Tantric antics

Given the foul weather on Sunday morning, I wandered down to the local bar with my papers and pored over the footy stuff, accompanied by my ‘Tejano’ coffee (Texan – which is an ‘Americano’ with a bit of cold milk) and a croissant whose sugary nature will mean some gym-ridden penance sessions this coming week.  I like these coffee visits to the bar, usually alone.  I can read all the Spanish news and all the sports tabloids, in perfect peace.  In fact I stayed so long that Valladolid v Huesca began on the telly.  ‘They’re going back down, that Huesca lot’ pronounced the owner of the bar from within shouting distance – aware of my weakness for football.  I nodded. ‘They try to play football, but it doesn’t work for them – look!’ he proclaimed, as a pass went astray.

Anyway, the tabloid Marca had also just proclaimed to me that Real Madrid have now gone four games without a win and 6 hours 49 minutes without scoring a goal.  This put me in mind of the phenomenon of tantric sex, although I’m no expert on the topic.  Six hours of frenzied activity, ending up with nothing?  Was it Julie Christie who got so fed up of Warren Beatty one day that she actually asked if he could get up and make a cup of tea?  Interestingly, a young Beatty allegedly handed the Real Madrid players their medals after they defeated AC Milan in the 1958 European Cup Final, so there is a connection.  Now there’s an exclusive piece of trivia that you won’t get on any other site.

Waiting for Warren, 1958


Whatever – Madrid’s lack of ability to finish things off (if you’ll excuse the extension of the metaphor) means that they are now officially in a ‘crisis’.  The Spanish word ‘crisis’ is the same as the English one, but it is never official until the club’s mouthpiece (the aforementioned Marca) leads with the word as its headline.  On Sunday as I was munching my croissant, I was treated to the ‘Crisis Real’ header, the literal and figurative meaning of the phrase meaning ‘royal crisis’ – as in a BIG one.  RM have not been so tantric since a similar run in 1984, when they went 496 minutes without scoring.  The current 406 means that they’ll beat the record in added time during the next match, if they don’t change their strokes.  There’s a break for internationals next week, but the next encounter sees Levante visit the Bernabéu.   If they can’t score against them – Getafe failed to this weekend although Sevilla put six past them a while back – then the royal crisis will worsen.

A right royal crisis

Madrid’s 1-0 defeat up at Alavés was made all the worse by occurring in the 95th minute, when the old local warhorse Manu Garcia, who came on for Wakaso in the 73rd minute, gleefully buried a header that had been nodded back in his direction after a late corner.  The visitors started with Bale, Benzema and Ceballos pushed forward, and ended up with Mariano, Asensio and the young Vinicius – all to no avail.  It looked a bit desperate, especially given that their best attacker was the full-back, Odriozola.  Alavés are now 6th, level on 14 points with RM and only two from Sevilla at the top. Nobody gave a bin-bag for them at the beginning of the campaign.

The only slight reduction in Madrid’s pain was the fact that late on Sunday night, Barcelona also failed to win for the 4th time in succession, although those four games all correspond to the league programme.  Madrid have failed in three league games, but have added their defeat in Russia to the roster of shame.   Barça’s 1-1 draw at Valencia was rather more predictable, given Valencia’s improving form, with their draw at Man Utd not quite superseding Barcelona’s excellent display at Tottenham but their recent displays nevertheless suggesting that it would be no cake-walk for the Catalans. Indeed it wasn’t, with Garay scoring in the second minute and Messi, as ever, coming to the rescue 20 minutes later.  After that it could have gone either way, but Barça have now slipped second, a point behind Sevilla and a place above Atlético by virtue of goal difference.

Is their situation also a crisis? Well before we discuss that, I reckon we should look at one of the other guys who are making this start to the season so interesting and unusual.   At this point last season, after 8 games, Alavés were on three points and looking as though they were shaping up for a return to Division 2.  Now they’re two points shy of the top spot.  Amazingly, the last time they beat Real Madrid at home was in 1931, 2-0.  Both goals were scored by Baltasar Albéniz, who, having survived the Civil War went on to manage them in the late 1940s. Albéniz was from Eibar, which is quite close, but Manu Garcia, who scored 87 years later, was actually born in Vitoria – which gives the result a poetic touch.   But hey, 87 years! Even Julie Christie didn’t have to wait for as long as that.

