La Liga review

Improbable events

January 30, 2012
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

On Sunday afternoon I attended the Real Sociedad v Sporting de Gijon encounter, which finished 5-1 in favour of the home side. However, I'd like to share a personal record with you. During many years of watching live football, I don't think I've ever managed to miss fifty-percent of the goals. The first miss came courtesy of a quick trip to the loo, just as the half-time break was drawing to a close. Why not go at the beginning, you ask? Well, I had been delayed in conversation with the legendary Alex Calvo-Garcia, who sometimes sits behind me in Anoeta. Now retired, he famously scored the winning goal at Wembley to promote Scunthorpe United via the play-offs in 1999, upon which he ripped off his shirt to reveal the Ikurrina below (the Basque flag), a point missed by almost everyone in the stadium that day. You can check it out on YouTube. He has a bar named after him now, at Scunthorpe's ground, but it was his fault entirely that I missed Sporting's first goal, netted in the opening minute of the second half. Lovely bloke though.

Scunthorpe's Basque legend Alex Calvo-Garcia celebrates a goal in the FA Cup
GettyImagesScunthorpe's Basque legend, and friend of Phil Ball, Alex Calvo-Garcia celebrates a goal

The interesting thing about San Sebastian, home to Real Sociedad, is that you know at any point in the city if a goal has been scored. It's a quaintly low-tech ritual, and was originally announced by a Napoleonic war-period cannon up to the 1960s, but for safety reasons it was eventually replaced by a loud firework. One explosion means that the opposition has scored, two that the home side has netted. So even down in the loos, you know what's happened. Anyway, to cut to the quick, at 3-1 to Sociedad and eighty eight minutes gone I felt that the game was over, and left to catch the 'match special' bus that the local council provides on match days. In the rainy queue, the two-bang report echoed through the city air like a major explosion. 'Typical!' I complained to the chap in front. 'Every time I leave early they score', whereupon they scored again, boom-boom, just to prove the point. It cuts me to say it, but they didn't deserve it. I liked Sporting. They played some good stuff, and I hope they don't go down. Their midfielder, Miguel de Las Cuevas, is a seriously good player.

But taking a cue from Alex-Calvo Garcia, it's been a week of unlikely heroes, of improbable events. Calvo-Garcia was transferred from tiny Eibar in the Basque Country to Scunthorpe United in 1996, when Spanish players were much less common in England, particularly in the lower divisions. He didn't even know where he was going, and when he arrived he suffered all manner of problems and privations, almost packing his bags and calling it a day. But he persisted and became a local hero. There's a wonderful book about it called 'Scunthorpe hasta la muerte' (Scunthorpe till I die), which chronicles the human side of football to perfection. Few books have done it better, but I was reminded of this on Tuesday night, when I watched Mirandes beat Espanyol 2-1 in the Copa del Rey and progress to the semi-finals. I'd been in Madrid all day, and had got back late to San Sebastian, by which time the second half was in full flow on the telly. As you'll probably know, Mirandes, from Segunda B - the rough equivalent of the English League Two (the old 4th Division), scored in the final minute to send the small town ecstatic and put their team in a position that only one side from the same level has ever managed before, namely Figueres in 2002.

Mirandes, from the northern town of Miranda del Ebro (population 38,000), in the province of Burgos, have now beaten three top-flight sides, Racing de Santander, Villarreal and Espanyol. Athletic de Bilbao stand between them and an unprecedented place in the final, where they would meet the winners of the Valencia v Barcelona pairing. The last-gasp winning goal was wonderful in itself, but even better was the post-match interview with Pablo Infante, the bald midfielder-cum-forward who has been the inspiration behind their run. The game was covered by Spain's Channel 4, an occasional purchaser of football TV rights, and the pitch invasion at the end by a large part of the town's population threw them entirely, making it impossible for them to interview anyone on the pitch, where chaotic scenes understandably ensued.

Eventually, they took the unprecedented step of invading the home dressing-room, catching Infante just before he took his shorts off. 'How does it feel?' screamed the Channel 4 guy, thrusting the mike into the skinny player's jaw. 'Esta es la leche!' (this is the Virgin's milk!) he responded, beaming into the camera to his side. But then he turned oddly serious, lecturing the interviewer with a series of reminders - 'This has been a team effort - we've all done this together - it's not about me', at which point the interviewer intervened and asked him 'And how about tomorrow?' presumably hinting at the mass-drinking session about to take place. Infante's legendary reply - 'Nada de eso tio. Tengo que trabajar manana' (None of that mate - I've got to work tomorrow) is one of the great quotes of football history.

Mirande's Pablo Infante celebrates after his team defeated Espanyol in the Copa del Rey
APMirande's Pablo Infante celebrates after his team defeated Espanyol in the Copa del Rey

Infante works in a small branch of a Spanish bank in Miranda de Ebro, and it was his responsibility to open the doors at 8 o'clock in the morning - which he subsequently did, surrounded of course by cameras. The team he had just contributed to eliminating from the cup were changing into their official track-suits to take the bus to the airport for the flight home to Barcelona. Espanyol are not a rich club, but the salaries their players enjoy and the lifestyle they lead is so far removed from the scene at Mirandes as to make it almost impossible to imagine that they had just shared the same pitch together.

In England (for example), at least half of the clubs who play in the Blue Square Premier, officially known as 'non-league', are full-time professionals, and all 92 league clubs above them pay their players salaries which are their only source of income. In Spain, once you drop below Segunda 'A' to the regionally structured Segunda 'B', a large proportion of the clubs are part-time. The socio-economic structure of the country cannot sustain so many full-time clubs, and a whole swathe of players attend evening training sessions after a full day's work. It's easy to forget just how quickly the glamour of the top flight changes to the humdrum of the lower leagues, but it's always worth remembering that the relationship is symbiotic. One cannot exist without the other.

Two nights later, Valencia won 3-0 at neighbours Levante and extinguished any further hopes of romance in this particular edition of the cup, although the night before had seen an unusual and entertaining Clasico at the Camp Nou, the 2-2 draw returning some credit to the Real Madrid camp and re-affirming the belief - curiously ignored by Mourinho for so long - that his team were perfectly capable of playing against Barcelona on their own terms, attacking them and trying to retain possession, instead of the pseudo-catenaccio approach that had begun to make the Bernabeu uncomfortable.

The 2-2 draw was an 'improbable event', to quote the title of this piece, if only because the manner of Barca's win in the Bernabeu suggested that it was the end of the road for this particular version of the Clasico, the Pep v Mou scenario. Barcelona had seemingly put a kind of jinx on the fixture, and Madrid were resigned to further defeats, perhaps until Xavi retired or someone kidnapped Messi. In this light, the morale of the vanquished always depends on the manner of defeat, in some ways more than the result. Madrid, and several of their more questioned players (Mesut Ozil, Kaka and Esteban Granero, for example) emerged with considerable credit. Barcelona are in the semis, but now trail Madrid by seven points in the league, after their 0-0 draw at improving Villarreal. There is still a sense that the tide is turning, despite the collection of Clasico results in favour of the Catalans.

I'm heading to the Camp Nou next Saturday for the Barcelona v Real Sociedad fixture, having pledged to visit the stadium this season. I hope they appreciate it (ha ha). Of course, I would love to see the visitors win, but please refer to the title of this article.