I heard Michael Laudrup talking on the English TV on Saturday morning about the importance of the first Welsh derby he'd been involved in, between Cardiff and Swansea. It was the first time the teams had ever met in the Premier League, and Laudrup (a Dane), on being asked whether he could understand the importance of the occasion, replied, "No. But then again, every derby thinks it's the most important." It was an interesting thing to say, and all the more significant coming from a man who probably played in more of the big ones than many other players in history -- the clasico, the Danish derby (Brondby versus FC Copenhagen), Juventus versus Turin, Lazio versus Roma, and CSKA versus Spartak Moscow, the latter as a coach.
Cardiff beat his "Spanish" Swansea team 1-0, but Laudrup's comments would have been more appropriate this weekend for La Liga, in which there were four derbies -- if Osasuna will excuse the phrase (more on that later). Last Friday night we had the Catalan derby between Barcelona and Espanyol, a game that kicked off the weekend's fixtures after a midweek jornada that saw every evening taken up with games. Saturday saw one of the Madrid derbies, the interesting David and Goliath clash of Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid, preceded by Real Sociedad versus Osasuna, and Sunday night's last game of the weekend featured Malaga versus Betis, one of the derbies of the large Andalucia region in the south of the country. It was certainly unusual to have so many played over one weekend, but at least it ensured that each game was packed to the rafters. There have been murmurs in the press recently about falling attendances in Spain, perhaps sparked by the desolation of Monday night's game between Getafe and Athletic last week, when there seemed to be more players than spectators.
The origins of the word derby -- mutated by the Spanish into derbi -- are disputed, but it seems to have had something to do with the horse race (The Derby), founded by the eponymous 12th Earl in 1780. This began to associate the term with a significant sporting event, but as the years passed, the word extended in meaning to take in the notion of a particularly local rivalry with two sports teams from the same town, city or region. Others think it originated before the 18th century, in the Shrovetide match between two parishes of the English city of Derby, where up to a thousand strapping chaps were allowed to basically pummel one another while chasing the "ball." After centuries of protest, the event was finally prohibited in 1846, 17 years before the founding of the FA in England. Whatever the truth, it's interesting that the Spanish seem so keen on the word, reflecting, one supposes, the old Anglophile origins of the game. As Laudrup said, each one's particular flavour makes it the most important in the eyes of the local beholders.
Barcelona struggled in their match at home to Espanyol, winning 1-0 with another goal from Alexis Sanchez, the man most questioned last year, and now the man most in form. Neymar made the goal happen with an exquisite double nutmeg pass that only he could have conjured up, but it was actually the sort of game that the league champions could have done without, with the atmosphere and the occasion boosting their opponents and raising further question marks over the state of Barcelona's general play, if not about their points tally.
The Catalan derby is a strange affair, and Espanyol don't often win it. They've only won five times at the Camp Nou since 1950, and only three times at home since their return from the Segunda in 1994. The game brings together two different sociopolitical views of Catalunya, a fact that hardly needs explaining given the somewhat provocative nature of Espanyol's name (now spelled in Catalan) in a region that is historically renowned for its secessionist tendencies and declarations of nationhood.
It's not a common phenomenon in football to have a city thus divided, and now the relocation of Espanyol's ground to the outer edges of the city, in Cornella de Llobregat in 2009, has prompted comments from certain Barcelona circles (originally Joan Laporta) that the derby is no longer a "Barcelona" city, derby but rather a "metropolitan" one. This is true in the strictest of geographical terms, but a little unfair to the Espanyol fans who consider themselves a part of the greater city, albeit one with a particular political twist. This has done little to improve relations between the two clubs, and they continue to inhabit different planets, with Espanyol largely indifferent to the nationalist sentiments that emanate from the Camp Nou. Espanyol have also tried to work their own cantera youth system as best they can, despite the proximity of La Masia, but recently lost their latest rising star, a 12-year-old by the name of Adria Bernabe, who has basically gone over to the other side. Then again, Espanyol's current squad contains four players who all came through the ranks at Barcelona, particularly captain and star Sergio Garcia, which might be evidence (as it has been in the past) that Espanyol do also benefit from their richer neighbours' cast-offs. Ivan de la Pena is perhaps the stand-out example in recent years, although he would probably bristle at the term "cast-off."
Rayo Vallecano versus Real Madrid is another interesting one, and although the political differences between the two sets of fans are rather less clear -- Real Madrid still consider themselves a working-class club, or at least the club of the Spanish "everyman" -- the two teams inhabit wildly differing neighbourhoods, and as such are considered to be the opposite extremes of Madrid. The Bernabeu sits on the Castellana, with its banks and financial institutions, while Rayo's little stadium is hidden among second-hand shops and high-rise flats in the modest area of Vallecas, whose population it represents. Real Madrid's market is the wider world, and a Madridista can hail from Madrid or from Manila. If you support Rayo, you were probably born somewhere near the stadium.
Saturday's derby was a fascinating contrast in economic resources, with Rayo's squad built on a budget of 7 million euros and reassembled after the departure of 13 players in the summer. Seven million euros represents the first six months of Cristiano Ronaldo's annual salary package. Just to rub it in further, the Portuguese striker scored twice, nicely assisted by Gareth Bale for his second, but the aristocrats found the tiny ground hard-going in the end, almost letting a 3-0 lead slip through their manicured fingers after two penalties for Rayo brought the hosts back into the reckoning. Again, like Barcelona, Madrid could have done without this particular game, exposing once again their defensive frailties while overemphasising their offensive armoury. Trouble is, Rayo played the better football. Someone should hand Paco Jemez (Rayo's coach) some kind of special award at the end of the season, whether they stay up or go down. The "Dignity Against The Odds" award, perhaps?
Malaga versus Betis, which ended in a 3-2 last-gasp win for the hosts, put paid to a dreadful run of five games without a win for Bernd Schuster's team. This particular derby rather pales in passion compared with the Andaluz clasico of Sevilla against Betis, and has had much less time to develop as a tradition, given Malaga's changes of identity over the years and their inconsistent presence in the top flight. If you take the presently named team as existing since 1994, then this was but the 15th manifestation of this particular clash, and only Malaga's fifth win. Of course, Malaga go back all the way to 1904 and are one of Spain's historic clubs, but the nature of the city, some distance from Seville and sitting smack down there on the southern extreme, seems to have given it concerns and an image other than football, such that its derby possibilities seem a tad diluted.
Last but not least, Real Sociedad played Osasuna on Saturday afternoon and stuffed them 5-0. Osasuna, from Pamplona, about a 50-minute drive over the mountains, are not strictly a Basque team in the political sense of the word, but there are whole swathes of the Navarre region who are Basque-speaking and identify with the culture. To call it a "Basque derby" risks the wrath of a certain section of Osasuna's supporters, which is fair enough, but if we extend the remit of the term to mean "regional proximity" and "stuff in common," then I reckon it's a derby. There were plenty of Osasuna fans there anyway, mingling amicably with the locals through the day, and although the two clubs have had a few spats in the past over a number of issues, there's basically a sound relationship between the two that underpins the cultural interface.
I went to the match, of course, and rather enjoyed myself. This Tuesday, I hope to enjoy myself again, but this time for the visit of Man United in the Champions League. It should be a special occasion, marred only by the fact that I've promised to write a report on the game and deliver it after the match. No problem. It will actually be a pleasure. I can't quite believe that Rooney and company are about to tread the turf of Anoeta, but I sincerely hope they find it a troubling experience. Until then...