It's a funny business, professional football. Last week Sevilla played Arsenal in a Sánchez Pizjuan packed to the rafters. The crowd was close to a capacity 45,000 and the game was excellent, befitting the two teams' reputations as the two most attractive, attack-minded sides in Europe. Sevilla, in case you didn't know, deservedly won the game 3-1, soothing the wounds of their 3-0 defeat in London earlier in the competition.
Arsenal played with an under-strength side, and Wenger, in an uncharacteristically suicidal move, decided to leave out Gallas from the left side of his defence and leave the motorway clear for Alves and Navas to do their thing, most of it in top gear. Sevilla can come at you from all angles, but their chief threat is down the right, where Alves and Navas will cause havoc if permitted time and space. Strange that Wenger didn't know that.
Stranger still to see the Sánchez Pizjuan on Saturday night, where just over 1,000 spectators sat sparsely around the yawning stadium to witness the Segunda 'A' clash between Sevilla Atlético (the 'B' team) - recently promoted from Segunda 'A' and Real Sociedad, recently relegated from the top flight. Eight of Sociedad's starting line-up had played in the First Division at some stage, and six of them played in the Sánchez Pizjuan last season, in a somewhat different atmosphere. But welcome to the reality of relegation.
The game began at 18.30 with the aforementioned amount of spectators inside, but for the second half only some 500 stayed, half of which were Real Sociedad supporters resident in Seville. The other half had left to fill up the bars around the stadium where on PPV they could watch the fortunes of the first team, playing away at newly-promoted Almería. Atlético and Sociedad were left to play out a 0-0 bore draw, the only statistic of note from the game being that the two sides had the youngest averages in the whole professional structure.
Meanwhile, over in Almería, the first Brazilian goalkeeper to play in the Spanish top flight, Diego Alves, made his debut against a Sevilla side with a rather more famous player of the same name. They are no relation, but the goalkeeper's debut was a strange one - only happening because Sevilla's reserve keeper, David Cobeño, was loaned out to Almería and had a no-play clause in his contract when it came to the game against his real owners.
Up stepped Alves and played a blinder, saving everything that Sevilla could manage to throw at him. To make matters worse for the Andaluz side, the more famous of the Alveses got himself sent off at the beginning of the second half, and contributed in large part to his side's 1-0 defeat, leaving them stranded down in 14th spot, only two points off the relegation places and a point behind their modest nemesis for the weekend, Almería.
Despite their youth, Sevilla Atlético are doing rather well in their first season in Segunda 'B' and currently lie fourth, just two points shy of the 3rd promotion spot. Of course, even if they were to finish in the top third they would not be able to go up, as Spanish football regulations do not allow the 'B' teams to join the 'A' teams in the same leagues, or vice-versa - so that if the unthinkable were to happen and Sevilla were relegated (perhaps after winning the Champions League), Atlético would be forced to drop down a division to Segunda 'B', cruel though this seems.
Real Madrid's 'B' team, who have reverted to the name 'Castilla' despite grumblings from the Spanish Federation, were relegated from Segunda 'A' last season, and are unlikely to cause any problems in this respect for the foreseeable future, although strictly speaking, under their present name, they could legally force a case to play against their seniors, assuming this possibility might ever crop up. It seems possible to blur the defining lines between what is a reserve team and what is a separate entity - witness the rumpus that Castilla caused back in 1980, when in one of the most curious events in modern football, they reached the King's Cup Final and were forced to play against Real Madrid.
|“||Atlético do not have a single Madrid-born player in their ranks this season, but as they sit pretty in fourth place no-one at the Calderón is complaining. ”|
At least they behaved themselves in the final, losing 6-1 to their elders, but the compensation arrived in their qualification for the following season's Cup Winners' Cup (Real Madrid had already won the league), a campaign made memorable by their beating England's West Ham 3-1 in the Bernabéu. The next season, nevertheless, Castilla were forced to revert back to the name Real Madrid B.
Back at Real Sociedad, there were murmurs in the city of San Sebastián last season that the first team and the reserve side should simply swap places, if, as nearly happened, the 'B' side were promoted from Segunda 'B' and the senior side met them on the way down. This has been, in effect, what has happened, since there has been the usual haemorrhage of established first-teamers to pastures new and the consequent promotion of the kids from the lower ranks, a situation forced onto ex-Fulham manager Chris Coleman rather than it necessarily being his desired policy, but the local folks seem happy enough with the idea of using the local kids as the basis of the side again.
That is what Basque cousins Athletic Bilbao always claim to be doing, although several of the side who beat an ailing Valencia 3-0 in the Mestalla on Sunday night were actually born and bred in Gipuzkoa, the region that is supposed to be the bedrock of Real Sociedad. But money talks, and Athletic, for the moment, have more of it.
Talking of local players, one might therefore argue, given the Basque cases, that nowadays it's more important to feel the quality and not so much the width. It's entirely possible to turn up for the next Madrid derby and see not a single local player on the park, if Casillas is injured and Raúl is elsewhere. Atlético do not have a single Madrid-born player in their ranks this season, but as they sit pretty in fourth place no-one at the Calderón is complaining. Raúl himself, once a member of Atlético's youth team, keeps up the quality-based argument by continuing to make himself useful to Real Madrid (he scored twice on Saturday) and flying the local flag. As long as someone half-decent is doing it (and it's often Casillas) the rest doesn't really matter.
In the Espanyol v Barcelona derby at Montjuic on Saturday night, ten of the twenty-five players used were Catalans, although of the ten, seven played for Espanyol. It's a decent percentage, given the multi-national scene in Europe's top leagues nowadays, but one unlikely to catch on.
Espanyol, currently lying a more than respectable fifth in La Liga (two points behind Barça) would in fact have overtaken their more illustrious neighbours in the event of them winning (they drew 1-1) - something that has only happened once before in the history of the two sides, where a derby win for Espanyol saw them leapfrog Barça. The Camp Nou outfit have tended to be the more internationalist of the two, and although they have never shunned the policy of developing local players it has been the greater use of Catalans by Espanyol that has contributed to their image of also-rans. It's a sad paradox, and one not easily solved.
After Sepp Blatter's recent controversial proposal that European member clubs should no longer be permitted to field teams with more than five non-national players, the general consensus is that it would be as pointless as it would be unworkable. But maybe there is an argument for guaranteeing some sort of local quota, if only to kill the image of the team with locals as a team of relative losers, as witnessed in Seville on Saturday night.
'Local' could be stretched to mean 'regional', of course, and even if the bigger teams were to play lip-service to it, the policy would at least ensure that they were more careful as to their real investment in youth development, as opposed to simply poaching young players from other regions with less glamorous sides. But it won't happen. It doesn't make sense in terms of European labour law, and it would probably just turn out to be unfair for clubs from regions with a smaller urban base.
Nevertheless, it would have been nice to have seen a larger crowd at the Sánchez Pizjuan on Saturday night. In some of Europe's equivalent leagues, an attendance of less than 1,000 (for example in the English 'Championship') would be unthinkable, particularly against a biggish-name side recently relegated from the top flight. But no-one seemed to care, even though Sevilla Atlético were playing for a spot in the top three. That suggests that some of the players will make it to the first team - if there are any non-foreign berths left to occupy. And there's the rub. Espanyol seem to be doing ok. It helps to forge an identity, no matter what Arsene Wenger says. Not everyone can aspire to being Arsenal.