Monday, September 12, 2011
Back in the swing
It's taken a while to get back into La Liga's swing this season. Every season, since I was a kid, the sudden interruption of football into the green baize of late summer has always been slightly annoying, like having your birthday a few days before Christmas. It feels good, but not quite as good as it should. It always takes a few weeks to accept the noise and the hype of the new season, until, when the leaves begin to turn, you're hooked again and into the groove.
This season has been especially strange, with its stop-start nature (players' strikes, internationals) and rebellion in the ranks, with a group of clubs led by Sevilla president Jose Maria Del Nido threatening to form a breakaway unless the television money is more evenly distributed. Del Nido has now been immortalised by labelling the competition 'La Liga de mierda' (the sh** league), and his epithet has now become September's media talking-point. Nevertheless, when Barcelona come to town, as they did on Saturday to San Sebastian, no-one seems too concerned about inequality.
One of the points that people like Del Nido always miss is that people are reasonably happy to simply co-exist on the same planet as Barcelona and Real Madrid and enjoy the four games a season that you play against them. The fact that Barcelona spend more on equipping their team-bus than Real Sociedad do on players is besides the point. It may not be a valid justification of inequality, but if you see what I mean, the distance creates the sense of awe. And of course, in the end, it's 11 guys versus 11 guys, and a piece of leather (okay, plastic) in between. You go to the stadium in a state of euphoria, with all that serotonin (or maybe beer) convincing your neurons that your team can do it, that they can stand up to the giants. In fact the whole community is gelled by this communal self-deceit, even though - as on Saturday when Real Sociedad rallied from 0-2 down to earn a draw - the dream sometimes comes true. The second half in Anoeta, when the home side suddenly turned around a game in which they were being threatened by annihilation, was simply breathtaking. It doesn't get much better.
The problem, for me at least, resides less in the financial disparity than in the attitude of some of the bigger clubs to the game in general. At the risk of attracting a flood of abuse, I was almost tempted to leave Anoeta at half-time on Saturday. I'm eternally glad that I didn't, but Barcelona's version of tiki-taka that they sometimes export to away stadiums is really a version of anti-football, undignified in its complete disregard for the spectator and for the opposition, it has to be said. As one Basque journalist put it, the gilifutbol of Barcelona (hard to translate - ask a Spanish-speaking friend) will lose them friends, and will play into the Bernabeu's hands.
Barcelona are more likely to play their more electric version of tiki-taka in the Camp Nou, but if folks are calling you the best team in the world then you have some sort of obligation to entertain. Football's a business, okay, but playing keep-ball - technically impressive though it is - for 45 minutes of tedium is not what people have paid good money for. It's all part of the rules, sure - but it is no less tedious than the much-despised catenaccio. It also seems to be taking the p*** slightly, as if Xavi and company are engaged in some sort of playground mockery of their fellow professionals. It annoyed Real Sociedad, who for various reasons were useless in the first half, and it brought them out snarling for the second. The visitors, who had initially left Messi, Iniesta and Villa on the bench - another gesture of indifference to the paying spectator - were knocked off their stride and ended the game looking very ordinary indeed.
'The best team in the world', from another perspective, is not the one that holds the most trophies but rather the one that seeks consistently to entertain. At the moment, the two best teams to watch are Real Madrid and Manchester City. Hate them for their money, or love them because you were born into their cultural cradles, but they are playing some fantastic, vertical, speedy stuff. This is all the more ironic given the reputations of their respective managers for pragmatic caution.
Caution? Jose Mourinho criticised his team on Saturday for forgetting how to defend in their 4-2 win over Getafe, but it was still very easy on the eye. Getafe weren't great, but at least they were allowed to have the ball from time to time. When they didn't have it, the speed and verve of Real Madrid's attacking moves were well worth the entrance fee. Cristiano Ronaldo's pass to Benzema for Madrid's third was sublime, and the move for the fourth, with Kaka back-heeling a pass at speed to Higuain, was wonderful. That's entertainment, as they say.
It's also true that Barcelona's two quick goals in Anoeta were a result of technical and tactical brilliance, but that was the first ten minutes. Goals scored, shut up shop, tiki-taka till you drop, leave your stars on the bench and then prepare for the real thing in midweek, the Champions League match against Milan. Thank you and good night. Messi and Iniesta did appear when things were starting to get rocky, but they were too late to have any influence. Messi was actually booked for diving in the area, but I would hesitate to say whether the referee got it right.
During the first half in Anoeta, I was hypnotised to an early-evening doze by Barcelona's mechanical insistence on keepy-ball, as were Real Sociedad's players. It works, of course. You silence the stadium, anaesthetise any enthusiasm that the supporters might have come with, and proceed to humiliate your fellow professionals. Three friends of mine from California, over in San Sebastian for the summer, paid a king's ransom to see the game. Excited by the eventual result, we exchanged opinions on the game over a post-match beer outside the stadium. "Maaa-aaan," exclaimed Chris, whose grandfather, curiously enough, was Real Sociedad's first-ever goalkeeper. "That first half sucked!" Exactly.
But I don't wish to exaggerate, on the basis of one game. Barcelona have also turned in some wonderful stuff over the past few years, and their traditional emphasis on style has made them the great institution they are. They were also a bit short at the back on Saturday - Pique and Puyol were still absent - and maybe decided on a surfeit of possession as their best safety policy. But as a growing tendency in their play, it might be worth a re-think. Pep and his hypnotists are coming to town! Stay at home and take your siesta. It's cheaper.
Elsewhere in Spain, there was plenty to commend the so-called Liga de Mierda. Football will probably never eat itself completely, largely because it is the people's game, cliche-ridden though that sounds. It's the Gaia Theory of football, taken from the idea that just as the Earth is a self-regulating organism that will always clean itself up and save the day, so will football. It will never allow itself to fracture into a situation where people no longer feel that they have a chance.
Villarreal, for example, have for some years now flown the flag for the minnows. 'If we can do it, then so can you' their insistence on good football seems to say. Thrashed by Barcelona on the opening day, their ten men deserved to beat an interesting-looking Sevilla side on Saturday, only losing the two points at the very death when the visitors equalised. Like Valencia, albeit on a smaller scale, they have sold on their best players, year after year, and yet still preserved a competitive edge, often finding players discarded by other clubs and turning them back into top players. Talking of which, Sevilla's Alvaro Negredo is on fire at the moment, deservedly called back into the international fold by Vicente Del Bosque - and subsequently terrorising poor Liechtenstein last week.
He didn't quite fit in at the Bernabeu, and has that burly traditional centre-forward look now discarded by the big two, but he is surprisingly skilful, faster than he looks, and determined to be noticed again. All good news for Sevilla, another of the sides who, along with Valencia, Malaga and Villarreal, are this season's candidates to hang onto the shirt-tails of the big two. Valencia have a similar figure in Roberto Soldado, another ex-Madrid player who scored the winner against Atletico Madrid - still sunk in post-Aguero/Forlan depression. Soldado is also on the verge of being re-considered for the national side.
Newly-promoted Betis have begun the season with two straight wins, and are the only side not to have conceded a goal, but their destiny this campaign is more likely to involve survival. Sporting de Gijon are still pointless after two games, but hey, it's a long season.
The Champions League begins this week, with plenty of Spanish interest. Barcelona and Villarreal have home games, to Milan and to Bayern Munich respectively, and Real Madrid and Valencia must travel, to Zagreb in Croatia and to Genk in Belgium. Back in the swing, ding-a-ling. Let's just hope that the majority remembers to entertain.