Not so long ago Spain supplied little more than the occasional male athletic outlier—a Manuel Orantes, a Seve Ballesteros, a Miguel Indurain. Tennis player, golfer, cyclist: Each had a noble, diffident manner, and a winning smile when he chose to flash it, but the source of his prowess seemed as unfathomable as his nature. Now, thump goes each day's paper with news of another Iberian exploit. The Lakers defend their NBA title with Pau Gasol yet again anchoring the middle. Rafael Nadal rules tennis as world No. 1, with French Open and Wimbledon notches already on his 2010 belt. And two years after winning the European soccer title, Spain, conqueror of the Netherlands 1--0 in the final on Sunday, hoists its first World Cup.
It's not that some kind of ineffable power flows from the fingertips of Gasol, or the racket strings of Nadal, or the insteps of such players as midfield magician Andrés Iniesta and striker David Villa. They're simply the most prominent examples of Spain's deep pools of sports talent. During the basketball final at the 2008 Olympics the reigning world champions scored more or less at will and nearly beat LeBron, Kobe & Co. for the gold. One member of that team, guard Rudy Fernàndez, went on to set an NBA rookie record for three-pointers during his debut season with the Trail Blazers, while another, guard Ricky Rubio, taken fifth overall by the Timberwolves in the '09 draft, may yet choose to loose on the league a style that might be called Maravich 2.0. Nine of the ATP's top 40 come from Spain, current holder of the Davis Cup. And over the past two years the Spanish have supplied more contenders for the Ballon D'Or, awarded annually to the best soccer player in Europe, than any other nation.
Whether it's F/1 driver Fernando Alonso with his hands on a steering wheel, or long-driving golfer Alvaro Quiros wrapping his around a club, or Alberto Contador (the latest of four consecutive winners of the Tour de France to hail from south of the Pyrenees) taking hold of a set of handlebars, individual Spaniards have come to define what it means to be an international man of mastery. Further, today's Spanish male pro dominates with style. How many soccer fans, fell swooning into the arms of Spain after getting a mesmerizing dose of its tiki-taka short-passing game? Or found irresistible the sight of 5'10" defender Carles Puyol barreling into the goalmouth to nod in a header? Yes, it's at least partly about the hair, be it Gasol's unruly thatch, or the headband-stayed tresses of Nadal, or the tendrils of Puyol, sweaty contrails to that brazen game-winner against Germany. Check out Miguel Angel Jiménez, No. 36 in the world: In Spain, even the male golfers wear ponytails.
Just as we know that Spaniards stay up late but conveniently forget that they're at work as early as the rest of us, all this duende has a way of obscuring hard, logical explanations for the Spanish sports flowering. Three developments helped bring it about:
• Shrewd stewardship.
Spain's ACB is the finest single-nation-based pro basketball league in the world, and La Liga, thanks to FC Barcelona's Champions League performances the past two seasons, can lay plausible claim to that status in soccer. Ask around any front office in those two sports, and you'll hear rhapsodies about how the Spanish clubs develop talent. No less impressive than FC Barcelona's winning European club soccer's "treble" in 2009 is that Bar√ßa did it while starting seven products of its own youth system.
• Lavish spending.
Public and private patrons poured pesetas into sporting facilities in conjunction with the 1992 Barcelona Games, and we're witnessing the dividends. Even as the global financial crisis imperils the Spanish economy, sports in Spain remain awash in cash, especially at the summit. Real Madrid rakes in more revenue than any soccer club on earth, and when it spends some of that lucre to import such global icons as Brazil's Kakà and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, it simultaneously challenges and stimulates Spain's hopefuls.
• Social change.
Under fascism Spain never had a chance to seed sport among the masses to see what might grow. But since the arrival of democracy in 1978 and the country's accession to the European Union eight years after that, improved nutrition, for one, has helped the average sporting-age Spaniard add height at a rate 50% faster than his counterparts on the rest of the Continent. Prosperity has built a leisure class, two by-products of which, a more athletic citizen and a more affluent fan, tend to reinforce each other.
More than all this, though, young Spaniards born during the decade between their country's hosting of the 1982 World Cup and the 1992 Olympics think differently than their predecessors. A few years ago Nike ran an ad campaign featuring Gasol and a half-dozen national team soccer players. Read the tagline: BEING SPANISH IS NO LONGER AN EXCUSE. IT'S A RESPONSIBILITY. Today for the Spanish, sporting success is no longer a responsibility. It's an expectation.
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Check out Ben Reiter's 50 parting thoughts from the World Cup at SI.com/reiter
Ask around front offices in soccer and basketball and YOU'LL HEAR RHAPSODIES about how Spanish clubs develop talent.
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO