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Monday, October 1, 2012
Roy of the Rovers at Sociedad

Phil Ball

It was a Royal Society weekend. I saw three live games, each one involving Real Sociedad. I watched their Juvenil Nacional side lose 2-1 to Antiguoko in a game of such quality that you felt that the future was assured. Two hours later I was taking my seat for the Basque derby in Anoeta between Real and Athletic (2-0), and the next day I watched the Superliga Feminina match between Real and Atletico Madrid (0-1). You'll excuse the local indulgence this week, but there were several conclusions to be drawn. The main one is that something is awry in the house of Athletic. Having missed the last two Anoeta derbies since Real's return to the top flight, I finally made it on Saturday night and was struck by the poverty of Athletic's performance - or was it just that Sociedad were brilliant? It's difficult to say, but I have rarely seen Real so comprehensively annihilate their local rivals, the 2-0 score hardly reflecting the home side's dominance. It didn't help the visitors' cause that Fernando Amorebieta was sent off for the 12th time in his career (that's one more than his president, ex-player Josu Urrutia - perhaps they were having a competition?) and that the sending-off preceded the second goal (a penalty by Carlos Vela), but Sociedad took them apart, for a variety of reasons. One reason is that there are two big holes where Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente used to be. Well, Llorente is still there (he came off the bench in the 65th minute) but in body only. In mind and spirit he is elsewhere, and for all that the Athletic hierarchy might wish to paint his continued presence at San Mames as a positive, the player's body language (and yawns on the bench) told you everything really. Can you hear the drums Fernando? It's all a bit of a mess, and now the club will in all probability make not a euro out of him (his contract is up in summer) having nurtured him from the age of twelve. Rather oddly, the Real Sociedad fans booed and whistled at him when he came on, shouting 'Espanol' in his direction - the worst thing that a hardcore Basque can accuse you of being (if it's said in a certain tone, you understand). Thereby reigns the extraordinary situation that he lives in, and which he has obviously tired of. A certain section of the Athletic supporters has also used this jibe, and the rest of Europe looks on perplexed. Llorente was born in Pamplona, but grew up in the La Rioja region - over the Basque border in real Spain - but has spent more of his life in the cantera (quarry) of Bilbao. No matter. Like Martinez, he wants away. But you can't do this at Athletic. Playing for them is like a puppy bought at Christmas. It's for life. Real Sociedad, in many ways a more Basque nationalist institution than Athletic (whisper that one in the corridors of San Mames) do not hate their rivals from down the motorway, but have grown rather tired of their easy assumption of superiority, as if their history and size will always relegate Sociedad to the shadows, and will always guarantee a westward-moving transfer of players, much to Real's chagrin. But they understand where Athletic are coming from, as it were. And at the derby, they were prepared to whistle at Llorente out of some ill-perceived notion of politico-cultural solidarity. This can seem pretty bizarre for anyone who does not live here. The trouble with Bilbao, however, is that despite the romantic home-grown notions of its constitution, and despite the fact that if you pull on their shirt and make a bit of an effort they will love you like a doting parent, once you have signed up to this, there is no escape. Turn your back on this, look outwards from the suffocating intensity of the whole Athletic vibe, and you will be deemed a traitor, or worse, a Spaniard. Javi Martinez got the same treatment, but the team looks an awful lot less functional without him. Llorente, possibly piqued by Athletic's signing of Aritz Aduriz in summer (a similar player), has grown tired of the confines. He has a right to do this, you feel, without the world collapsing around him. But Athletic are different. They were turkey-stuffed on Saturday night. Not two years ago, their former president, the very annoying Fernando Garcia Macua, responded to a journalist's question before a derby about which players from Real Sociedad he would sign, if he could. He replied that none of them interested him. None of them would be good enough for Athletic, he announced smugly. On Saturday night, his former side were taken apart by two players who certainly interest them now, given the €40 million they've received from Bayern Munich. The players in question are David Zurutuza and Antoine Griezmann, but the excellent crop of youngsters now coming through the Sociedad ranks may well be superior to the crop at San Mames, and so