There's a wonderful phrase in Spanish called 'Estar de Rodriguez', which means that your wife and children have gone away for the weekend (in this case skiing) and left you at home alone, supposedly to catch up on domestic chores.
Rodriguez was a common Madrid-based surname in the 1960s, and the phrase originates from those times, when Spain was coming out of the doldrums and people were beginning to move around more, taking short holidays, visiting their relatives and so on. But Rodriguez stayed at home (or in the local bar, of course), and if he stays at home now, he has a whole menu of televised football in which to indulge - just as long as he does the ironing at the same time. Well, it seemed like a small punishment, in exchange for the peace and quiet, and the Racing de Santander v Sevilla game looked like an interesting one, for the late ten o'clock slot. I'd even toyed with the idea of driving over (it's not too far from San Sebastian), because the press officer is a mate of mine, but in the end the ironing won the day.
What a game it turned out to be! The Sporting v Barcelona game earlier was interesting enough, for other reasons, but the Racing match was one of the most entertaining spectacles I've see this season. The reasons were not entirely due to the football, however. In the 92nd minute, Racing's Manolo Arana (oddly enough born in Seville), chased a long punt from one of his team's back line as Sevilla poured forward in an attempt to win a game in which they had been 2-0 down, before full-back Christian Fernandez got himself sent off for an unnecessary first-half lunge on Mouhamadou Dabo and the tide began to turn. Andres Palop, once a safe-hands goalkeeper but now prone to weekly gaffes of the YouTube collection type, raced from his goal for no particular reason and left Arana with the relatively simple job of flicking the ball over his head, from about 40 yards out.
As the ball bobbed deliciously into the net to seal an unlikely victory for the home team, the cameras zoomed in on the Presidential box, where new owner Ali Syed was determined to enjoy the moment. His air-punching dance, carried out for five eternal minutes, were possibly meat and drink to his new flock, Santander's 15,000 faithful who are hoping that their new Indian magnate is not another Dmitry Piterman in disguise. The celebration was not, however, much appreciated by the Sevilla delegation sitting to his immediate right, led by the (in)famous Jose Maria Del Nido, nor by the Racing President, Francisco Pernia, the ex-monk who approved the new owner's recent take-over. They sat in overcoat-clad silence as Syed continued to milk the moment, like a Roman Emperor of yore unaccountably excited by some David-Goliath gladiator moment that had just taken place in his blooded amphitheatre of dreams.
The Spanish press was both amused and appalled, and most of Sunday's papers carried photos of the incident. For most commentators, Syed had committed the ultimate Spanish sin of 'una falta de educación', a resonant phrase that says a lot about how traditional the Spanish still are, and how they desperately cling to the dying embers of their social culture - a culture more diffuse than they would like to admit, but one which shares in all its regions an abhorrence of cheesy behaviour. 'Educación' does not mean in the phrase that 'education' is lacking, but rather that the culprit lacks manners, and has no class. This is the ultimate sin in Spain, and is so powerful a concept that it still holds society together - tenuously, but it still works.
In England, if you suggested to a crowd of swearing youths in a down-town shopping precinct that they were being 'impolite', they would simply laugh and swear even more. Social breakdown in England is now controlled by CCTV cameras. Over there, society gave up the ghost long ago. But in Spain you can still point the finger with this phrase, and it can stop a crowd of 'ultras' in their tracks.
But there's even more to the Santander incident than meets the eye. It was hard to feel sorry for Sevilla's president, who in the past has also made visiting presidents uncomfortable with more subtly loutish behaviour on his home turf, but on the surface he knows his Ps and Qs. The 'Palco Presidencial' (President's Box) is another legendary concept in Spanish socio-sporting lore, and could warrant a whole book, but I'll try to be concise. Basically, you have to know how to behave, how to dress, and which cigars to bring along. It's a public spectacle, and so you have to get it right. The fact that Santander's new owner is from India is irrelevant. Santander is quite a conservative, right-leaning place. Folks expected Ali to know.
