The biggest difference between the ‘old days’ and the modern game is not the contrast between standing on the terraces and sitting in a plastic bucket seat, but rather the company that one is forced to keep. In the old days (I saw my first live’ pro game in 1966), people tended to hang around in the same area of a stadium – the young ‘uns classically behind the goals and the older supporters in the ‘side stands’ as they were called, but within those configurations there was plenty of flexibility. You could choose to stand at pitch level, higher up, or if you were in a ‘side stand’ you could move to the left or right, depending on which goal your team was attacking.
At my first English ground, Blundell Park (Grimsby Town), the entire stand would often shift across second half to the attacking end, leaving a few purist stragglers – usually old men with beige coats and faded cloth caps – to smoke their pipes pensively and dwell upon the finer arts of defensive strategy.
The advantage of this greater freedom of movement, which first began to suffer limitations when hooliganism became fashionable, was that if there was a pain-in-the-arse standing next to you, you could always distance yourself subtly from him, and avoid him next game by shifting a few yards to either side. These were easy strategies to both learn and execute, and they ensured years of happy viewing. Then compulsory seats came along and changed the landscape altogether.
I’ve been a ‘socio’ (member) of Real Sociedad for some years now, and I have two seats up in the west stand, more or less on the half-way line, just below the press area. Anoeta is undergoing some major reconstruction, with the final goal-end stand about to be built. Towards the end of last season, before the pitch was dropped a few metres to allow the new additional seats to be closer to the pitch, we were asked by the club if we wished to relocate. I saw no reason to do so, and stayed put. Another reason for my inaction was that you get to know the people who habitually sit next to you, and to a lesser extent perhaps, those in front and behind. Like an enforced relationship – the best metaphor is the hospital bed – you have no choice as to who your neighbours will be, and you are therefore obliged to try to get on with them. Since I was pretty happy with my side-standers, and because we’d forged a strange once-a-fortnight bonhomie, one in which you don’t give too much away but in which over the seasons you inevitably let things slip (unlike in a hospital bed), it came as a shock when I turned up for this season’s opener to find that they had all accepted the invitation to move. In fact it was kind of traumatic. I felt that I’d lost a whole group of mates, and what was worse, I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t told me. Did they dislike me? Had they wanted to escape from my insufferable presence, and that of my son and bro-in-law (the two most habitual blaggers of the spare seat)? And worse…like the consequences of a new relationship, I was going to have to get used to meeting a whole new set of associated people.
All of which brings me to the Basque derby on Saturday between Real Sociedad and Athletic. The new guy to my right, whose mates have populated the seats in front, is a forty-something, good-looking confident dude, with a shock of black hair and a self-made air about him. Whereas the previous incumbents were late to middle-aged gents, quiet and measured in their comments about the games, this one is all full of bluster and hyper-active fidgety movements. Instead of asking your opinion, he simply tells you what the players should have done, who should be brought on/taken off etc. His tone offers no debate, and his mates never take issue with him, cowed as they seem to be by his alpha-male charisma. My wife wanted to see this game, so I decided to situate her to the left, to shield her from his lectures. Perhaps more importantly, I need to be friends with this guy.
As we enter our aisle, the players below are doing their hand-shake greetings in line, and the place is noisy and bursting with that derby feel-good factor. Athletic are on a high after new coach Garitano has pulled them quickly out of the drop zone, and despite Sociedad’s dull draw at home to Huesca last week, they’re also on a four-match undefeated run. And there, on the 3rd seat down the aisle, my new neighbour looks like he’s just popped some ecstasy. Standing on his seat with a blue and white scarf aloft, his eyes are bulging as he hollers out the club song , berating his young son beside him (who is playing on his mobile) for not doing the same. He greets me with a high-five slap and then jumps down from the seat and hugs me alarmingly. ‘We’re going to beat the f****s!’ he assures me. I agree, but obviously not strongly enough: ‘No no! We’re going to destroy them. They haven’t a clue, I tell you. They can’t play football.’ Again, my agreement is too bland, prompting him to insist ‘They’ll run around and kick us in the air, but that’s all they can do. No tienen ni puta idea de fútbol!’ (They haven’t got a f****g clue about football) he exhorts. I manage to pull away politely from his embrace by telling him that he’s right, and then the game gets under way.
The Basque derby is probably unique in the annals of world football for the simple reason that since 1909, when the clubs first met, no fans have ever been arrested for engaging in fraternal fights, and the police presence is unnecessary.
