Monday, October 22, 2007
Also-rans up are and running
It's been one of those rare weekends in Spain, with both Real Madrid and Barcelona losing. It's a while since this happened, and its occurrence always seems apocalyptic somehow, as if the natural order of the cosmos has been disturbed and the Earth has gone off in search of a different orbit.
Madrid lost to Espanyol, 2-1 in Barcelona, and Rijkaard's merry men went down more heavily away (3-1) at one of their bogey teams, Villearreal. Maybe those with their eye on the quiniela, Spain's version of the football pools, would have seen that the internationals in midweek and the long journeys involved for many would have an adverse effect on the players' performances - especially for those who fancied a bit of partying thrown in - apparently the case with Ronaldinho, Baptista and Robinho, who were all dropped for their club games on arriving back late from South America.
Whatever the case, Espanyol's win over Real Madrid was something of a rarity, since the Catalan club has often been accused in the past of lying down rather too easily against Barça's greatest rivals, for reasons that hardly need explaining.
At the penultimate gasp of last season, you may well recall, Raúl Tamudo's late coup de grace to neighbours Barcelona more or less handed the title to Real Madrid, but this weekend he finally turned on his friends and scored the second and decisive goal, after Riera had opened early on from a corner.
The two of them, Tamudo and Riera, have been making headlines for a week or so now, having also extracted the national side from a potentially tricky situation in Denmark, then returning to Spain to shoot their club side into fifth spot, a point behind their illustrious Nou Camp neighbours.
Sometimes, when Real Madrid lose (and this was their first league defeat of the season) you could be forgiven for thinking that the Spanish press had just noticed the players that contributed to the defeat, in this case Tamudo, despite the fact that he's been around for years and has been consistently excellent in an often struggling club.
Tamudo's goals against Barça last season took him past the 111 record tally set by the club's mythical striker Rafa Marañon and he's now scored 115 in 320 league matches for the club. He made his first team debut in the '96-'97 season, and apart from a couple of loan spells to Alavés and Lleida, has been one of the more prominent members of the one-man club brigade, a species threatened with extinction these days.
He has flirted in the past with offers from bigger clubs, and might have signed for Rangers a while back had he not failed the medical. Sunderland also fancied him a couple of seasons ago, but with no disrespect to either of those fine clubs, it's odd that none of the bigger Spanish clubs have ever really gone for him.
Tamudo is Espanyol through and through, and is revered by their hard-core of fans. But as in the case of Raúl at Real Madrid, whom destiny seemed more likely to push towards a career at Atlético Madrid, Tamudo was on Barça's books as a kid and was rejected by the club when he failed to develop physically in early adolescence. Espanyol themselves seemed unsure of him, even when he did manage to put on a few kilos, and as mentioned farmed him out to Alavés and Lleida for a couple of seasons.
These stories are legion, of course, and Tamudo is not the only player in Spain to have once thought that he might not make it. It takes a brave football scout to weigh up the balance between a kid's physical inadequacy and his footballing potential, as did the chap who spotted Messi.
When he was 13 and more or less committed to moving to Barcelona (River Plate rated him but baulked at paying money to treat his hormone-growth deficiency), Barca's youth director Carles Rexach flew to Argentina to persuade Messi's representative to agree to a move, but on sensing that the agent was pulling back, Rexach allegedly asked the waiter in the restaurant to give him a napkin, on which the Catalan pledged the club's future contractual obligation.
Albert Riera, the man making news at the moment and the player who scored against Sevilla in last season's UEFA Cup final, had no trouble becoming a professional but as a subsequent also-ran was cast out into the wilderness by Mallorca, who didn't rate him, condemning him to several seasons of anonymity at Girondins and then on loan at Manchester City.
When the English club sent him back to Espanyol, the new manager, Ernesto Valverde, allegedly told him to 'wake up or join the dole queue'. Riera seems to have woken up big time, his revival culminating in his goal in Denmark and his header (and general performance) against Real Madrid.