I've only been invited to a palco twice. Once at Grimsby in 1987 after I'd been proclaimed 'Supporter of the Month' for flying back from New Delhi and arriving five minutes before the kick-off for a home game against West Bromwich, without going home to deposit my bags first. We won 3-1, but the subsequent English palco experience was a dull one, and everyone ignored me anyway. The second one was, curiously enough, at Racing de Santander in 2004, when I was invited by the then-president Manuel Huerta Castillo to sit in the gilded box, chuff on a massive cigar, drink fine wine at half-time and generally indulge myself in exchange for saying the right things to the Cantabrian press after the game, who were interviewing me about the potentially positive links between the municipal authorities and its flagship football club, which Racing considered itself to be. Piterman had just been sent packing, and had bought Alaves. The local council was at a low point with the club, and the latter wanted me to condemn this. Of course I obliged, because, hey, the wine was really good.
The experience was a tricky one though. The seat you are given denotes your true status in the palco pecking order, and I was several rows distant from the president. I'd also turned up in a cheap windcheater, and everyone else was wearing suits and ties. I noted some withering glances at half-time, as I tried to mingle backstage with Cantabria's great and good. There exists a whole tray-full of behaviour that you have to know about, and for a scruffy palco debutant, it can be a stressful experience. Still - the Spanish will forgive you, just as long as you remain humble and keep a low profile, but Ali Sayed is the club's new owner and must be seen to be holding the reins. He wore a suit on Saturday night, but otherwise fell foul of every other social code in the book - which may or may not count in his favour, depending on how the team's results pan out for the rest of the season. The game may mark a watershed for the squad's morale, but Ali Sayed may not recover so easily from this bad start.
It's weird, because the Spanish seem so anti-authoritarian, but they hate it when ritual is not observed. The classic example was when Barcelona won the league title in 2005 and during the official celebrations Samuel Eto'o grabbed the microphone and roared to the multitude Madrid, cabron, saludo al campeon! (Bastard Madrid, salute the champions). Eto'o, assuming in the general euphoria that this was kosher, met with stunned reactions from the Barcelona faithful, and several players, Gerard in particular, tried to stop him from further sullying the occasion. You can hate Madrid as much as you like, but you don't overstep the mark in Spain, especially in such a public context. Eto'o never really understood this, and it did for him, in the end. Ali Syed might come to regret his little dance too, if things don't go the way he plans.
A little further down the pecking order, returning Messiah-Manager Macelino was also enjoying himself, and got so carried away with his celebrations after Racing's second goal that he jumped into the air and fell on his arse. A few metres to his left, Gregorio Manzano, once of Santander himself, was contemplating the distinct possibility that he may be joining the dole-queue in the not-too distant future. Sevilla were a shambles until Christian was sent off, and even then it took them until the 86th minute to equalise, courtesy of a Fabiano penalty. Negredo had already missed one for Sevilla in the first half.
The mighty seem in danger of falling at other clubs too. Quique Sanchez Flores, previously praised for pulling Atletico Madrid from the perennial mire of their own making, wears the look of a condemned man after the latest loss at home to Valencia, their fourth on the trot. Miguel Angel Lotina bought himself some time after Deportivo's home win against faltering Villarreal, who lost third place to Valencia, and Manuel Pellegrini is beginning to look nervous down at Malaga, as his Qatari owners contemplate the financial logic of life at the bottom of the table. Jose Antonio Camacho looks equally uncomfortable at Osasuna, who continued their wretched away form with a defeat at Real Sociedad, and although the pugnacious one has announced that he will go in June, was sacked shortly after.
Jose Mourinho feels no such pressures, and treated the press to a smug half-hour lecture after his team's admittedly splendid 1-0 win at Espanyol, forged from the fire with ten men after Iker Casillas' early bath after only two minutes played. La Liga lives again, after Barcelona finally failed to win an away game, held 1-1 at Sporting de Gijon in an equally emotive match. Guardiola's men set a magnificent all-time Spanish record last week of 16 consecutive wins, but the draw in Gijon meant they failed to equal Inter's record of 17, set in 2007. I think that Celtic hold the overall European record (25 wins), but if Barcelona played in the SPL they'd probably win every game for a century.
It's the Champions League this week. The Arsenal v Barcelona game on Wednesday looks very tasty indeed, and might have had something to do with that Gijon result. Who knows? Madrid play their bogey side Lyon next week, and Raul returns to Spain as Valencia take on Schalke 04. It's looking like an interesting week on the sofa. Good job I got the ironing done.