Baltasar Albéniz

If we look back at the more recent past, that is last season at this 8-game stage, the contrast couldn’t be starker.  Barcelona were top with 22 points and Valencia second with 18 (they’re on 9 at the moment).  Sevilla had 16, as they do now, but it only secured them the 5th berth at that point.  Ten points separated the top eight clubs, whereas at the time of writing, the top eight are only separated by four.  You can call that a crisis for the big clubs or a bonanza for the smaller ones.  I prefer the latter personally, but anyway, that ain’t how the world goes round.  If the order isn’t restored soon, who knows what storms and tempests will wrack the world?   Next up for Barcelona is Sevilla at home on the 20th, a game which might well define the rest of the opening phase, up to Christmas.  If Sevilla were to upset the cart at the Camp Nou, things could get really interesting.  Until then, I’m keeping my keyboard strikes fairly calm.

The odd thing about this season is the weird about-turns for both of the big boys.  Last season, RM couldn’t stop scoring, but needed to do so because of their leaky defence.  Now they rarely concede, but can’t score. The departure of Ronaldo is only half the story.  Barcelona last season were tight at the back and reasonably prolific up front, but this season their defence seems to have forgotten the basics.  The injury to Sam Umtiti hasn’t helped, of course, but the insecurity that stalks their play at the moment is surprising.  The longer it goes on, the bolder opponents will become.  Sevilla will be very interested indeed about that game on the 20th.

The other attractive game of the weekend was in the Willy-Wanda, where Atlético faced Betis and beat them 1-0, with a goal from Correa.  As such, they’re nicely placed in the pelotón, as they say in cycling. And once again, although they aren’t exactly perforating the net with abandon (only 9 scored) they are, as usual, the meanest at the back, where the wonderful Oblak has only been beaten four times.

They travel to Villarreal in a fortnight, and will be looking to capitalise on the submarine’s awful form.  They lost again this weekend, this time to the other surprise package, Espanyol.  Barça’s neighbours are also on 14 points, an incursion into the top five as unexpected as that of Alavés.  Most LaLiga observers, me included, had them down as relegation fodder for the season, but so far they’re playing out of their skins.  Ekambi’s goal for Villarreal was the first that Espanyol have conceded on home territory this season, which tells you a lot.  New coach Rubi has been around a bit, having coached eleven sides before this season (he coached Huesca to the top flight for this season) but has rarely been associated with much top-flight success.  This season things might be changing for him, after his golden season at Huesca.  Indeed, that’s exactly where Espanyol play after the break, and Rubi’s return could even see them go second, the Barça v Sevilla  result permitting.

Rubi’s boys are looking good

To conclude, I watched the Basque derby on Friday night on the TV, and feel the obligation to point out that the victors in San Mamés, Real Sociedad, started with seven local players from the small Gipuzkoa region, and finished the game with eight. They have all come through the ranks at Sociedad.  Athletic, on the other hand, had only four players starting from their own Vizcaya region, which is a fact rarely considered when folks from the outside look romantically upon their Basque-only policy.  Real Sociedad would love to be Basque-only too, but cannot because of the raids over the years from Athletic.  It might seem cool to play with Basques only, but the policy becomes more questionable when it means that you consider the youth systems of the other Basque sides as your rightful territory.  Wonderful idea, or lack of respect? Athletic started with four Gipuzkoan players in their ranks, and if you look at the two squads, an amazing 17 of the players selected to either play or sit on the bench were from Gipuzkoa, a region of 700,000 people.

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Made in Gipuzkoa, and not for sale

Has any other similarly small region contributed to so many top-flight footballers in any of the major European leagues?  Answers on a postcard please, and see you after the international break.

16 thoughts on “Tantric antics”

    1. Yea – only 4 this week, but he was pretty bold. The Sevilla prediction was the only one I couldn’t see coming off. And it didn’t.


  1. I watched Betis for the first time this season and am undecided on their style. At times the possession from the back, on Atleti’s home pitch, felt confident and strategic–the commentators I was listening to kept calling it defending with the ball. Other times it felt borderline to a turnover to in a critical area. Not sure if the word is ‘teasing’ or something more painful, but I leave it to someone else to tie the Betis style to this week’s metaphor. In the end, Simeone impressed me the most. It wasn’t only his tactics, including the introduction to Correa, but also the way he celebrated the goal on the touchline that caught my attention.

    As an outsider to Spain, I’ve always looked romantically on Athletic Bilbao. So I appreciate the facts about the youth. I realize Paris doesn’t qualify as a small region, but it’s greater area has contributed Mbappe, Pogba, Mahrez, etc. to the current big clubs. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than me can say if a specific area of Paris has produced a larger portion of stars. That’s as close as I can come to the trivia question.