Athletic also have their eyes on Olympic centre-back Inigo Martinez and midfielder Asier Illaramendi, another player they missed out on years ago. The sublime Ruben Pardo, missing injured on Saturday, is another who will go on to greater things. You'll perhaps gather from the tone of this piece that I enjoyed myself immensely on Saturday night, and you would be right. Cream of the crop is Antoine Griezmann, born in Macon in France but brought up in the ranks of Sociedad from the age of 13. Like several of Athletic and Real's players past and present, he is an honorary Basque, and his army of adolescent girl groupies touchingly insist on spelling his name 'Antuan'. Despite looking as if he has just got off his bike to deliver your newspaper, he is a sensational player, is still only 21, and will end up making Sociedad a lot of money. He's more Barcelona than Madrid, but you never know. Liverpool have fancied him for some time now, and Arsene Wenger is an admirer. By the end of the year he will make his debut for the senior French side, but his story remains an extraordinary one. He was signed by Real as a youngster and trained in the evenings in San Sebastian whilst going to school across the border in Bayonne. He lived with the scout who discovered him, but was frequently home-sick, troubled and troublesome. He progressed through the ranks, but was not considered a special prospect when in the summer of 2009, he was walking off the pitch having just played in a practice match with Sociedad's Juvenil de Honor side. He was 17. The senior side, just starting their third season in the Second Division, had just signed the Uruguayan Martin Lasarte (an ex-Deportivo player) as manager, and they were walking out to a training session as the younger boys were walking off. Lasarte, who had planned an eleven-a-side practice game among the senior squad, was informed that one of the players had called in sick, messing up Lasarte's 11-a-side plan. 'Who's he?' enquired Lasarte, as Griezmann walked by, heading for the changing-rooms. 'He's the French kid' replied the sidekick. 'He'll do to make up the numbers' insisted Lasarte, and so Griezmann was ordered out onto the left wing. It's classic Roy-of-the-Rovers stuff, but after half an hour, Lasarte turned to his assistant and mouthed the famous phrase, 'Que carajo esta haciendo este en el juvenil?' (What the **** is this kid doing in the youth team?), as Griezmann continued to sit several senior players on their rumps with an outrageous display of precocity. He was promoted to the first team there and then, and never passed through the reserve ranks. Such was his influence in that first season that Real were promoted, and a whole bevy of top clubs began to enquire about him. Atletico Madrid almost persuaded his agent last year to move Griezmann south, but the deal fell through. He was whistled at for a few games, but now he's the local hero again, and he seems to get better with every game. He can beat a man with ease, he can pass, he can tackle, he can score goals (he did just that on Saturday) and he's good to watch. Please Fate, let him stay for another couple of seasons, then he can go, for at least as much as Javi Martinez. Real Sociedad's journalists routinely scratch their heads and ask why their team wins at home but always loses away. I was asked this question last week on the local radio, which often rings me on a Monday and then tries to get me to criticise the club's French manager, Phillippe Montanier. Sometimes I oblige, mainly so they'll ring me again I suppose. Last week (after losing at Levante) I simply said that the problem resided with Montanier's curious habit of playing Griezmann as a false centre-forward in away games, thus starving the team's best player of the ball. It was hardly rocket-science, but the comments were picked up by a couple of local newspapers, and used in evidence against Montanier. I'm sure he'll ignore them, but I'm just mentioning this in case you see Sociedad at Betis next week, with Griezmann playing out of position and not touching the ball. Just in case you think I'm talking nonsense, although it wouldn't be for the first time. To end on a positive note, Marcelo Bielsa, Athletic's manager from the Planet Zarg, nevertheless got it right last week when asked about the Basque derby from his alien perspective. 'It's a very civilised occasion' he remarked, which was an interesting phrase from a man who appears to hail from a different space-time continuum. Almost uniquely in Europe's higher football echelons, the supporters still sit together, can banter amicably without any suggestion of latent violence, and will party together in the two cities' Old Parts both before and after the two annual derbies. The police are never called to intervene, and this is really quite wonderful. As was the 2-0 result. Oops! Did I mention it again? Sorry!

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