There is plenty of banter, of course, and the games are played with swords in teeth – but the unspoken code of political and cultural solidarity that reigns between the two cities and clubs ensures that the event is a family affair. Fans mingle before the games and even sit alongside one another in the stadium. It’s how sport was meant to be, before primitive territoriality rites took over. Nevertheless, during the early exchanges, Athletic’s Iñaki Williams runs over to the linesman directly below us and complains about a throw that hasn’t gone his way, prompting two red and white-kitted Athletic fans about 5 rows below to stand up and protest on his behalf. My neighbour leans forward and shouts (in Spanish) ‘Sit down you wankers!’ at which both gentlemen turn around and point their middle fingers in his direction, smiling as they deliver their response. My friend cackles with glee, comforted by this mutually-understood code of insult.
The other factor that has hyped him up is, of course, the second return of Iñigo Martinez, brought up through the Sociedad ranks (although he is from Vizcaya, Athletic territory) but now viewed as the new Judas, the man who betrayed his benefactors by leaving last season in the winter transfer window and compounding the sin by making some unfortunate comments about his former employers. Every time he touches the ball my neighbour, (and about 25,000 others, to be fair) scream ‘Hijo de puta!’ (son of a whore) in the non-prodigal’s direction. My neighbour’s son is playing chess on his mobile as this happens, and his father berates him again for not insulting Martinez. The kid looks up at his father with a slightly withering glance, and returns to the chess. ‘He’s a fucking genius’ dad tells me, pointing his thumb backwards in the kid’s direction. ‘Gets it from his mother, ha ha! His sister’s daft as a brush, but hey, we can’t all be Einstein can we?’ he offers, and re-directs his attention to the game.
When Real score through an excellent piece of poaching by Oyarzabal, Alpha Man goes ape and hugs me in a state of ecstatic rapture, whilst my wife sits alone on her seat. When Willian José scores a belter just before half-time he almost bursts a blood vessel, again dancing with me in a clasp. You do the strangest things when your team scores, and I glance at my partner sheepishly. She indulges me with a weak smile, happy to be excluded from this male-bonding ritual.
The day ends happily, despite Raul Garcia’s penalty, and during a lull in the second half I learn to my surprise that my neighbour is an ex-player who got as far as Real’s ‘B’ side but who was then offered to Eibar, then in Segunda ‘B’. He decided to become an engineer, because there was more money in it, but never dreamt that he would see Eibar in the top flight. It’s getting interesting. I shall reveal more in two weeks’ time, after the next home game. Despite his slightly annoying insistence on being right, I’m beginning to like him. Must be all the hugging.
Meanwhile, to the south, Valencia were reminding us of Barça’s mortality and of their own improvement, and at 1-2 should really have wrapped things up. Of course, Barcelona and Madrid are facing an insane month of fixtures, and must rotate. Madrid took some advantage of Barça’s drawn game by beating a declining Alavés 3-0 (Benz scored again) but their neighbours Atlético blew it down at Betis where a Canales penalty (and one not given on debutant Morata) condemned them to actually falling further behind the leaders. Barça had actually won their previous eight league games on the trot after their draw at Atlético two months ago, which made it doubly frustrating for Simeone’s troops. Sevilla, possibly traumatised after their cup-tie pasting in the Camp Nou, lost at Celta and leave the 4th Champions spot within the reach of several sides, further adding to the interest in La Liga this campaign. And if Rayo beat Leganés tomorrow in the ‘duelo de perros’ (dog-eat-dog match) then the lower zone of the table is due to tremble. Even Huesca are starting to win (4-0), as one suspected they might.
In case you’ve been hiding in a nuclear bunker without wi-fi for the past week, Barça play Real Madrid on Wednesday night in the King’s Cup semi-final first leg. Madrid then play neighbours Atlético on the Saturday in the Willy Wanda, culminating a frenzied seven days with a visit to Ajax four days later in the Champs Cup. Phew. Then a couple of practice matches against Girona and Levante before returning to the top table to play Barça in the second leg and then again four days later in the Camp Nou in the league. Oh…and then Ajax three days later. For Barça, insert Lyon for the Champions and tricky league games against Athletic and Sevilla during the same period. Can Messi last the course? Will the two giants wear each other down and let the daylight in for someone else? Will Atlético beat Juventus? Will my new neighbour reveal more of his murky past? Tune in next week to Liga Fever. You know it makes sense. And meanwhile, be nice to your neighbour.