One of life’s great dilemmas is when you travel to an away match and are unsure of where and when to eat. In the south-west of Madrid on Friday night, in the town known as Leganés, I ask the stressed-out barman in ‘El Tiburon’ (The Shark) if we could partake of two hamburgers, the ‘Tiburón’ special and ‘El Clásico’, the latter’s ingredients seeming to have little connection to the famous game it appears to be named after, but then again the former is also struggling to justify itself, with a certain lack of shark-infested waters to the south-west of Madrid. It’s 21.15 and the Leganés-Real Sociedad game starts in exactly an hour, about ten minutes’ walk from the Shark. The pallid old barman shakes his head; ‘It’ll take a while’ he says, nodding his head sideways to the kitchen, in which a lone frantic woman is cooking in a frenzy, as opposed to a frying pan.
The barman (who might be the owner) has underestimated the crowd for the game, since half of Gipuzkoa, the eastern region of the Basque Country, seems to be outside waiting for sharks and clásicos too. Real Sociedad’s new blue and white strip is almost identical to that of Leganés, and the two sets mingle peacefully on the darkening terrace, but as the time ticks by, and no hamburgers appear, my son begins to get fidgety. Born of English parents in the Basque Country, he has nevertheless taken on the Basque tendency to eat a horse at every sitting.
When John Toshack took Real Sociedad on their first away game in 1985, the Welshman recalled that after telling them various details as the bus set off, he asked if there were any questions. One of the players piped up, ‘Sí, mister. ¿Dónde vamos a comer?’ (Yes boss. Where are we going to stop to eat?). My son Harry, accompanying me to the game because he’s side-lined with a hip injury, is of the same mentality but nevertheless does not want to come all the way to Madrid only to arrive late for the kick-off.
At 21.50, it’s getting desperate. The large screen outside the bar is showing the dying embers of the Getafe v Eibar game which is taking place about half an hour’s walk to the east, and I comfort my son by suggesting that at least we can see the first 10 minutes of the Leganés game on the same screen. The hamburgers arrive just as Sociedad’s supporters arise and leave, and we wolf the food down. After the unfeasibly long wait, it actually tastes quite good.
Like the habitual bad dream for the football obsessive, we set off at 22.10, for once thanking Javier Tebas and his cronies for putting the game on so late. We have five minutes. The stadium is on the edge of the neighbourhood, an anonymous square box from the outside and slightly hidden from the residential areas around, as if apologising for its presence. We scuttle along the dark deserted streets, almost exactly in the geographical centre of Spain, listening in panic to the muffled sounds rising up from the stadium into the warm night air. The Butarque, named after the patron saint of Leganés, was inaugurated in 1998 and is witnessing its third season in the top flight. As recently as 2014 they were in Segunda ‘B’, their usual stomping ground until the arrival of Asier Garitano as coach from Alcoyano that year. Four seasons later and they were competing in the King’s Cup semis, having eliminated northern neighbours Real Madrid and established themselves as a side worthy of a place among the big boys.
As we take our seats in the sudden white glare, Garitano is a few metres below, standing outside the visitors’ box, directing operations for Real Sociedad. The home fans bear him no ill-will, having almost accorded him with sainthood.
Real’s right-back, Joseba Zaldua, who coached my daughter to her top-scoring season at school some years ago (she finished the season on a massive 2 goals), is also returning to the Butarque, having played on loan there last season after being displaced at Sociedad by the young whippet Odriozola, now at Real Madrid of course. Zaldua is also popular, having played almost every game last season, and I can confirm that he is a better player than a coach.
