I used to love Saturdays when I was a wee kid, before I’d ever trodden the wooden stands of a professional football team. On Saturday afternoons I used to go with my dad to watch his works team play, to the Findus Clubhouse in Grimsby. We would go every Saturday, to watch either the first or the second team, depending on which one was at home. They were actually called ‘Eskimo’, which was the name of the company before it became the better-known ‘Findus’. Both teams played in the local Grimsby leagues, but they were gods to me. The pitches were enormous and wind-blown, but the whole scene turned me onto football – not necessarily because of the football itself but because of the accompaniments. I didn’t see my old man too much during the week, and so Saturday was ‘dad day’. He seemed a different person at the clubhouse, convivial and more confident than he was at home. The kids of some of the players would go too, and we would play our own games away from the pitches, but at some point I would always want to watch the football.
In the depths of winter, in the frozen north of England, the warm haven of the clubhouse after the match with the animated murmur of men’s voices and the bubble-fizz of a lemonade made the whole week somehow worthwhile, but at 5 o’clock it got even better when the football results were read out on the old black and white telly at the back of the club. The post-match chatter would suddenly reduce as the national scores were announced by the rather plummy BBC tones of Tim Gudgin, I think it was. The whole ritual fascinated me – the names of the teams, the announcer’s intonation (rising tone when the away team won) and the exotic names from the depths of the Scottish Second Division, always the last to be read out. I particularly liked ‘Hamilton Academicals’ and ‘Stenhousemuir’, and if some wind-blown whisper had told me back then that fifty years later my own son would turn out against the latter team, I’d have smiled at the unlikely poetry. It was the discourse of football as much as the game itself that hooked me up to the sport, but also the intensity of the Saturday-only experience.
You’ll know where this is leading, because I have to confess that the television-dictated-Tebas-supported four-day stretch of LaLiga games from Friday night to midnight Monday is beginning to hack me off – and I’m not the only one. Back in the Eskimo club days, every local and national game was played at 3 p.m. on a Saturday. There were occasional midweek fixtures, but they were few and far between. The empty week ahead seemed unbearable, or as Einstein might have remarked, time was an inconvenience between football matches. Nowadays, with the smorgasbord of football excess fulfilling the football nerd’s sofa-nestling to an almost wilful degree, I would contend that the intensity of the experience of having the entire circus packed into a two-hour period on a Saturday afternoon might be worth re-considering, at least in a milder form.
Of course, the new generation that has been suckled on the milk of this excess would find it hard to dig deep for a week’s fasting in the wild, but they might come to appreciate the experience. Besides, the entire scene in Spain is now so linked to TV convenience that the live spectator has been entirely removed from the equation – which is never a good idea because you never know when the media bonanza might dry up. Indeed, the warning signs are there. The fans of the clubs who habitually occupy the Friday or Monday slots are now singing ‘Tebas vete ya!’ (Tebas go now!) with increasing gusto.
The Friday fixture that kicks off the LaLiga programme is kind of acceptable, because Friday night trumpets in the weekend and people are out on the town anyway. The game coincides with the time that folks drink socially before they sit down for a meal, and in Spain the TV is always on in the background, even in good restaurants.
It’s become part of the new ritual, and it might pass more muster if only the games were more distributed around the 20 teams, but of course this is not the case. The sides involved in European competition are spared the rod for good reason, but it limits the pool (down to twelve some seasons) of the teams that can fulfil the Friday-nighter. This is also true of the awful Monday-night fixture, a ludicrous event on a workday night which children should be banned from attending (particularly if the game involves travel), made doubly absurd by being broadcast on free-open TV that further encourages folks to stay at home, particularly in the depths of winter. It’s a no-brainer, and if the pampered supporters of Barça or Real Madrid were forced to do it, the lobby would soon reach Tebas’ pearly gates and take effect.
This Friday saw Celta and Leganés kick off the week with a bland 0-0 draw, followed by Getafe v Real Sociedad at 1300 on Saturday. I watched the game in a bar with my son, and although it’s not the worst time to watch, it still cuts the morning too short and interferes with the sacred Spanish ritual of tapas and pre-lunch drinks, at least for those who were forced to turn up at the Coliseum for the game. And so it rolls on, a single game followed by another single game throughout the weekend, as if two parallel games would be too strenuously multi-tasking for modern supporters’ cognitive machinery to cope with.
This temporal dilution of the sport kills its intensity and the surprise factor that you always felt when walking home on a Saturday afternoon, taking in the collective results and desperately assessing where you were in the standings. Excuse the nostalgia, but it’s real. There was stuff that was bad-ass back then too, of course, once I grew out of Eskimo and into the scene around the local professional club – with its threat of violence, the pitiful conditions for the spectators, the awful catering, the numbing discomfort of standing hemmed-in like a tinned sardine for 90 minutes, the piss-poor football.
All this would have been true of Spain too, back then in the dark days of Franco, but one cannot help but think that the post-modern game is beginning to lack the potency that comes in the wake of a rest, of a weekly fast. And it’s just basically nicer to play at the weekend. Ask Athletic Bilbao, who have now played seven fixtures on a Monday night and who this Monday are expected to play their derby at Alavés. It’s kind of insulting to the clubs, the spectators and the whole idea of football. It can’t go on like this.
That was also the phrase that several Bernabéu attendees used when leaving the scene of their 1-0 win over neighbours Rayo before the final whistle. Marca led with the headline ‘El Bernabéu se aburre’ (The Bernabéu is getting bored) but you can afford to be bored when you’re still winning. One journalist wrote last week that with Lopetegui, you wondered when his bad run would come to an end, but with Solari you wondered when his good luck would run out. Be that as it may, there is a certain grumbling now that under the previous incumbent, there was at least a semblance of decent football and a defined style. But hey, that’s three league wins on the trot since the Eibar debacle, and if the CSKA nightmare can be swept under the carpet and Isco maybe brought back in from the cold, the show might go on for a little longer at least.
Meanwhile, Barça continue to look impressive, stuffing Levante 0-5 with another hat-trick from Mr Messi, whose run and assist for the first goal (by Suarez) is simply inhuman. Even Piqué joined in the fiesta, with a goal that looked like a decent piece of centre-forward play. All smiles for the leader at the moment, pursued nevertheless by the healthy-looking Atlético and Sevilla, both of whom won their games convincingly. Betis moved up to 5th with a cracking 1-3 win at Espanyol who have now lost their last five games. Hard times at the Cornella, hard times. Next week they visit Atlético, so not much Christmas joy for them. Barça will finish for the Xmas break as leaders now, come what may, but they shouldn’t be too worried about the visit of Celta. Likewise, Sevilla should fancy keeping up the challenge with an away trip to Leganés. No Monday game either. Hooray!