It all started on Friday when a journalist asked Real Madrid coach Santi Solari if the draw on Thursday at Villarreal in the re-arranged fixture (2-2) had more or less ended Madrid’s chances of the league this season. Instead of answering yea or nay, Solari let slip a phrase that may come to haunt him in the same way that Bernd Schuster’s famous ‘You can’t win at the Camp Nou’ has since pursued him all his live-long days. Solari said ‘No hay que subestimar los empates’ (We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a draw). According to the Madrid-based press at the weekend, this was some sort of mortal sin. A draw? ‘We don’t do draws at Real Madrid’ was the implication of the press horror, clasping their collective hands to their heads and screaming, as in a Munch painting.
As ever, they missed the point most horribly. Solari was suggesting, in a reasonably intelligent fashion, that Villarreal is never an easy place to visit and that the league this season is much more competitive – and any side can beat you. It is indeed more competitive, which for the rest of us is a positive thing. Whether or not Real Madrid carelessly threw the game or played badly is immaterial. The lack of respect to other teams in La Liga, habitually present in the lack of humility on show in the Madrid press, is something that can only be rectified by a dose of reality, by a dose of what the others experience, year in and year out. There are no divine rights in football, although the Spanish league has done its best over the years to consecrate Real Madrid and Barcelona’s ‘right’ to pre-eminence. This unquestioned faith in the system has skewed the perspective of so many of Madrid’s prominent journalists that they throw up their hands in horror when Solari emits an intelligent phrase – but of course, a phrase that is not permitted in a house where the emperor’s trouser’s are beginning to fall down.
Which brings me (in some delight) to this evening’s reflections on the game I just saw from my local bar, where Real Sociedad won 0-2 in the Bernabow for only the 4th time in their history, with a young ‘canterano’ (Muñoz) at left-back making his debut, their best goalie (Moyá) injured, an interim manager and four defeats on the trot coming into the game. Last season I was at the game in the Bernie with my esteemed Madrid-supporting colleague Ed Alvarez, and we were pitilessly pummelled. I was also due to visit this season, but Ed has recently become a father (congratulations sir!) and I was thus reluctant to drag him away from the hospital. But my delight at the result and the subsequent huffing and protesting from the Marca online journo-goons only makes the result sweeter.
Of course Rulli fouled Vinicius. Even ‘Sport’, the famously Catalan-coloured tabloid thought it was a foul too – which is a first. There is no explanation for the decision other than the one that says the referee (José Luis Munuera) thought that the Brazilian forward had lost the ball and was running into goalie Rulli, but it’s a big call to make in the Bernabéu. The replays look as though someone should have consulted the VAR, or the VAR guys/gals should have at least whispered in Munuera’s ear. Whatever, apart from that error, Munuera, a referee in only his third season in the top flight, was excellent – correctly sending off Lucas Vazquez and getting Sociedad’s penalty right. For the rest of Spain, this is a cause for celebration – that a young referee can stand up to the constant pressure of the wild-eyed Ramos and company and keep his head while all around him have lost theirs for practically 90 years before him.
This is good for Madrid, because it teaches them what everyone else has had to endure for decades. I’m not one to fall for the old canard about refs favouring Madrid, but I’ve seen dozens of games now between these two sides where the Basques simply stood no chance from the beginning. The political and cultural weight of Madrid’s stadium affects referees, and many of them have little sympathy for those wild Basques from the north. You don’t have to be paranoid to know this is true, and so a game like Sunday’s, where for once the visitors got the breaks with the decisions, is absolutely fine. It begins to even up the scores, and it helps the league to be more competitive. It’s a great result. Nobody should worry. The VAR system needs to be looked at, yes, but the ref was good apart from that one decision. Real Madrid fall to 5th place in the standings, but a bit of tragedy will do them good. You can’t begin to understand life if you think that you should always win, that you should always be at the top, and that the slightest defection of duty from a referee such as Munuera requires a general clamour against him. Barcelona suffer from the same pretension, and it diminishes them.
In Greek tragedy, ‘hubris’ was almost always on the theatrical menu, where characters lost sight of reality because they thought they were the bee’s knees, the dog’s balls or simply the best – better than all the rest. This led to a loss of contact with reality, and inevitably, to a downfall (nemesis). If finishing outside of the Champs League positions is nemesis for Real Madrid, then let them eat croissant, let them understand what it’s like a bit further down the rankings. It might even improve the quality of their lap-dog-Pérez-fearing journalists.
Vinicius was the best player for Madrid, constantly attacking Sociedad’s right flank and showing a wicked turn of speed. It makes you wonder why they’ve kept him back for so long, or perhaps Sunday’s performance is proof of that pudding – that he has learned his trade gradually, and is now a fully-blown first-teamer. If he continues to play like that, he could become their new hero. Solari deserves praise for picking him in front of Isco, although you could argue that they both could have started. Casemiro looks off the pace, and gave away the penalty, and Marcelo was rightly subbed for the fresher Reguilon later in the second half. Modric played further forward than usual, where he is less effective. Mikel Merino played excellently for the visitors, as did the returning goalie Rulli, and the young full-back Ahien Muñoz looked absolutely fine. Yet another pearl from the Sociedad youth system. Are you watching Madrid? Interim coach Imanol Alguacil (promoted again from the reserve side) was in the Sociedad side that won 0-2 in 1994 in the Bernabéu, and he actually scored the second goal. Perhaps it was destiny.
Over Christmas in England I saw two games live – QPR v Ipswich in London (3-0) and Bath City v Chippenham (5-0). For the former, I went with an Ipswich fan who had not seen them play live since 1995, when they lost 2-0. This time it was worse for him but it was nevertheless insightful to watch a Championship match in England and to visit the small and neat Loftus Road whose planks I’d last trod in the 1980s when they had an artificial pitch and I saw them beat Grimsby in an FA Cup tie. I thought the quality of the game was good, despite Ipswich, who have seen better times, sinking to the bottom of the league. The hamburgers were a bit expensive though.
The latter game I saw on New Year’s Day (I was staying in the city of Bath) in the National League South, which is the 6th tier of English football. The biggest crowd of the season (1,700) turned out for the local derby, and Bath slaughtered the visitors, and played some half-decent stuff. One guy actually went to the game with his dog. I don’t know if the dog paid or not.
New Year’s Day can be a bit shapeless, and so I suggested that we go to the game. This was eagerly taken up by the males of the household, whilst the females, in a sort of traditional cliché-based action, decided not to come along and went for a walk instead. Sometimes these things work – it’s not necessarily an offence to political correctness or to gender-role shift, but that’s how it panned out. The women’s decision was a far more sensible one, but it was still good to see the plankton at work, down in the nether regions of the English league system because without the plankton the whales at the top cannot survive. This was the kind of game that would baffle your average Real Madrid supporter, unable to conceive of what lies beneath the glittering surface of their defective reality.
And so…..as Barcelona march on (they beat Getafe 1-2) and Real Madrid bemoan their luck, spare a thought for Reus, next-to-bottom of the Segunda ‘A’ in Spain and about to fold, it would seem. Their players were finally paid on Friday (they hadn’t been since September) but the club’s workers are still unpaid and now only 12 players remain officially on the books – which will be reduced to 10 in midweek when two players leave because they’ve taken the club to court. Unless the reserve players from the 3rd Division are permitted to swell the ranks, the Catalan club will fold after 90 years’ of existence. The players did not want the match at 3rd-placed Malaga to go ahead, but were persuaded to by the league. Remarkably, they won 0-3 in what may well be their last sigh. And Real Madrid think they have problems? Get a grip!