Almost unbelievably, Spain is contemplating laws that would outlaw the innocent pursuit of street football. Martin Hesp cannot believe the Spanish, of all nations, would do such a thing
There are many trite phrases outraged newspaper columnists should avoid, beginning with the strained groan that protests: "You couldn't make it up!" Every now and then, though, some bit of madness comes along that has even the most eloquent writer groping for any other form of words…
Such as the news that the Spanish government is preparing to ban the playing of football in any place not legally suited to the purpose.
It seems unbelievable that Spain, of all countries, should consider outlawing the mass-participation activity of street football. The country is famous for being the home of elegant geniuses of foot and ball, like Barcelona's midfield maestro Xavi – a man who describes himself as "a player from the street".
Even the most diehard of England supporters melt when they watch members of the Spanish national team zipping the ball about the pitch.
Somehow – as each perfect pass is met with perfect auto-pilot understanding – you can imagine some little walled village perched high above the hot plains where kids play kick-about in the cramped cobbled streets.
Indeed, Xavi grew up playing in exactly such a place – a town called Terrassa, near Barcelona. Now the great midfielder has turned into the kind of raging bull so beloved by many of his fellows – claiming that Spain's footballing future is being threatened by the craziest red tape invented since Salvador Dali painted surrealist ribbons…
"They've made it very nice, very modern, but they've screwed it up for kids who are like I was," he is reported as saying of the old square where he played kick-about. "They have no chance of playing football there now."
I used to go to Spain a lot when my children were small and can remember looking on with envy as I saw the tiniest villages build the most amazing footballing facilities. At home I helped manage a boys' team in which my son played – and could but drool when I witnessed artificial pitches with floodlights being created for remote mountain communities.
Then, when Spain started to slide into national debt a few years ago, I thought: "Ah-ha! That will be because of their overspending. You can't go building sports pavilions like there's no tomorrow if you haven't the long-term cash to pay for them."
And so, when I read this story about Spain banning street football, I was tempted to think: "I'm not surprised. They've built all those expensive white elephants – I guess they're saying to their indebted citizens: you'd better use them."
But on second thoughts, I'm not so sure. The banning of something free and innocent like street football is probably indicative of something more sinister. It's about bending the will of a society to make it different – probably better behaved.
It is dangerous to talk about national characteristics, but you will not see so much street football being played in Germany, say, or Switzerland – at least not compared to the cobbled villages of Spain, or the favelas of Brazil.
In both the latter countries it is the architectural make-up of the built environment that has given rise to a free-flowing form of football that actually has a name. It's called ticka-taka which, to quote Wikipedia, is "a style of play in football characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession…"
Jed Davies, football coach at Oxford University, says tiki-taka football is "a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field is flexible and can be altered by the team playing on it".
For any size of football field, read: Spanish town square or street.
Since the recession hit Spain, the country has been ruled by the People's Party – a right-wing bunch which grew from the more progressive members of Franco's fascist dictatorship. It stands for public order and has introduced draconian new laws to curb public displays of any disaffection.
A new bill entitled The Citizens' Security Law has been proposed, and among other things it includes this rule that prevents the playing of football in "non-designated" areas.
Surely we would never do anything so daft? Would we?
Um, yes. The 1980 Highways Act made it illegal to play on or near a public road for safety reasons – which gave rise to a rash of councils bunging up "no ball games" signs in communal spaces across the country. And suddenly playing football in the street was – in many places – deemed an anti-social activity.
The 1994 Criminal Justice Act was another plethora of authoritarian dictates – laws which allowed police free reign, not only to shut down things like illegal raves, but also to stamp out more innocent pursuits, like the odd impromptu community barbecue or street tea.
It's more a case of: when the going gets tough, the tough get tough. Show me a recession and I'll show you a rash of draconian decrees which curb personal freedom.
But, ironically, show me a kid who can play football like a genius in a cobbled street, and I'll show you a potential multi-millionaire.
My ranting cry about "you couldn't make it up" actually reflects the simple desire that everyone should relax and enjoy life a little more. We don't need more red tape – we need more fun.