Monday, January 24, 2011
La Liga legacy
You'll forgive me if I ramble a little this week, or even if I fail to tickle your interests, but I'll try. I've been in England all week, and have only just come back. I missed the Valencia versus Malaga game on Saturday night (4-3) which sounded like a cracker, but I did manage to take in the Villarreal versus Real Sociedad game on Sunday evening (2-1), which was also very entertaining fare. In midweek, whilst Betis were doing the unthinkable and beating Barcelona, I was eating my takeaway curry and watching the FA Cup replay of Leeds v Arsenal on the hotel telly.
It was a strange experience. When I was a kid, these two teams were giants, and their annual clashes were big games indeed. Neither side, however, was famed for either their open or attractive football. Nasty Leeds, boring Arsenal. My mental configuration of these two sides is thus, and I find it hard to slough it off.
Nothing could be further from the truth now, and the present generation will be unaware of the old stereotypes. Leeds are now in the Championship, and playing well, and Arsenal are the nearest England has to Barcelona, albeit a slightly flawed version. But the intentions of the two teams are good, and it remains encouraging that they are both reaping some (potential) rewards. I really enjoyed the match (Arsenal won 3-1, away at Elland Road), but I enjoyed the Chicken Madras more. It remains a fact that the only thing I really miss about England is the Indian food. The Basques, despite their reputation for fine cuisine, aren't that big on the spicy stuff. They just roll out the meat with the horns, and you eat it as it comes. If it complains, you slap it.
I digress. What is interesting here is the extent to which the Spanish retain fixed beliefs about their teams, and how that comes to influence the way these teams develop, or otherwise. Walking towards the door on Sunday night as the barflies dispersed after the final whistle at Villarreal, an ageing but vocal Real supporter who had his team shirt rolled tightly over his alarming beer belly, addressed the bar with, ''They're alright Villarreal. But who the hell are they? In ten years' time, they'll be playing Alcorcon in Segunda B, and we'll still be in the top flight.''
Appealing to a sense of history, and unable to view Villarreal as anything but newcomers to the scene (when he was young they would have been unheard of), he tossed out the comment to the floor, as compensation for the defeat. There were some murmurs of assent, but it was an interesting thing to hear. Villarreal are a popular side in Spain, and their political neutrality (they do not hail from any strongly identifiable urban scene), their pretty colours, their low-key support and their attractive football make them difficult to dislike. The present young generation in Spain accept them as one of the major clubs - which historically they are not, of course. But they are an example of an institution that is not particularly established in the national psyche. Others are not so lucky.
For example, Real Sociedad supporters, to continue with the same game for a moment, are convinced to a man and woman that their team is discriminated against by the majority of the referees. They don't actually say this, but they accept it as a natural consequence of the political atmosphere in the country. On Sunday night, referee Muniz Fernandez, whilst not openly favouring the home side, did enough to make sure they took the points. Or that's what the Basques would have you believe. There's some truth in it, undoubtedly.
Referees are human, and have politico-cultural opinions and backgrounds. But more importantly, they have this historical memory to which I'm referring. They have grown up with a certain view of Spain's teams. Real Sociedad are the easiest example, because much of Spain still associates them with Basque nationalism. Are the referees influenced by these national configurations, to the extent that they unconsciously discriminate against certain sides? Maybe. I'm sitting on the fence. But it was ironic that behind one of Villarreal's goals, a poster was complaining about how referees were allegedly against the Yellow Submarine, launching weekly depth-charges at them. So everybody's complaining, not just the Basques. Paranoia? Could be.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, are still viewed as the favoured team, at the centre of the country and at the centre of its political life. This is how the public view them, although the popular press are now convinced that Barcelona are the ones favoured by referees, to the detriment of Real Madrid. This is a major shift in perception, and is one that the Catalans, in particular, find absurd. It is part of their national historical identity to feel victimised, they are not altogether comfortable with the idea that they are the new elite, and that the refereeing fraternity is now in cahoots with them.
The famous chant that emerged around Spain, once Franco was dead and his police state began to fracture, was Asi, asi, asi gana Madrid! (That's how Madrid win), the implication being that the refs would always lend a hand when needed, because that's the way the political authorities had deemed it would be. Nobody was suggesting that the refs were in the pay of the regime, but rather that they knew that their careers might not be enhanced by any penalties awarded to the away aside in the Bernabeu. That's how the cookie crumbled, and it was broadly accepted, as a part of the national make-up. People still sing it, however, from time to time. Will they ever come to sing Asi, asi, asi gana el Barcelona!?
Three of my son's team-mates here in San Sebastian openly support Real Madrid, and are mildly ribbed for their allegiance. They are aware of the historical parameters, like the crumble of the soil. But now they don't get lynched for their eccentric choice. Several years ago, to openly support Madrid here would have been unthinkable. The times they are a-changin'? Maybe. Or is it just the presence in the capital of Xabi Alonso? Barcelona are the easier choice, and few dislike them up here. But that is also political. There has always been an unspoken solidarity between the two 'nations', and it influences the way that families pass on football culture to their children. So when I asked one of my son's team's parents before Christmas why his son supported Real Madrid (implying that perhaps he did too), he shrugged his shoulders. ''Para joderme'' (to p*** me off) he concluded.
Teams such as Sevilla and Valencia are also fixed entities in the national consciousness, as are Atletico Madrid. All three are historical heavyweights, and have all won league titles, but the weight of their collective failure to ever remove the big two permanently from the throne haunts them to this day, as if they were somehow responsible for the two-horse state of affairs. In midweek, when Atletico once again lay down and permitted their illustrious neighbours to progress to the King's Cup semi-final, it was seen as business as usual. Atletico bark quite a lot, but their bite is usually a timid afterthought. Nobody likes them very much, and they are still associated with Jesus Gil, gold medallions and corruption, in the mind-set of the public. It will take some time for this to dissipate, as in the Leeds example at the beginning of the piece.
Valencia and Sevilla are more tolerated, because they are vaguely associated with passion, noise, and with traditions of open, exciting football. This is true to the extent that when managers come and tinker with these traditions, they rarely last. Joaquin Caparros (now at Athletic) is often credited with reviving Sevilla, and although his hard-man teams and his defensive instincts were tolerated there for torero (bullfighter) reasons, he wasn't really their idea of the flamenco aesthetic. At Valencia, the local jury is still out on Unai Emery. He's a bit too post-modern for their liking. They like a bit more balls and bluster.
Other sides such as Espanyol, Sporting Gijon, Zaragoza, Racing de Santander and Athletic are clasicos of La Liga, cultural monoliths who are completely defined by the special nature of their communities. A Spaniard of a certain generation will hear the names, see the colours, and know the mind-sets. These may never shift, rather like Liverpool or Newcastle United in England - teams very much defined by special cities.
The historical legacy gives La Liga its particular flavour. Personally I've no problem with it, but it's worth understanding. Back to the grind next week!