Indeed, quite soon after we lower our bums to the plastic, Zaldua worms his way to the bye-line and slips the ball across the area for Zurutuza to tap the ball in from point-blank range. Slightly wary of our surroundings, we jump up and celebrate, but respectfully. I always prefer to sit among the home supporters, as it gives you insights into the club you’re visiting that are otherwise unavailable when you sit with your own ilk. My son is slightly disappointed that we are not with the Sociedad fans, but I’m paying for the tickets. That said, I’ve bought the most expensive from the club website, 35 euros each. You wouldn’t get into the police dog-kennel for that at Real Sociedad. Leganés have set the prices between 20 euros and 35 and the public has responded, despite this being Madrid’s holiday time. The Bernabéu was half empty last week against Getafe, but Leganés is a working-class satellite town in the older sense of the phrase, and it could be that of its 186,000 population, more have stayed at home and are thus here tonight. The open-air ground holds 12,000, and it looks tightly packed.
There’s hardly time to take this in when Real score again, the move initiated by Zaldua once more, as if he’s determined to be disliked now by his former admirers. The keeper parries Juanmi’s header up into the air at the edge of the box where Illarramendi lurks to volley a corker past where the spider webs dangle. Again we celebrate, but it’s difficult not to do a little dance to this one.
The crowd begins to mute, and I try to make friends with the kid sitting next to me by immediately agreeing with his glum and irate father that the move that preceded the goal was initiated by a foul. The father, adorned by various ear and nose rings and a tattoo in every corner, stares stoically ahead and then rants at the ref; ‘Puta vergüenza! No tienes ni puta idea, inútil!’ (You useless sonovabitch! You ain’t got a f*****g clue!’). He’s not far wrong, but it’s clear that his teenage son is the only one who is prepared to engage with me. ‘Golazo’ (great goal) he whispers, conspiratorially. It’s looking good, and we’ll get out alive. My instinct tells me that we’re ok here. There are grumbles, but there’s no violence in the air.
In the second half, the visitors inexplicably hand the initiative to Leganés, and eventually succumb to the battering given, the equaliser from the tricky El Zhar coming in the final minute to an enormous roar and general euphoria.
The game has started on Friday evening and ended on Saturday morning, but hey, no work tomorrow and the whims of league president Tebas and company are forgotten temporarily. We engage in chat with the row in front, congratulating them on the comeback and admitting that they probably deserved to win it. In return, they lament the first-half injury to Sociedad’s Diego Llorente, born close to the stadium. ‘He played with my son’, one gentleman tells us proudly.
I liked the feeling of community at the club, and the way they rallied round their team at 0-2 instead of moaning. Sometimes you wonder, with so many clubs in Madrid – this season a record five in the top flight – how they all manage to maintain a genuine fan base, but they do. The atmosphere at the Butarque reminded me of Rayo, with its densely-packed intensity and its neighbourhood pride. On the evidence of Friday, they should do just fine, in the post-Garitano era.
Elsewhere, Barcelona squeaked past new boys Valladolid 0-1, on a pitch so bad that the Catalans have lodged a formal complaint. Real Madrid overcame Girona 1-4 after going a goal down and looking decidedly wobbly for a while, only to look decidedly princely in the second half and stroll it in the end. Gareth Bale continues to look like a liberated man in the absence of Ronaldo’s shadow, scoring, assisting and generally looking too powerful for the Girona defence. Just stay fit Gareth. Even Benzema scored a couple, so things must be looking up. Keylor played again, and rather well too. Courtois looks too big to sit on the bench, but he may have to for some time yet.
Atlético struggled to defeat Rayo (1-0) in another Madrid derby (we’re going to have to get used to them this season) at the Willy Wanda, whilst Valencia surprisingly lost 2-0 away to Espanyol, who are maybe not so bad as everyone has been saying. Sevilla and Villarreal drew 0-0 in the match of the day, played at the same time as Girona- Real Madrid, a result which leaves Real Madrid on top on goal difference – unless Levante can beat Celta soundly on Monday night and take their place, which would be interesting.
We stopped off in central Madrid on the way home for late breakfast with the legendary Ed Alvarez, in surroundings (near Retiro) which looked to be on a planet very distinct from Leganés. Be that as it may, I’ll bet you can’t get a shark-burger for five euros there.