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Saints and sinners

October 13, 2008

Records, records and more records. Spain continue to break them with almost tedious regularity, but I'm sure you don't want a whole article on them. A brief mention then - after Spain dispatched poor Estonia in Tallin on Saturday night, in front of 7,500 spectators. What's the big sport in Estonia then? I'm going there next week so I'll ask the taxi drivers. It can't be football.

David Villa
GettyImages / JamieMcDonaldDavid Villa: 22 goals in 39 games for Spain
Whatever, if more had gone along to the stadium they'd have seen Carles Puyol score a goal, an event as rare as a Catalan buying a round of drinks. It was only his second in seventy games for Spain, a fairly poor showing given that in those seventy games he must have averaged going up for about three corners per game. That's two goals from 210 corners. Come on Carles. Get that hair out of your eyes! The last time he scored was against Northern Ireland in 2002, and anyone can do that.

David Villa got one, of course - and has now managed 22 in 39 games for Spain, a ratio that averages out at 0.56 a game. He's the quickest to get to this figure after 22 games (!), has just surpassed Michel in the national scoring rankings, and is now after toppling Di Stéfano, who managed 23, and he was Argentinean. Beat that David! Villa is, more interestingly, half way to Raúl's record total, which took the great man 102 games to accumulate. If Villa continues in his present vein, he'll have reasons to beat his chest and tell us all that he's the greatest.

On a more defensive note, the clean sheet kept against Estonia means that no side has scored against Spain since Charisteas managed it on June 18 in the European Championships. Now that's pretty good, given that three of the games since then were against Russia, Germany and Italy. This means that goalie Iker (Saint) Casillas has gone 709 minutes without letting the leather cross the line, with sixty-four of those minutes contributed by Liverpool's Pepe Reina. In days of yore, Zubizaretta and Buyo between them managed 692 minutes, but now Casillas is officially the greatest of all time.

He might have blown it early on in Estonia when the home forward Kink - great name that - should have done better with a half decent chance, but Saint Iker was equal to it. Spain play Belgium next, on Wednesday. Can the clean sheets remain unstained? Belgium have been looking a bit more useful of late. I predict the end of the line.

Despite all this statistical adulation, the Argentine ex-goalie Hugo Gatti (El Loco) recently pronounced that Casillas was 'horrendo', with the interesting observation that if he were his manager, he would give him a glass of whisky before each game, to calm his nerves. It is true that Casillas remains a reflex keeper, not one who naturally dominates his area. He's improved in that respect, but has remained essentially a shot-stopper, perhaps putting off the purists who prefer a positional genius like Lev Yashin.

I'm no expert on goalkeepers, but the subject of Casillas has come up yet again this week because of the imminent announcement of the winner of the Balon d'Or. No goalkeeper has won since Yashin took the biscuit in 1963, but now seems as good a time as any. Fernando Torres, another candidate, got a bit miffed this week and complained that the Spanish press were engaged on some sort of conspiracy to get Casillas chosen, although he was quick to add the next day that he hadn't been implying that he should be the winner - just in case Iker would be tempted to give him a thump around the head in training this week.

But it would be interesting. Saint Casillas seems like some sort of preppy golden boy, a Bobby Moore figure who never seems to put a foot wrong or say anything out of place. You could take him home for tea and your mum would like him. Like Beckham he has that strange ability to sound as though he means it. You'd respect him against your better instincts. You'd want him to be your captain despite that squeaky voice. Well, Casillas doesn't have a squeaky voice, but the only time he ever did anything wrong was when he was a kid and had been dispatched by his dad to take the 'Quiniela' (football pools) to get stamped by the local newsagent, as you do here. In classic apocryphal style, dad checked the pools on Monday morning and figured he'd won a lot of money. Casillas junior, unfortunately, had forgotten to take the slip of paper to be endorsed, and nobody knows what the punishment was - fifty lashings or a slap on the wrist, but it would appear that the boy has made good since and given his dad a euro or two in compensation.

Ilker Casillas
GettyImages / JavierSorianoThe Spain skipper is one of the best in the world.
And if he wins the Balon d'Or he would have to win it ahead of three other (partly ex) La Liga figures - Xavi Hernandez, Leo Messi and Fernando Torres. Ronaldo will most likely take the trophy, and deservedly so, but some think that Xavi could spring a surprise after his showing in the summer. Messi should concentrate on winning it next year and Torres might not have done quite enough. Casillas, of course, won both the Spanish League and the European Championship, the strongest argument yet for handing him the prize. Ronaldo won a couple of biggies too, so it looks like a head-to-head.

Berndt Schuster conceded an interview to Marca at the weekend, probably because he had nothing better to do. In it he proclaimed that Ronaldo should be made Balon d'Or, presumably so that the Portuguese might be more disposed to go to the Bernabéu next summer, since Schuster continues to say that he will do. Then again, Schuster also made the startling claim - when asked if his relationship with Mijatovic was ok - that of course it was, and that he (Schuster) always tried to avoid conflicts, because it led to a more stress-free existence. Of course, anyone aware of Schuster's history as player and manager will know that the idea that the German prefers to avoid conflict is like saying that bulls prefer to just walk away from red rags.

But this is the kind of thing that goes on when there is no top-flight programme. The other thing is that the Second Division gets more of an airing, and I went along to see Real Sociedad versus Xerez on Saturday, at the breezeless end of a still and stifling day here in the north, with a south wind whispering up from Africa. Normal enough for Xerez, of course who were from the hotter southern climes anyway, but Real Sociedad huffed and puffed in the fading light, incapable of scoring a goal and rekindling their fading start.

The football was remarkably good, however, and you could have been mistaken for thinking that you were at First Division game. The eye has to look carefully to detect non-elite features, such as the occasional hopeless punt forward or a batch of mis-controlled passes that the stallions from the top flight would take in their stride. The gaps in the seats tell their tale too, of course, but nine of the players for the home side were products of the youth side, a phenomenon almost unheard of these days. Even neighbours Athletic Bilbao, with their Basque-only policy, cannot beat that regional home-grown proportion.

Speaking of Bilbao, after 14 seasons now at San Mamés, at the age of 31 there appeared to be some danger this summer that Joseba Exteberría's contract would not be renewed. Injury-plagued last year, his time looked to be up, particularly given the need to promote the new batch of young pups knocking on the door. Pre-empting any controversy for an already under-fire president (Fernando Macua), Exteberría made the startling announcement that he would play this season for free - an offer that Macua accepted perhaps too readily. This would appear to be the first time in the history of professional football - certainly in the modern era - that a player has done this.

Cynics on the blogs have suggested that Exteberría has been overpaid for so long that his action is not as noble as it appears, and that of course, he won't be paying for the flights and the hotels out of his own pocket, but it still seems to be a remarkable gesture, in this day and age. Plenty of teams in La Liga would have snapped up Exteberría and been willing to pay him a salary. But he has said that at the end of the season he will retire (at 32), and that his only remaining ambition is to play for 15 seasons in Bilbao. He feels 'loved' by the community, and he cannot see himself in any other colours.

Etxeberría may even have started a trend. In this day and age, when a player like Chelsea's Ashley Cole complained that his previous club Arsenal were 'taking the piss' by refusing to increase his salary from 55k to 60k a week, the gesture to play for free seems almost saint-like. More of this kind of thing and the game may well get back to something approaching normality. 'Respect', as the cliché goes.