Spain’s ’21st century gladiators’ do Merida proud

September 10, 2009

Spain’s qualification for next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa has brought a welcome distraction to a nation suffering more than most of its European peers from the economic crisis.

Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Estonia put the European champions through as Group Five winners and Vicente del Bosque’s highly-fancied side will be competing in their ninth straight finals since 1978 and attempting to win the World Cup for the first time.

The Spanish FA (RFEF) opted to play the Estonia qualifier in the ancient Roman city of Merida, capital of the struggling Extremadura region, and the local fans gave star players like Fernando Torres, David Villa and Iker Casillas a hero’s welcome.

Hundreds turned out in the blazing sunshine to welcome the players at their hotel on Tuesday afternoon and the 15,000-seater Estadio Romano was packed with boisterous fans for both Tuesday’s evening’s training session and the match.

Unemployment in Extremadura, the dusty region between Madrid and Portugal, is running at more than 20 percent compared with around 18 percent in Spain as a whole and the scores of empty shops in Merida, which boasts some of the world’s best-preserved ancient Roman ruins, are a stark reminder of economic hardship.

“We want to use the Estonia match to promote Merida and Extremadura,” city mayor Angel Calle said. “We will welcome the players as if they were 21st-century gladiators.”

The RFEF policy of playing matches away from major centres like Madrid and Seville is much appreciated by Merida locals, who rarely, if ever, get a chance to see star players in the flesh.

“I’ve never seen anything like this here in my life,” said 82-year-old fan Juan Jose Garrido Carroza outside the stadium on Wednesday. “This is a really big event, it’s hugely important for sure.”

The Spanish national side is not as popular in regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country but the cries of “Espana! Espana!” that rang out around the stadium at the final whistle in Merida are proof that in Extremadura at least they will always be welcome.

PHOTO: Spain’s Cesc Fabregas celebrates after scoring against Estonia during their World Cup qualifier at the Romano stadium in Merida, Sept 9, 2009. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

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