I was brought up on the Siberian terraces of Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park, an ancient stadium whose eastern Main Stand backed onto the grey skies and sluggish tides of the River Humber. Beyond, the cold North Sea and the windswept wastes of Europe lurked, whence the tempests howled onto our football flatlands, dissuading the meek and testing the strong. It was desperate stuff at times, and it taught me never to expect too much. It taught me that in the 89th minute of any good day, some schmuck could come along and bloody your nose – which is usually what occurred in the script. Nobody cared about us, nobody saw us on the TV. There were occasional moments of euphoria whose dates and images I remember and treasure (we once beat Everton in the cup – it was wonderful), and these moments burned a faint light down the darker corridors of a low-expectation future. Football’s like that. If you let it get to you, it can affect your whole existence.
This Saturday, as the pre-match hullabaloo played out in the kindlier surroundings of Real Sociedad’s newly packaged Reale Arena, I was moved to wonder how privileged I was to be in possession of a couple of member cards and the prospect of a game against Barcelona. It’s been a long journey, for which one should always count one’s blessings. Assuming that alien life does not bother with such daft stuff as football, the spectators attending were about to see the greatest player there has ever been in the known cosmos, plus a decent supporting cast as well. Has the Lord looked down upon me in my dotage and decided that after the purgatory of Grimsby I deserved a bit of 5-star luxury? I don’t know, but there are moments in life that sparkle gift-like, after you’ve climbed out of the rubble. Where else was there to be, that Saturday afternoon? What wonderful nonsense football is.
Apart from the great god Messi, in the ranks of the hosts dwelt the Nordic beast Odegaard, plus the local boy with the huge feet Mikel Oyarzabal – Pep Guardiola’s new fantasy boy, and much more besides. A record crowd of 37,000 packed the rafters on a mild afternoon as the Basques, 4th in the table, put out a side whose average age was a mere 24, as compared to the longer teeth of the opposition (29). But the beauty of the maths is that if you took out the ageing Nacho Monreal from the total, the home-side average dropped to around 12. Boys in short pants against hairy men. What could possibly go wrong?
Hosanna in Excelsis! After some eleven minutes of home dominance, Busquets commits public assault on Diego Llorente, for which no VAR is required. Busquets complains, but Busquets always does. It’s a Barça kind of thing, which is why Suarez signed for them. He feels at home there. Them against the world eh? Poor devils. Bigfoot strokes home the penalty and it’s all to play for.
Now you might like Barcelona or you might have your reservations about them as a club and an institution, but their one attractive constant is that they try to play football. It’s generally brought them success, particularly after it ceased to be a punishable offence in Spain after 1975 – and for this one should be grateful. Real Sociedad also like to play open footy (although their title-winning side in the 1980s was made of less aesthetic stuff) and as the introduction implied, if you are brought up on English 4th Division fare, the meeting-point of these two sides, at this moment in time, is like moving from a dry-toast breakfast to a venison and wild-boar lunch – with all the trimmings. Apologies to vegans. It was splendid fare, despite the pony-tailed Griezmann returning home and spoiling the party as usual. Is it just my eyesight, or has Griezmann got a huge bum? I guess it helps him to balance.
Whatever, with new home sensation Ander Guevara pulling the strings in midfield as if he were touched by the muse of Xavi Hernandez, one could only gawp in wonder (at Guevara, not Griezmann). Where do Real Sociedad keep finding these guys? Some years ago, in the north of England, it was said that if you hollered down a mine-shaft, a burly centre-forward would pop out. These days in the Basque Country, just wander along to any local school, holler into the playground and a whole host of midfielders will scurry to your beckoning. But anyway….perhaps we have arrived at the point where we have to talk about Martin.