  2. Seems fairly self serving to say, La Real would also continue to follow a basque only policy, if it weren’t for Athletic’s commitment to that policy already. They could still do it, but the fact is they don’t, and that is nobody’s fault but Sociedad ownership. But then again their ownership has a history of enacting club policies that may not be up to the highest ethics or standards.
    Begrudging Athletic’s use of players from other basque canteras is like criticizing the owner of your local farmer’s market for selling your vegetables. Yeah he didn’t grow them himself, but at least he isn’t shipping them in from Central or South America (the produce section of modern day super markets has many similarities to the power clubs of Europe really). Isn’t that what makes a local market more appealing? Nobody can or should expect a single farm to compete in today’s globalized market, but a cultured palate recognizes a quality local farmer’s market is a far more satisfying endeavor.
    If anything it adds to the reputation of Zubieta that they can provide players for two clubs, even if one of those clubs is clearly historically superior in most all categories. Congratulations on your win over the weekend.


    1. Ha – nice try, but I’m not sure the farmer metaphor really works. And I’m not quite sure what club policies you’re referring to when you question RS’s ethics or standards. Please tell me more. You’re right about Zubieta, but wrong to imply that it is somehow focused indirectly on providing Athletic with players. That’s ludicrous, and a massive misunderstanding of how the Basques in the region’s various areas think. For example, it may be pushing it to say that Alavés and Osasuna would ever want to be Basque-only, because for politico-cultural reasons they don’t, and Eibar, though in many ways very Basque, is far too small to ever aspire to that ideal. It does have a good youth system, nevertheless, but it tends to use it for sell-ons. Which leaves us with RS. They did have a Basque-only policy in place,and their two titles in the 1980s were won with local players, with a bit of Navarre for decoration. This was also true of Athletic’s last title-wining side, also in the 1980s. But times have changed. It’s nobody’s fault, and is simply the way that things have developed. Athletic benefit from this as much as any other top-flight side but insist on retaining a ‘philosophy’ that preys on other teams’ work. The time, effort and investment it takes to get a player to where Peru Nolaskoain is now is considerable. It’s true (in his case) that RS didn’t push strongly enough to retain him from the feeder side (Antiguoko) but the shadow of Athletic is very long. I know this because my son came up through the system. I’ve seen it operating and I can tell you it’s ugly.

      You simply cannot have this ‘Basque-only’ notion when it clearly cannot work unless you fly in the face of neighbouring teams who do not share your ‘philosophy’. Gipuzkoa, for example, has its own league system and admin. It doesn’t exist to feed Vizcaya’s. RS don’t depend on Athletic’s youth work, so why should the converse be correct? I don’t see it, sorry. There is absolutely nothing to justify the policy anymore. It’s a cute idea, but it doesn’t work. RS produce far more local players than Athletic now, and yet nobody sings their praises in the European press in the way that that they vapidly applaud Athletic. I’m not attacking the idea of Basque-only. It’s cool and a brilliant counter to the soulless multi-national bollocks of sides like PSG etc. But it’s not enough. You have to look more carefully at what’s going on. And Athletic play dirty, believe me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was going to say I’m not sure the talent of human beings can be accurately compared to vegetables for sale, but I sure couldn’t respond in this detail…


  3. No offense really meant, I was referring to the low hanging fruit (some metaphors just won’t go away) of ex president Badiola and his revelations about medical policies at the club in the early 00’s. Although for all I really know Athletic had a similar policy at the time.

    I should most likely defer to your experience with your son, as it is much more direct connection to the source than I have, but it seems to me, most clubs in the Spain, save maybe 3, well probably really 2, are in the business of producing players to reach their prime with the club and then hopefully sell them off to those with more substantial television money at the height of their value. This is certainly not limited to clubs in Spain of course, in today’s day and age, players play where the money dictates they play. Correct me if I am wrong but Athletic is typically willing to pay more than any other club in the basque region to field a competitive first team, and certainly to players with connections to the basque region. Now this inevitably means they will poach the best players with connections to the other clubs in the region, as that connection is a requirement in Athletic’s interest in the player. While I admit it hurts to be on the wrong end of that transaction, I am not sure what is so dirty about that. It seems like a microcosm of how the entire world of football works. Athletic is on the short end of that stick often as well, just not to other teams in the region.

    The basque-only policy seems to do more then just dictate the club’s player transactions though, it seems to be as much a psychological tool as well. It is a main reason as to why they continue to have such a fervent following without winning squat of note in decades, and my guess it also plays a large part in the psychology of the players in the squad, as well as those growing up in the region. Certainly this was established and was more important a long time ago, (when the club also won more) but it seems to again be narrow minded or even jealousy to begrudge them for establishing themselves as the defacto Basque national team (Real Sociedad would have done the same thing, if only they were able). It has served Barcelona fairly well with regards to the Catalan identity, and I don’t see people calling for them to be exposed as the group of “galacticos” they really are.


