The view from Spain

Bottling it

October 31, 2011
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

Two summers ago, my son Harry asked me if he and some mates from school could enter the Donosti Cup - a prestigious international football tournament held here in San Sebastián every July. The parents would stump up the entry fee, but only on the condition that I be the coach. At first I said no, because I couldn't see myself finding the time to get them ready and to take it seriously, but in the end I was persuaded to take on the Mourinho mantle. My son, and another kid who now plays for the Real Sociedad 'Juvenil' side, were the only two club players, but the rest were a bunch of ne'er-do-wells whose only real experience of football was the school playground. It was going to be tough, because in the Donosti Cup you can not only come across similar ragged-arsed opponents but also youth sides from professional clubs around the world, sent to the tournament as an annual work-out. Chelsea and Tottenham have occasionally sent teams, Valencia and Villarreal send sides almost every year, and South American and African clubs are well represented, along with the USA.

Youth football has been booming in Spain in recent years
GettyImagesYouth football has been booming in Spain in recent years

To cut a long and very entertaining story short - I'll write a book about it one day - we got to the semi-finals. To this day, I still find this hard to explain, but it happened nevertheless. I believed in them, and they began to believe in me, on a sort of mutually wonky basis of misconception. I have a teeny-weeny qualification in coaching from 30 years ago, tucked away somewhere in the loft, but it dates from the Jurassic Period when footballs were still made of pig bladders. And yet we began by winning, and we got on a roll. Confidence is a strange thing, and once you're fed on a decent dose of it, lots of unusual things can happen. We beat club sides that we shouldn't have beaten - usually by the odd goal - and we got lucky a couple of times. We won the quarter-finals on penalties, and suddenly we were in the semis. The euphoria surrounding the whole bizarre adventure was difficult to contain, but even when we drew Cartagena in the semis, I felt we still had a chance. They were the youth set-up from the Spanish Segunda División side, with everything that this implies - the best players from the region, organisation, funds, full-time coaches, etc. My lot were 15 kids from two classes at a small school, with two decent midfielders and the rest on a temporary cloud of self-belief.

And then I made a big mistake. I talked to one of the local coaches whose team had lost to Cartagena in the earlier rounds, and asked him what our opponents were like. He shook his head: "You've done well up to now, but they'll probably murder you. Don't even think about trying to play football against them. They're fast, they're strong, and they're well organised." He continued with his terrifying speech. "Put your son on their captain, the No. 4. Get the other eight behind the ball and leave one guy up front for the counter-attacks. It might work."

I went home and prepared a document - I still have a copy - called 'El plan anti-Cartagena', copies of which I proudly distributed to the players in the dressing-room before the game. I thought it would make me look organised. I went through the various points, and sent them out to make history. And, of course, we lost. We lost 4-0, and they did indeed murder us. But the game changed me as a person, silly though that sounds. I realised, when we conceded a goal after five minutes, that there was no Plan B. The players were looking at me, and I just shrugged my shoulders. The idea had been to get to half-time at 0-0, and then push up the line in the second half, thereby surprising them. But by half-time it was 2-0, our star player was in hospital with a torn hamstring, and everything was going down the tubes - as it so often does in life. But I still feel, to this day, that we could have won it. I still feel that by giving them the document, and by planning the game as though we were the de facto inferior side, I scared my players. With a plan to play to, they lost their innocence, their spontaneity. The local coach had scared me, and my fear had communicated itself to the players. Cartagena murdered us, but then lost in the final, curiously enough. I think now that we could have won, but back then I bottled it. It was a life-changing experience, dumb though that might sound.

Which is a long-winded way of introducing the Real Sociedad v Real Madrid game, which I attended on Saturday night. This is the game of the season up here in San Sebastian. People enjoy the derby against Athletic, and the visit of Barcelona, but the one they really look forward to is this one. There is a whole host of cultural and political reasons that explain the piquancy of this fixture, but I reckon people know about this now. The word 'Madrid' in San Sebastian is always spoken quietly, as if people would prefer the sound not to have emanated from their mouths. People use the word apologetically, and explain that they had to go there to work for the day, or that they went to see the museums. As an outsider, I've always found this fascinating, particularly as I like Madrid as a city, and have always find its people open and welcoming. But enmity goes deep down here, to roots that are difficult to understand for outsiders. There's no point in denying all this 'morbo'. It's what makes La Liga so wonderful, but it also made Sociedad's 'bottling it' on Saturday an unfortunate sight.

