How nice, and how rare, that La Liga simmered to the final day with nothing much at stake, so that the focus could be on other matters and not on the infamous ‘maletines’ – the metaphorical (or literal, according to some) suitcases stuffed with euros that habitually change hands between gentlemen of shifty appearance and dark glasses, allegedly in the loos of Spanish motorway service-stations.
This season they were saved the bother, allowing us to reflect on the campaign in a more relaxed manner than has often been the case. Those still competing to join the top flight are, of course, slogging it out in a more frenetic context, but more on those chaps later.
It might be appropriate to begin with Atlético Madrid and their post-European bus-ride through the city of Madrid last week, the male players in their own open-topped bus following the female side, who had won the league the week before. It was a brilliant gesture, for which the club’s authorities should be applauded, because it signals the way for the women’s game to be given the greater exposure it deserves. Of course, Atlético’s president, Enrique Cerezo, blew the good feeling generated the next day by declaring to the press that he wasn’t sure now whether to say ‘…feminine or girls. And this #MeToo stuff has got me really worried’. So obviously it wasn’t his idea to put the gals onto their own bus, but hey, at least he went along with it and wrote the cheque. Enrique probably still believes in paying the bill when he’s out with the missus in a restaurant, but at least he doesn’t wear those dodgy medallions that his predecessor sported.
Atlético have had an interesting week, culminating in their final game at home to party-poopers supreme Eibar, against whom the departing Fernando Torres once played in a Second Division league match. The game finished 2-2, Atlético with 10 men, and Torres twice on the scoresheet. When Griezmann came on in the second half, the crowd booed him, despite his brace in midweek against Marseille. They know he’s going, and that he feels that they are no longer enough for him. They might have let him be, had it not been for the Torres factor – a man who came home to roost, a player who somehow never looked quite right in either the shirts of Liverpool or Chelsea. For the Atlético hard-core, Torres is everything that Griezmann is not – the former a home-made legend, the latter a mercenary. It’s not a question of whether they’re right or not, but rather that many Atlético fans see it that way. Meanwhile, Eibar, let it not be forgotten, have finished in 9th place, their best ever. Long may they prosper.
On that same theme, on Monday night Huesca play at Lugo, in the Second Division. If they win they’ll be assured of top flight footy for the first time in their history, and will join Eibar in a sort of minnows one-two. Their ground, the wonderful El Alcoraz, has a capacity of 5,500, currently two thousand less than Eibar. Their record crowd was in fact 7,000 for the visit of Barcelona in 2014, but for that event they’d set up extra scaffolding and temporary seats. It would be great to see Real Madrid play there next season, in the middle of nowhere, in Aragon province. But let’s not count our chickens. Leaders Rayo and third-placed Sporting both lost, greatly facilitating Huesca’s possibilities, but caution remains the word.
Apart from Torres, who still looks far too young to be retiring or even riding off into the MLS, Andres Iniesta finally said goodbye to the Camp Nou admirers, and to La Liga in general, accompanied by a 1-0 win over Real Sociedad. His departure to China coincided with the retirement of Xabi Prieto from Real Sociedad, in an emotive last appearance for the two of them. Iniesta came off in the 81st minute to rapturous applause, and Prieto came on for the last four minutes, also sportingly applauded on by the Barcelona crowd. Before the game they exchanged gifts and a mutual admiration that was obvious. Both one-club legends, we may never see their likes again. They’re also top blokes, which is perhaps the most important aspect, in the end. The more that football eats itself, the more the spectacle needs genuinely good people.
Prieto never got to play for Spain, but Iniesta’s gesture towards Dani Jarque, at the very apogee of his own career for Spain (scoring the winner in the 2010 World Cup Final), remains one of the great acts in sporting history, if not the greatest. The more you think about it, the nobler it becomes. Instead of milking the historic moment for himself, Iniesta instantly deflected the attention from himself onto Jarque, his friend who had died a year earlier. Nobody had the slightest idea that Iniesta was intending to do it, and the fact that Jarque was an Espanyol player – Barça’s deadly enemies – makes the gesture more astonishing still.
Other departures included that of referee Fernandez Borbalan, after 14 seasons in the top flight. It would be churlish to dismiss the Andaluz ref as incompetent as the rest, so let’s just say that he wasn’t quite as bad as some. What was interesting was that he chose to ref his last match in the new San Mames, officiating Athletic v Espanyol. Although it is true that the game had nothing riding on it, it must be unique in the history of the game that a referee chose, and was granted, the game to finish his career on. He’s from Almería, so he’s certainly not a fan of Athletic. Maybe he just fancied a quiet game, and he certainly got one, Espanyol winning 0-1 and condemning Athletic to their worst league finish since 2006 and only the 3rd time since 1928 that they have finished below 15th place/figured in the bottom five – which is pretty astounding, given the limitations of their local configuration. Nevertheless, this season they have finished bottom of the mini-Basque league, under Eibar, Real Sociedad and Alavés, in that order. That’s an historic failure, for which coach Cuco Ziganda will pay with his departure.
Switching from leavers to arrivistes, Luis Rubiales was voted in as new boss of the Spanish Federation, succeeding the caretaker Juan Luis Larrea, who had also bid for the disgraced Angel Villar’s job. Rubiales, a hard but undistinguished ex-player, made his name as head of the Spanish players’ union, and whether or not they find out that he once smoked a joint on the school patio for now he appears to be clean, and anything after Villar is positively squeaky. It’s to be hoped that this may usher in a more transparent, more innovative and less back-scratching era than the previous 29 years under the dodgy Villar. He’s also got a cool haircut. Rubiales gets on slightly better with Javier Tebas, the league president, but nobody really expects it to be a future of bliss and harmony.
What remains, dear readers? Julen Lopetegui’s list of the players he will take to Russia is due this very Monday, and it will of course include Andres Iniesta. Then there’s the small matter of next Saturday in Kiev, which Liga Fever will be feverishly following. I must say, before Eduardo has his two penn’orth, that it’s looking like an interesting final. I’m old enough to remember Alan Kennedy’s chip in the 1981 Paris final, whereas my esteemed Liga Fever colleague was probably still in nappies.
It’s probably not going to be a 0-0 draw, and you get the feeling that neither side think that caution will be a good idea. Should Real Madrid win, the city will claim an interesting and unique treble – Champions League, Europa League and Women’s Premier League. Until then, and thanks for taking the time to read all our nonsense this season.