The Robinson Report).
Earlier this year, Robinson completed 25 years in Spain. So does he feel like an adopted Spaniard? "Absolutely. It crept up on me one day when I spoke to my mother- and father-in-law, who constantly buy the Daily Mail, and I didn't understand what they were speaking about."
Robinson seems much happier when talking about Spain than England, and has no plans to ever return to live in his home country.
"England's all about money and perceived success," he complains. "In Spain, people have time for each other. I never imagined people from another country would open their arms up to me and make me feel so happy. Spaniards gave me the benefit of the doubt and let me invade their living rooms and speak to them, and I love them so much for that."
Nonetheless, there are several things about Spain that frustrate Robinson, notably the divisions within the country concerning regional and national identity. The week before our interview, Esperanza Aguirre, the Madrid regional premier, had caused uproar by suggesting that the King's Cup final be suspended if Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao supporters booed the national anthem before the game. Robinson's usual smile fades when we broach the subject.
"Franco decided: you can't speak Catalan and Euskera. Now you are free to speak Catalan, and that's seen to be anti-Spanish. Why would anybody in Catalonia or the Basque Country feel love for a flag that told them they couldn't be who they are?
"This nation is blessed with the greatest diversity in Europe. We've got andaluces, extremeños, catalanes, etc, but what we've done is something quite incongruous: we've created a problem from our diversity rather than created our greatest virtue. One day we'll come across the fact we've got something lovely in common - you put the Spanish together at a meal and everyone will get along. But you've got to let Catalan people feel Catalan in Spain; you've got to let Basques feel Basque; and let gallegos feel that they're not being predominated by a central ex-Franquista government."
But while politicians like Aguirre have sought to divide Spain, Robinson argues that football has helped turned the tide. And statistics back him up: when Spain beat Italy 4-0 last Sunday to win its third consecutive major trophy in four years, in addition to the tens of thousands of people celebrating around Madrid's Cibeles square, an estimated 10,000 people took to Plaça Espanya in Barcelona to celebrate - even though Barcelona City Hall had refused to show the game on big screens - while thousands also partied in Plaza Moyua in Bilbao.
"Spain won the European championships [in 2008] and it united Spain in a way I had never seen. The Spanish flag was always synonymous with political tendency. But in Bilbao, in Galicia and Catalonia, people adopted the Spanish flag by a general deseo que gane España. Spain has no reason to unite itself behind a flag - Franco obliged people to leave behind their national tongue and their national culture. So it's very difficult for people to feel united for the Spanish cause. But football has healed that to a great extent."