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Monday, January 21, 2008
Donkey Derbies and Marca's memory

The Madrid derby last Sunday was supposed to be some kind of watershed in La Liga this season, with a lot of journalists predicting an Atlético win and the beginning of the end for Real Madrid's imposing looking seven-point lead. But nothing of the sort.

Barcelona did what they had to (poorly) and beat Racing de Santander (a feat not managed by many recently), but for the leaders the second half of the season got off to the cake-walk start that the first one has largely been. Raúl scored after 34 seconds, taking advantage of a Robinho pass after Pablo - who may regret the fact that Luis Aragones was watching the game - passed the ball inadvertently to Robinho. You really shouldn't do that sort of thing nowadays. In the past the Brazilian would have done a few step-overs and then played it back to Pablo, but not now. Under the watchful gaze of Bernd Schuster, he has become a father and a man, and even appears to be shaving now.

Oh well - maybe the league's all over and it's all downhill from here. Villarreal, in the other donkey derby of the day, stuffed regional neighbours Valencia 3-0, but that was hardly a surprise. Valencia are now playing so badly that people are beginning to whisper the unthinkable - that they could even go down. Well, it's not beyond the bounds. They may lie a comfy-looking 8th, but Murcia in the 3rd relegation spot (18th place) are only five points away, on 22. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Villarreal are in third place, five points behind Barcelona, and a long way from Real Madrid.

Can things change?

One problem for the 'Madrid collapse' theorists is that of the twenty games so far played, the leaders have played nine of them at home and eleven away, precisely the opposite of their pursuers, who have played eleven at home. Madrid have already visited the five teams directly below them, which means that Barça, Espanyol, Villarreal and Atlético must all come to the Bernabéu, as must Sevilla. Valencia will have to as well, but let's discount them for now. But for Barcelona to really start hoping, Real Madrid will need to have a sudden loss of form at home - not impossible of course, but unlikely. The nine games played there so far have all been won, which is kind of impressive.

To add to Barça's problems, they still have to visit Sevilla, Atlético and Real Madrid - games that they might hope to get something from but which they find traditionally hard-going. Valladolid won't be that easy either, and although Athletic Bilbao are hardly world-beaters this year, you never know what might happen next week in the cauldron that San Mamés can be. The light at the end of the tunnel is the recovery of Messi, who managed the last twenty-five minutes against Racing.

Nothing against Real Madrid, of course, but it's always more interesting when there's a bit of a chase on, as in last season. Perhaps Villarreal can light the powder keg next week, when they travel to the Bernabéu for the late-night show on Sunday night. They have good reason to give a better account of themselves than on the last occasion that the two sides met, when Real Madrid strode imperiously into town and put five past them - ignoring the home side's long unbeaten run and setting themselves up for the first half of the season.

After that game, they began to ooze the sort of confidence so lacking in recent years. That win at Villarreal had a lot to do with this new mind-set, and it has continued to characterise their displays. Atlético didn't play too badly, statistically speaking, and could have scored several times in the first half, but after Van Nistlerooy popped up again and scored a second against the run of play, the fight seemed to drain from the home side, and in the end it was easy for the leaders, with the Calderón unusually muted.

Casillas kept another clean sheet, which makes it 558 minutes without conceding in the league. With such a trustworthy goalkeeper, and with Van Nistlerooy (12) and Raúl (9) both up there in the top-scorers list, the team has simply got into the habit of winning - or not losing. It's an interesting mindset, and it happens to all teams from time to time. But as is often the case, once the run is broken, the team can look suddenly vulnerable.

Indeed, part of the reason why so many people gave Atlético a good chance last weekend was the fact that Real Madrid had gone out of the King's Cup in midweek, losing 0-1 at home to Mallorca. But Dudek was in goal, and with a few other reserves being given a kick-about they actually played rather well, all of which means that the defeat wasn't too much of a downer for the club. They'll just have to make do with the league and the Champions Cup this season - a mere bagatelle.

Anyway, just a footnote to end this week, but an interesting one nevertheless. Spain play France in a friendly on February 6, and part of the reason is to pay 'homage' to the sports tabloid 'Marca', now in its 70th year. The actual 70th birthday was on December 21st, and there was a big party to which lots of international sporting bigwigs were invited. Prince Felipe delivered a stirring speech and everything was tickety-boo.

And that's as it should be. Marca is a great newspaper, in its own way. It's like the Gideon's Bible - you can find it in every hotel drawer in Spain, and on every bar-top. It comes out every day, and its journalists work their butts off to keep the editions fresh and up-to-date. It's even improved in quality over the past few years, employing Santiago Segurola, for starters, to send its reading age in an upwards direction.

So don't get me wrong. I like the paper, and feel uncomfortable if I haven't seen at least its headline in the morning, in my local bakery window. But there's a problem with this 'homenaje', as they call it here. Neither the owners nor the present team of Marca's journalists are in any way to blame, but when Prince Felipe said in his speech on Dec 21 that the newspaper had been born 'in the Civil War', he was right. Franco didn't bring things to an end until April 1939.

The first edition of Marca was actually printed in San Sebastian, as a propaganda tool for the Francoist troops. The great goalkeeper Zamora had been brought back from France to play in a game in which Spain played Real Sociedad - a deliberate ploy by Franco to demonstrate that the most difficult regions were caving in. Zamora was a Catalan, and his presence in the side was a propaganda coup for Franco, as was the cover of the first edition which showed the two sets of players with their right arms raised in fascist salute, with the paper proclaiming 'Right arm raised to the sportsmen of Spain!'

Without wishing to sound too politically correct, or to seem like a party-pooper, I can't see why this event should be commemorated as something to celebrate. All of the players who played for Spain that day were, as you can imagine, from the Nationalist side of the fence, given that most of the others were in exile, or murdered.

'Marca' would claim, I'm sure, that they are not commemorating the fascists' victory, but the longevity of their newspaper - and fair enough. But as ever in Spain, the awkward bits get pushed under the carpet - no mention was made of the first edition's content by Felipe - and the silent victims remain exactly that - silent. I can't understand why France have agreed to play the game, at least under these terms. Maybe they don't know. But to be celebrating the 70th birthday of a newspaper born out of fascist thuggery is hardly appropriate - particularly given France's own political sensitivity regarding these issues.

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