I'm writing this from Oviedo, in the region of Asturias in the north of Spain. It took me seven hours to get here by bus on Sunday, and when I arrived my host unfortunately (but very kindly) took me on a tour of the city which was actually en fiestas - specifically the Fiestas de San Mateo in which people were making the habitual amount of noise, and eating and drinking as if the word "recession" were some kind of myth associated only with the rest of Europe.
That's what you just have to love about the Spanish. If they were down to their last euro they would still be out on the streets, consuming large amounts of something or other. In Sunday night's case, this was huge squid sandwiches washed down with copious amounts of Asturian cider. You can't beat it, except for the fact that I was due to deliver a lecture the following morning (Monday) to over a hundred people and I fancied curling up in the hotel and watching Xerez versus Athletic Bilbao on the box. No such luck.
As we walked out of the cider-house I glanced up surreptitiously at the TV as the Athletic players were forming a celebratory huddle around the scorer, David Prieto, but decided not to fake injury so that I could nip home to watch the second half. My hosts were folks from the educational world, and they don't always understand the football thing, poor luvvies. But they kept me out until far too late, and hence this later than usual delivery. Sorry about that.
The other annoying thing is that I'd calculated the bus journey from San Sebastian perfectly, so that I could dump my stuff in the hotel, whistle a taxi and zip to the Carlos Tartiere stadium, a ground I've never visited and one to which I've always wanted to go, even though it's officially the new Carlos Tartiere.
When I first came to Spain, Oviedo were in the top flight and the old ground - as far as one could tell from the telly - had a real hard-core aficionado look to it, with terracing frighteningly close to the pitch, noisy spectators, and a feverish atmosphere. It looked like a real football ground, a place to enjoy. The new stadium dates from the close of the old millennium, and has seen the club fall on harder times. They're now in Segunda 'B', and on Sunday were at home to Alcorcón. No, I hadn't heard of them either, but that seemed like a good reason for going along. Great name too. They're actually from Madrid, and were formed in 1971, according to Wikipedia.
As the game began, I was up on a hillside in the golden evening light looking at a beautiful 9th century building (the church of Santa María del Naranco), and as my host was kindly explaining the intricacies and architectural significance of its columns I was glancing secretly down to my right, over the span of the city, from where I could see that they'd just put on the floodlights at the match. Damn. There's nothing worse than planning to go to a game and then not being able to attend.
Philistine? It depends on your perspective. You can go and see a monument any time, but Oviedo versus Alcorcón only comes once in a lifetime. To put you out of your collective misery, the game ended in a 1-1 draw, and there were 7,500 fans - not bad for Segunda 'B'. And whilst we're on the theme of Asturias, I learned later that David Villa's nickname El Guaje originates from the mining tradition in the region, and used to mean something like "Miner's assistant" in the Asturian language. It's now used to signify someone who is small, or child-like (and Villa is quite small), but it ain't a Spanish word. Asturian is a separate language, and is a dialect of Latin - so there.
Thirty kilometres or so down the motorway, Sporting de Gijón were enjoying their first win of the season (1-0 against Almería) in front of 20,000 spectators. Sporting are now the big-time boys of the region, and are enjoying their period of domination over their posher rivals. Gijón still considers itself the more working city, in the same way as the folks of Vigo think that everyone in Coruña is a snob. Next week they travel to Valencia, which might prove a tough one for them, largely because they will come up against their old boy, David Villa.
The miner's assistant himself scored twice as Valencia won 4-2 away at Valladolid, and confirmed what most people have said about them pre-season, basically that going forward they still have quality in abundance. In defence, there are questions to be asked, but in the middle, David Silva, recovered from injury and destined for at least one more season in La Liga, is also being spoken of at the moment in glowing terms, such that he is now considered the greatest ever player to emerge from the Canary Islands. Juan Carlos Valerón, remarkably recovered and still turning out for Deportivo, was the previous holder of this title, but now Silva is the man.
Valencia's gain is Manchester United's (temporary?) loss, but when Silva's employers are finally asked by the banks to balance the books, he will surely go, and for a lot of money. He's only got one foot, and he's very fragile looking, but his consistency marks him out, and he is what Guti could have been, had the latter been blessed with more sense and better friends. Every time Silva gets the ball, he does something creative and unexpected with it. He looks like a nightmare to play against. But in general terms regarding Valencia, they must be doing something right if Zigic, Joaquín, David Navarro and David Albelda are not in the starting line-up.
