Super subs and Spanish flags

September 4, 2003
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

Villarreal, from near Castellón on Spain's eastern coast, (north of Valencia) have put together an interesting side this year.

Fresh from their success in the Intertoto they put a slightly reduced Real Madrid through their paces on Tuesday night in the Madrigal, the galactic ones scraping through with a late equaliser from their young substitute Nuñez.

Of course, the press reaction, as ever, was that Madrid were poor (which they weren't) and that Villareal were 'peleón' (scrappers) which wasn't the whole story either - but never let the facts get in the way of the theorem that you prefer to expound, week in week out.

The point is that in Spain, when the big boys don't win, it is always their performance that is questioned. Seldom does one read that the opposition actually played well, or, as in the case of Villarreal, that they actually have quite a decent side at the moment. Goliath had an off day, and just didn't see that stone coming. David got lucky with the sling.

Villarreal deserve a bit more than a passing glance this year. Granted, they are historical nobodies in La Liga, having made their top-flight debut as recently as 1998, dropping back from whence they came then bouncing back to stay.

They are nicknamed 'The Submarines', allegedly after the Beatles' song about the yellow one - their shirts being a similar hue. The colour dates back to 1947 when the son of the club president travelled to the nearest big city (Valencia) to buy some replacement white shirts and black shorts, then the team's official colours.

When he got to the store, there were no white ones left in stock, and with the season about to start, he panicked and bought the only batch remaining, which happened to be yellow. The players thought the shirts were fine, but weren't too keen on the combo with the black shorts. The president's son then travelled to Castellón, bought some white shorts, and asked the boys to vote. They went for blue, the dye was brought out, and thus it has remained ever since.

This counts as an exciting event in the club's history, but overnight they seem to have acquired a fairly awesome-looking squad, courtesy of the loan system. Up front they've got rid of the vastly overrated Martin Palermo and acquired a much better player in José Mari, once of Seville and then of Milan.

To partner him they've got Sonny Anderson, formerly of Barça, who came on as sub on Tuesday and scored a cracker. They've nicked Roger from Espanyol, a classy player who specialises in outrageous goals from the half-way line, and Riquelme has come on loan from Barça.

Villarreal v Real Madrid
GettyImages / FiroFoto'In the town where I was born...' Villarreal, complete with yellow shirts, celebrate on Tuesday night

The Argentine midfielder supposedly failed at the Camp Nou last year, but he was rarely given a chance. Such were the expectations generated by the press that the rather complex, moody player found it hard to shine.

On Tuesday, liberated from the circus and given the responsibility he craved all last season, he looked very good indeed. In defence they've acquired another Argentine, Coloccini from Atlético Madrid, who on his day looks one of the best defenders in the country, despite the dodgy attempt to model his blond locks on Valderrama.

They have a good manager too, the studious looking Benito Floro, who was once deemed good enough to manage Real Madrid after a successful spell with Albacete in the early 1990's.

Given these riches, it is hardly surprising that they gave Madrid a hard time on Tuesday, although 'Marca' chose to suggest that it was because the champions were 'Baby Madrid', full of 'Pavones' and not 'Zidanes'.

For those unaccustomed to this duality, the press in general here have invented this new concept whereby the policy of including both of these types is allegedly the thinking behind Florentino Pérez' empire building at the Bernabéu.

So the theory goes, he believes in purchasing stars (well demonstrated) but also in nurturing the 'cantera' - a word that means 'quarry' but which has a mythical status in Spanish football-speak.

The quarry is the youth system, but it also represents the conduit through which local talent can come to the fore, to preserve the feeling that Spain's soil still grows and nurtures home produce, despite the galaxy of foreign stars twinkling in its firmament above.

Pavón is a young centre-back currently filling in for the departed Hierro, but he has come to represent this concept, this idea that the club still has its roots in the local earth. Cynics would say that on Tuesday night the babies got their chance because Makelele and Hierro have not been replaced, Zidane limped off injured, Morientes has packed his bags and skulked off to Monaco and Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos were preparing for a bit of samba.

But the line-up was hardly as pubescent as some were suggesting. Figo, Zidane, Beckham, Raúl, Salgado and Helguera hardly represent a crisis. And they played quite well too, especially Beckham who is enjoying something of a phase of re-affirmation.

Julián Ruíz, a much-feared polemicist in Spanish football, declared that Becks has 'cáracter' - a complex word that does not mean the same as its English near equivalent.

What Ruíz meant was that Beckham is quite a toughie after all, and has balls and commitment. They thought he was a 'clothes-horse' but he is in fact a player who's not afraid to get stuck in.

Ruíz isn't the only one to have been duped by the summer show into the idea that Beckham was some sort of posing pansy, pussy-whipped by his missus - a great sin in the eyes of the Spanish male - who are now most impressed by the fact that in four official games he's picked up two yellow cards. And truth be told, he's looked their best player in the two opening games.

Elsewhere, there's been a bit of politicking creeping into proceedings. There was the midnight farce at the Camp Nou against Seville (1-1 in the end) to which almost 80,000 folks turned up, presumably for the free sandwiches and gazpacho (yes - the Seville fans were sympathetically catered for).

Arzo - David Beckham
GettyImages / ShaunBotterillQue?: Becks has trouble getting his point across

But certain sections of the football press - who shall remain unnamed - have been having a go at president Joan Laporta for his explicit policy of the 'Catalanisation' of the club, by which they mean he is a demented nationalist, or something to that effect.

This is a tricky area for a football column, and anyone who has lived in Spain for a period of time knows that simplifications rarely tell the whole tale - but certain folks seem to have be having a problem with the alleged fact that Laporta is trying to insist that Barça's players learn Catalan, to the extent that he is trying to make it a contractual obligation.

Good for him, say I, since the learning of Catalan (or some Catalan) seems only logical in a community where a majority of folks speak and live the language. Some years ago, Celta tried to get their players to learn some Gallego (the Galician language) too, but it fell on stony ground.

Basque is a bit trickier, since you require an IQ of 500 and at least six months to even work out how to say 'My name is Nihat', although Tayfun Korkut, the Turk who has recently moved from Real Sociedad to Espanyol did have a go, much to the delight of the locals.

Which is what it's all about really - the attempt. It shows respect and interest in the culture, and as such should be applauded.

Laporta's idea has been linked with the fact that on Tuesday morning, the Spanish flag had been removed from the Camp Nou and from La Masía, where the youth team gathers. One photo showed the masts sawn off, spitting blood at the fact that all other (regional) flags were still a-fluttering.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday morning, the masts and the flags had re-appeared, much to the delight of a certain strand of politics in the country.

I'll say no more, but I can't see what the fuss was about. Playing at midnight was out of order, but if Laporta wants to move Barça back closer to its political and cultural roots, after the previous president was a paid-up member of a political party that has traditionally shown little sympathy for regional autonomy, then so be it. If the massive supporter base doesn't want it, it'll tell him so.


  • Phil's book on Real Madrid, White Storm. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
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