At Villarreal, Bojan Krkic played his first game as 'titular' in Ronaldinho's controversial absence, and scored the goal that briefly promised to spark his team's revival. It was not to be, but in scoring Bojan became the third youngest player to score in La Liga since its inception. Xisco holds the record, having scored for Villarreal (curiously enough) five years ago when he was a mere stripling of 16 years and eleven months, followed by Mena who scored for Valencia in 1941 at the ripe old age of 17 and one month.
Bojan was 17 and 59 days but nevertheless enters Barça's record books beating Calvet, a player whose record had stood since 1939. Bojan (whose Serbian father was working anyway for Barça as a scout) had little problem convincing the club to keep him after scoring a mere 960 goals (!) in seven years in the youth sides.
Over in Coruña, Valencia were running riot (2-4) mainly due to their two wingers, the better-known Joaquín and the new kid on the block, David Silva. Silva, unlike Bojan, was sent from pillar to post until finally coming good in a spectacular way.
Rejected by Real Madrid at the age of twelve (having been spotted playing in the regional league in Las Palmas), Benitez took him on at Valencia and all appeared to be well until the manager went to Liverpool. Ranieri didn't rate him and farmed him out to Eibar, up in the Basque Country, where he played well if unspectacularly in Segunda 'B'. Brought back by Quique on a hunch, he's now looking one of the best players in the league.
David Villa, who was absent from Valencia's win through injury, is generally rated as the best forward in the country now. Taking the bus to Oviedo as a ten-year old kid, he missed the stop for the football ground and was late for his trial. He was rejected anyway (according to Oviedo legend) on the basis that he would never be able to turn up consistently if he had to make the 15 kilometre trip three times a week. He was tiny too, which didn't help.
Luis Garcia, now at Espanyol and a recent debutant for Spain, turned up for the same trial, and got in. In the end, with a few more inches in height (but not many) Villa was signed by Sporting Gijon and then by Zaragoza in 2003. Now he's too expensive for Abramovich. The Oviedo youth-team chap who let him go has been wearing a hair-shirt ever since, in case you wanted to know.
Michel Salgado, now disappearing over the horizon but formerly a more than decent full-back (53 caps for Spain), was in and out of Celta's youth teams as a kid, causing him to miss days from school. His Literature teacher, tired of his absences, told Salgado's mate to tell him to stop playing truant, since in the teacher's view, Salgado was never going to make a footballer. Years later, the full-back returned to the school and handed the same teacher his autobiography.
Luis Van Gaal, often pilloried in the history of Barça as a sham manager and a social disaster, was in a panic one afternoon in 1999 when half of his squad had gone down with flu'. Suggesting to the Barcelona 'B' manager that the walking few from the first team play a practice game on the Friday against the youth side (so that he could take a look what was there), Van Gaal duly turned up.
Carles Puyol was playing as a defensive midfielder, and when Van Gaal enquired about him, the answer was that 'Oh him? He's been in the 'B' side for years now. Not much good. We're going to send him to Malaga.' Van Gaal watched the rest of the game, and two days later Puyol made his first team debut. Malaga may since have had cause to regret those flu germs that changed the course of their destiny.
Barça, of course, failed to tie down a decent contract for Cesc Fabregas a few years back, allowing him to slip off unheeded to London. They'll now need a king's ransom to get him back, but they did rather better in the cases of Messi and Bojan, as reported.
Spotting talent isn't always easy, but I still reckon it would make a great documentary if all the scouts and managers who blew it in the past could be lined up and identified in a kind of rogues' gallery, especially in La Liga where memories are short and hype is rather too easily generated - particularly by those journalists too easily impressed by the here-and-now and who are often too keen to bury the inconvenient past.
Watching Tamudo chip Casillas on Saturday night made you wonder why on earth Real Madrid have spent so many seasons scouring the world with their cheque-book in hand, when such a gem was standing modestly on their doorstep. It ain't rocket-science - or maybe it is.
Meanwhile, the league is looking good again, precisely due to the democracy of talent that these errors of judgement have accidentally conferred. All power to the also-rans. Let's see if they can give us another weekend in the not-too-distant future when the big two are given some food for thought.
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