It just so happened that Real Madrid were visiting on the crest of a wave of fantastic performances, and Real Sociedad had eked one point from the previous 15. No matter. The Basques never show fear. They may allow people to accuse them of other things, like playing weird sports and speaking an incomprehensible language, but not of being scaredy cats. Since the early 1990s, I've seen some fine Madrid sides chased out of town, not by quality but by the force of sheer dislike. The Sociedad fans have grudgingly acknowledged Xabi Alonso's right to choose where he wishes to play his football, but they still can't quite believe it when he returns to Anoeta dressed in the colours of the enemy, as if it were an unfortunate illusion - where something has gone wrong with the space-time continuum. Real Madrid first thought about buying Alonso in 2004 after he'd scored a great goal against them in Anoeta, but Liverpool got there ahead of them.

Anyway, Madrid won 1-0, courtesy of an eighth-minute goal from Gonzalo Higuaín, and when the Sociedad players looked to their new coach, Phillipe Montanier, for a Plan B, he gave them a Gallic shrug, as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon one. Montanier, one of a new intelligent breed of youngish French coaches who believe in the 'Guardiola way', has nevertheless demonstrated a strange lack of understanding of the traditions he has inherited. While it is undoubtedly true that, at this moment, Real Madrid possess the finest counter-attacking side on the planet, that does not mean you should necessarily park a bus. Caution is a reasonable emotion, but fear is another. Sociedad lined up with five defenders, three defensive midfielders and two quality offensive players - Xabi Prieto and Carlos Vela, playing out of position. The plan, I assume, was similar to my own mistaken idea: get to half-time without too much damage done, and then turn the tables. But if I could have my time again, I would send out those kids against Cartagena with the message that there was nothing to lose, that they had the spirit and the ability to win. I don't know about Monsieur Montanier.

Real Sociedad drew no reward for parking the bus against Real Madrid
GettyImagesReal Sociedad drew no reward for parking the bus against Real Madrid

The first half was so easy for Madrid - admittedly they were only 1-0 up at half-time - that they came out in the second half in a sort of collective siesta, as if they couldn't possibly imagine any threat coming from their toothless opponents. The home side roused themselves a little from their torpor, and with the introduction of Antoine Griezmann began to worry Madrid slightly, but the result was never in doubt. Anyway, the left-footed Griezmann was dispatched to the right, and the right-footed Prieto continued on the left, for an objective that I'm afraid I was incapable of understanding. The players, judging by their body language, were thinking the same.

And so Real Madrid find themselves top of the pile again, almost a year after they last enjoyed the sensation of being a point ahead of Barcelona, just before they were thrashed 5-0 in the Camp Nou. Levante finally lost to Osasuna, and their dream may be about to inevitably fade, wonderful though it has been. Madrid's own particular dream, of ending the hegemony of their Catalan rivals, looks more probable this season, but only because they have improved, not because Barcelona are any the worse. The media's attempts to create occasional crises at the Camp Nou - this time it was Leo Messi who was apparently unhappy - usually motivate the champions to prove the antithesis. As one newspaper responded to Messi's hat-trick against Mallorca: 'If that's a crisis, can I have one too?'

To conclude, I'm not sure if Real Madrid will win the league title, but there is something there this season that was absent last campaign. There's a speed of thought and movement that is at times quite breathtaking, although they indulged in some 'gilifutbol' too in the first half in Anoeta, thus taking their cue from the worst of Barcelona, but also taking some of the best too, in their new tactic of hunting in packs, pressurising their opponents much higher up the field, and punishing any mistakes with dizzyingly fast counter-attacks. Besides, Messrs Ronaldo, Higuaín and Benzema all seem to like each other now, which helps. The defence looks better with Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back and Sergio Ramos in the centre, and even Kaka is looking like his old self.

Real Sociedad will go down, if their manager continues to show fear from the start, thus inverting the proud traditions of their culture. There is plenty of quality in their squad, but it needs to be on the pitch, having a go and believing in itself. Jose Mourinho was happy with Saturday's result, because it was evidence to him that his side can play unspectacularly, but still grind out a result - the sort of rhythm that wins league titles, according to him. Maybe. But that's what Cartagena's youth team manager thought in July 2010, when he strolled into the Donosti Cup final, just a little too relaxed. He didn't realise that he was only there because of a scaredy-cat Englishman.