On Saturday night I enjoyed the Sevilla versus Zaragoza game, live on the Sexta channel. Sevilla won 4-1, and watching them is always an exhausting but entertaining experience. Even without Dani Alves, they buzz around like a team who've just ingested unfeasible amounts of Red Bull (sorry for the advertising).
None of the squad is exempt from this hyperactivity, but the new kid on the energy block is the left-sided midfielder Diego Perotti. He's young, from Argentina, and one to watch, as they say. His goal in the 56th minute was a ridiculously wonderful shot, blasted in without a thought after Fazio slung over a centre. But his general performance down the left side was full of speed and quality. Even when he was replaced by Capel in the 75th minute he was still running. He probably ran home for his supper too. What a wonderful new find, giving to the left side of the team what Alves once gave to the right. As long as he doesn't burn out early, the team should benefit, because like Valencia, all the established quality is still there.
As with David Silva, Sir Alex Ferguson is also interested in Luis Fabiano, another player who rarely has a poor game. He scored for Brazil in Argentina and he scored twice here, eventually reducing Zaragoza to a sort of sluggish resignation.
The game was interesting from the point of view of how these two sides represent the less obvious gap in quality between the some and the rest. The Madrid-Barça-versus-the-rest gap is well documented, but after that you need to look a little closer, and games like these tell you a lot. It's too early to say whether Zaragoza will struggle, and they gave it a decent go in the first half, trying to exploit the inevitable inaccuracy of Sevilla's passing when their game is played at such a nuclear pace.
Sevilla have no Xavi, no Alonso to put a foot on the ball and slow the game down. As such, a visiting team whose manager has thought about the game can exploit this offensive obsession with swift counter attacks, and whilst Uche was on the pitch and Jermaine Pennant was prepared to get the ball into him quickly enough, Zaragoza always looked potentially threatening, despite their opponents' constant pressing and the usual white-hot and hostile racket in the stadium.
They deserved their equalizer, hit in with some conviction by Arizmendi (Palop might have done better), but the visitors just couldn't keep it up in the second half, after unluckily conceding just before half-time. But what a great place to go for a match! Like Bilbao's San Mamés, the Sánchez Pizjuán is a special place. Just make sure you take your ear-plugs.
Other special places at the weekend were the Chapín stadium, where Xerez celebrated their first ever game in the top flight, even though they lost, as already mentioned. How wonderful that the fixture list contrived to send them Athletic Bilbao, a team founded in 1898 and one that has never dropped out of the top division since the league's inception in 1928. Xerez were founded in 1947 and have never been in the same division as the lions. They lost their first encounter and still have no points, but next week they only have to visit Real Madrid. Easy peasy.
Tenerife were also celebrating their return to the elite on home soil, in the impressively named Heliodoro Rodríguez, seven years after falling into the second tier. The fact that the ground is also a hostile sort of place for visiting teams doesn't quite gel with their over-long stay in the second division, but they also picked up a 2-1 win, courtesy of the fact that Osasuna had two men sent off and last season's top scorer, Juan Francisco Martínez, carried on where he left off in June and opened the scoring. He looks sharp, and is likely to cause better defences than Osasuna's some problems this season.
Barça rode their luck in the first half at Getafe, escaping twice when the home side hit the woodwork. Significantly, the entry of Iniesta and Messi onto the field with the score at 0-0 meant that the stalemate only lasted a further eight minutes, Ibrahimovic keeping up his rate and little Messi scoring again with his head. A glance before at the visitors' bench, occupied by Messrs Messi, Iniesta, Alves and Busquets, was enough to send the rest of La Liga's sides off to seek therapy for potential inferiority complex syndrome.
Real Madrid didn't do badly either, pouring cold water on Espanyol's league inauguration of their excellent new stadium, Cornellà-El Prat. Espanyol are looking a little lightweight on this evidence, hard though they tried. Madrid, led by an inspired Kaká, are looking anything but. Let's leave that for another week.