  4. You make some decent points, and yes, Badiola was a dick – but he only lasted for a year and is hardly representative of Real’s presidency over the years. Athletic have had some much dodgier characters, one of whom presides over the club at the time of writing.

    You’re right about Athletic being willing (and able) to pay more, which is just as well for them. But I think (as do others) that it twists their focus and makes them more dependent on potential signings rather than growing their own, although they do produce some decent lettuces, yes. Laporte, Herrera, Javi Martinez, Llorente, Kepa – that’s a decent roster. But you’re enormously wrong to assume that Real Sociedad are a club who ‘grow to sell’. I don’t know where you live, but aside from your obvious knowledge of the scene here, that’s way out to the fairies. You have to understand the Basque ‘thing’, and it’s not easy. I’ve been here 27 years and it’s taken me a long time to get it, but whilst both Athletic and Sociedad are aware that they may lose their best players, they hate it when they go – not for footballing reasons but because they feel that their culture is somehow being snubbed. Athletic are actually worse with this, hence the fuss over Llorente and Javi Martinez, and Kepa to a lesser extent. The Basques (and particularly the Bilbaínos) can’t understand why anyone would want to live anywhere else, and it challenges their identity when successful people leave. But in the case of Sociedad, they would prefer a player to go to Real Madrid than to Athletic. It’s not a hate thing (the clubs actually like each other, despite everything) but for example Odriozola was congratulated on his move. They didn’t want to lose him, but RM is a distant concept. The red and white stripes of Athletic offend the eye when an ex-Real player dons them.

    This is partly the ‘psychology’ you correctly refer to. It creates a bunker mentality, a narrowly-defined and strong identity. But it’s not just Athletic. Real also have a fervent following, but it’s not so navel-gazing. The Gipuzcoans think that the Vizcayans follow football so fervently because they have nothing better to do, whereas the Vizcayans think that the ‘Giputxis’ are just inbred over-wealthy snobs. There’s some truth to both accusations (ha ha), but both are united in the fact that they feel un-Spanish, and do not act like them either. Produce to sell? Noooooooo! That’s a huge misunderstanding. The Basque scene is not a microcosm of the entire football world at all. It’s an entirely unique world. Believe me. I’ve just bid to write a piece for the Guardian on this.

    And that’s why Athletic’s policy is incoherent, within the framework of Basque culture. They know it is, but they can’t bring themselves to admit it. And whilst I enjoyed your attempt to justify yourself, I winced a little at the ‘narrow-minded’ jibe. I’m not sure where you get that from. Any narrow-mindedness is on the part of Athletic, and their refusal to wake up and smell the hummus. They are NOT the ‘de facto’ Basque national team. Some of them think that, yes, but it’s an affront to the whole concept of sport, where every Saturday all teams start out, in theory, on an equal basis. Try telling any RS fan that Athletic are the de facto rulers. You’ll get some colourful responses to that one.

    History means something, yes, but it’s not an excuse for continuing to plunder. As I said before, Athletic (and you it seems) are living in some sort of past dimension, within a configuration that is no longer valid. I wish that it were, but it ain’t. To conclude, Zubieta is not a ‘de facto’ part of Athletic’s fishing grounds. I’m afraid you’ll never change my views nor those of every single Real Sociedad supporter.


    1. Phil-It’s great to munch into some deep cultural anthropology without paying any fees! I think I understand a lil on Bilbao being a world in itself! For starters their very unique language which is really not derived from any known linguistic groups.

      Phil, promise us that you won’t abruptly stop this baby once you are commissioned by Guardian! In fairness though I fervently wish you get a million pound contract;-)


  5. Fair enough, I have taken enough of your time on this.

    I will look forward to reading that Guardian piece. As a second generation ex-patriot from Vizcaya, I can relate somewhat to what you say. Every trip back to see the remaining family includes a lengthy debate about what the hell my grandfather and his brothers were thinking trading the green hills outside of gernika for the dusty neon lights of Reno.


    1. Ok, that’s interesting (your provenance). But I’m sure Reno has its attractions. I know there’s quite a community out there, of the Basque diaspora. Thanks for the discussion. It’s all grist to the mill. It’s good to have one’s views challenged, and to rethink them under the pressure of objection. Keep reading and objecting! No probs.


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