Deciding to write about football confers a certain responsibility to be objective, but crucially it also requires a certain degree of restraint. Of course, we have all lapsed, but not necessarily confessed our sins. I once wrote on ESPN that Ruben Pardo was destined for greatness, but I should have exercised restraint. Pardo wasn’t even on the bench on Saturday. He still belongs to the squad, but as far as anyone knows he’d gone fishing. Is one therefore entitled to get excited about Odegaard? Oh yes. It would be very odd indeed, 15 years on from this article, to re-read it and find that the whole Odegaard thing was but a false dawn. At the moment, the only player in the European leagues who is close to Messi – or what Messi does – is this young man from Norway. Real Madrid got it right, for once – although even then, it wasn’t entirely clear that they knew they’d got it right. Well they do now. What’s so special about this 20 year-old Viking?
The point about greatness, or potential greatness in football is actually very simple. The player destined to jostle for space on that all-time podium of ten, or fewer, must conform to the ‘he does nothing wrong’ label. This doesn’t mean that they never misplace a pass or perhaps lose the ball occasionally but rather that everything they decide to do is correct. To jostle with the greats you have to consistently make the right decisions, or as Toshack once said ‘To know when to pass and to know when not to pass – that’s the hardest thing to teach’. Well sure – but Messi and Zidane never had much of a problem with that, which proves the pudding. Watching Odegaard against Barça was also part of Saturday’s privilege because you knew that the home fans were watching a one-off event, a game where for some random reason they had been gifted the sight of this rare genius. Indeed, he was more influential than Messi on the day, despite Messi’s assist to Suarez, and the blonde loanee has now earned the right to be branded with the epithet of greatness that only the Spanish language can confer. Lots of folk in San Sebastián keep asking me what I think of Odegaard, and I simply reply, ‘Es la hostia’. This refers literally to the Holy Host, but figuratively it means ‘He’s the dog’s bollocks’, or something a little more Anglo-Saxon in nature. I reply to them with this phrase because I have heard the rest of them using it too. There is no greater praise possible in the Spanish language.
Saturday wasn’t his best match, but he was still good. As Valverde said, ‘He’s not a player you can track. He’s unidentifiable’. I like that, because that’s the problem you face with Messi. Interestingly, Barça decided not to man-mark him, because they usually win the possession percentages, but on Saturday they didn’t (53% to Sociedad). Real Sociedad’s midfield, still without Illarramendi, is a thing of beauty and wonder. Odegaard, Merino and Guevara, or Zubeldia normally – the new Casemiro – is a fine mix. When they threw on Januzaj and Barrenextea later on it just got ridiculous. I felt sorry for Barça. Busquets and Rakitic are looking like warmed-up fries. De Jong? He’s okay, but he’s nowhere near Odegaard.
Odegaard has got the lot, as well as the Protestant work-ethic. There’s a bit of Laudrup in him, a bit of Riquelme – a mix of Europe and the Americas. He keeps it clean and he wants to be the best. Well he almost is. Like Messi, he has that ability to keep his body between the opponent and the ball in such a way that a whole army might track his progress as he runs horizontally across the pitch, only to be suckered by a sudden right-angle pass that only he saw hours ago. When he drops off to get the ball, you can see that he has the whole configuration worked out ahead of him. As he moves forward, the configurations shift but he controls them entirely, as if the whole game is under his Nordic command. A twenty-year old in charge? It’s unreal. Only Getafe managed to stop him this season, by kicking lumps out of him, but that’s Getafe. Forget them. They’ll be a distant memory when Odegaard is still talked about, 50 years from now, if we manage to survive.
He insists that he will see out the two seasons of his loan, but the way the Madrid press talk him up now, it’s difficult to see that happening. In some ways it makes it better though, as if Real Sociedad’s fans know that they have to enjoy him now. Carpe diem and all that, or carpe tempus. Whatever, the game ended 2-2 after Piqué was wrestled expertly to the floor by Diego Llorente, with the clock ticking down. Piqué did the Piqué-thing, laughing that ironic laugh as if to say ‘The world is against me, against Barça, and I’m right’.
Well, the VAR should certainly have intervened, but maybe they’d noticed that he’d pushed Llorente in the first place. It was a great game. Let’s not get bogged down in silliness. Real Sociedad were marginally the better side, and probably deserved to win. Hey, but Valencia lent Barça a hand on Sunday. The clásico looks interesting for Wednesday. One wonders how it will be next season if Odegaard is back in that fold.