’twas a wild Friday night in the north of Spain, or ‘una noche de perros’ as they call it here, with the rain pelting pitilessly and the temperature hovering around a miserly 3 degrees. A three-dog night indeed, and so what better place to spend it than with your mates, tucked up in a warm restaurant with a couple of HD screens showing Spain v Malta in the European qualifiers. Then again, not all of your mates are as obsessed with football as you, and so with experience borne of previous encounters you place yourself in a position at the table that enables you to watch proceedings above a friend’s head – from time to time, discreetly.
I was mostly interested in watching the goals rack up, as surely they would, and although this failed to happen in the first period (2-0 at half time) on each occasion that I glanced above my mate’s head Spain were in possession. At no point in the first half did I glance up and see a white shirt of Malta with the ball, nor at any point did I observe a white shirt in the Spanish half. In early conclusion, Malta has a lot going for it (tourism, history, passports for sale) and interestingly, the falcon that the Knights of Malta famously possessed was actually a gift for the King of Spain, nicked by pirates in transit. Oh well, there was no Amazon Prime in those days.
Voilà the connection, because despite Malta’s historically consistent ineptitude on the field of play (their 2-1 victory over the Faroe Islands last March was their first home win in 13 years) they loom large in the history of Spain due to the infamous 12-1 defeat they suffered in Betis’ stadium way back in 1983, a bizarre result that enabled Spain to reach the final of the 1984 European Championships in France, only to lose to the Platini-inspired hosts in Paris in another goalkeeper-related event, namely Arconada’s famous and out-of-character fumble from Platini’s free-kick. Poor Arconada, forever associated with a mistake as opposed to his other defect-free years as one of Europe’s finest ever keepers. Such is life.
Nevertheless, the 12-1 result in the qualifiers meant that there was precious sympathy for Spain before and after that final. For Spain itself, the tournament was the first concrete evidence that the eternal dark horses could actually make it all the way to a major final, and the events that summer went some way to healing the wounds of the 1982 World Cup farce, which Spain pre-hosted like a bull on amphetamines and exited like a flea-bitten stray, tail tucked between its skinny legs.
Six months before Platini had got to strike that rather weedy free-kick, Malta’s goalkeeper John Bonello had written himself just as firmly into Spanish history by conceding the 12 goals that Spain needed to qualify for that tournament at the Netherlands’ expense. The game is still the most famous in Spain’s history, superseding the 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup and even the Iniesta moment against the Netherlands in 2010, a fact that tells you something about the nation’s brittle and rather quirky view of itself, heroic in otherwise non-heroic circumstances, like a fully-grown adult loudly celebrating a tiddlywinks victory over a bemused child.
Spain needed to win by eleven clear goals, and the infamous Bonello did himself no favours by declaring before the game that Spain could not even score eleven against a team of schoolchildren. Despite the lack of wisdom Bonello’s declaration revealed, it had some basis in fact. Spain had only managed a total of twelve goals up to that stage of the qualifiers, rendering the notion of their qualification as improbable. The subsequent theories have of course included the usual ones of conspiracy, although the longer and harder you look at the game, one of the most extraordinary in the history of international football, it’s hard to see anything other than collective ineptitude as the reason for the result.
If Malta were throwing the game, it’s hard to explain why Mike Degiorgio (great name that) decided to score a rather good goal in the first half to bring the score to 1-1 and sink Spanish hearts even further, that rainy night in Seville, four days before Christmas. With the score 3-1 at half-time, it was almost inconceivable that it would happen, and yet happen it did – and the guy who scored the twelfth, Juan Señor from Zaragoza, only managed another four for the national team from his 40 caps total.
Bonello himself bizarrely raised the issue of whether the lemons at half-time had been spiked with a tranquilising drug, and of course there were rumours that he had been paid off, along with a couple of his co-conspiracy defenders. And yet watching the highlights on Youtube you can’t help but admire how good most of the goals are, and that Bonello was probably innocent. Some of the non-tackling from the Maltese is in evidence, but it was similarly on evidence on Friday night too in Cádiz – not quite Seville but close to the place of the original sin. Of course, as you might already know, a 31 year-old Henry Bonello was between the sticks, hoping to better his dad’s performance, at the very least. He was also in goal against Spain for the home leg (0-2) but the fact that the game was played in Malta reduced the relative significance of his appearance. For this game, the Spanish press went predictably to town, and when I glanced over my mate’s head to see the 7th goal go in last night – a rather good one from the evergreen Navas on 85 minutes – I decided to put them all in the picture. Another five goals by the end would have surpassed the 1983 result, but six would have been more poetic for the Bonello story. Alas, the son avenged the alleged sins of his father and walked off with his head relatively high.
The original Bonello has remained in gainful employment by coaching the goalies for the national side, including his son. Malta’s coach on Friday night – Ray Farrugia – was in the midfield that night in 1983 but waved away the press impatiently when any mention of the game came up last week, in the team’s Andaluz camp. Bonello Jr was also moved to tetchily inform the press that they should ‘get over it’, an understandable sentiment but one which misunderstands the Spanish psyche. Here you feed the legend, relentlessly. Any other behaviour is deemed unpatriotic.
Bonello senior is of course a legendary figure in Spanish culture, hoist like Claudius with his own petard and pursued not by Hamlet but by the media ever since. The Dutch firm Amstel produced an advertisement for the Spanish market in 2006 whose irony Bonello seemingly missed out on (but not the payment offered), in which he is described in relation to the beer as ‘el amigo perfecto’ (the perfect friend), depicting him returning to Spain and welcomed to the airport by cheering well-wishers, like the Beatles return to America. At one point he waves from an open-top car like Kennedy in Dallas, but Lee Harvey Oswald fails to make an appearance. Like the beer, Bonello was described as the man who made ‘all Spaniards happy on the same day’ which was true, perhaps only surpassed four years later by Iniesta’s strike, interestingly against the old orange victim.
Spain have now qualified for the Euros, with seven different players scoring the goals in Friday’s game. The post-Luis Enrique coach, Robert Moreno, 42 years of age but looking like a rather nervous student on the margins of a party in Freshers’ Week, remains unmolested by the press in what is clearly a transitional period for the national team. The chassis of Spain’s glory years is beginning to rust, with Piqué gone in a huff, Busquets looking increasingly knackered, the great Silva retired from national duty and Captain Ramos seemingly more intent on breaking appearance records than standing in the right places in the defensive zone. The back-slapping that accompanied Friday night’s slaughter of the innocents might not last unless the nations young ‘uns can gel into a recognisable unit. The talent is there in abundance with Oyarzabal, Rodrigo, Gerardo, Saúl and the wondrous Fabian, pursued by all and sundry – not to mention the interesting Dani Olmo, playing over in Croatia.
On Friday the young things were bolstered by the older presence of Jesus Navas and Santi Cazorla, everyone’s favourite Lazarus even at 34 years of age. Morata seems to be scoring again too but there is reason to doubt that Spain will make that final at Wembley on July 12th. The Maltese talisman is unlikely to be repeated this time around, but anyway, never let the future get in the way of a good yarn from the past.