Never mind the bullocks – it’s The Balls
Yes – it’s that time, albeit rather late this year. The annual look-back on Spanish football antics normally takes place just as the new-born lambs have stopped their gambolling and the strawberries are beginning to look like mush. It’s been a weird season, and you may well be asking yourself whether I’m referring to Real Madrid winning the title, Deportivo dropping to Segunda ‘B’ or the irruption onto the scene of a pandemic. Perhaps all three.
The five most predictable outcomes of the season:
- Barcelona were rubbish (but they still came second and could still win the Champions League)
- Valencia are having a crisis
- Messi was the league’s Pichichi (top scorer)
- Bale still doesn’t give a f***
5. Folks saying that VAR is bent. I’ve been asked to write about VAR. Here you go. Please indulge me.
There is no conspiracy theory, and the folks sitting in the VAR room are not there to upset your weekend, but….there is a problem. Whether the problem is general to those countries who have now adopted it, or whether there are specific issues regarding VAR España I wouldn’t like to say, but the big problem with Spanish football has always been the overwhelming sense that referees exist in a state of impunity, and that their errors go unpunished – in short, that there is no accountability because the commission that controls them prefers not to get its hands mucky. VAR was meant to reduce and limit this state of affairs, whilst also (quite reasonably) acting as a support to referees in a country whose anti-authoritarian streak makes life difficult for them. As you’ll know, no penalty in the history of Spanish football (since 1928) has actually been a valid one. The defender was entirely innocent on each occasion.
So where did it all go wrong? Well, it’s not rocket science. The folks in the VAR room are named, but are never asked to justify or explain their decisions. If they were obliged to do this (there could be a space for this every Monday) then things would soon start to change. Not only should they be asked to explain (either orally or in writing) but the identity of these arbiters should also be juggled more imaginatively. Why use referees when the problem that already exists in Spain is precisely one of distrust towards referees’ neutrality? Is this public paranoia? I don’t think so. Spain is a highly politicised country, and there is no reason to assume that its referees are not affected by these ‘tendencies’. It doesn’t mean they’re bent, but it means that their objectivity is compromised, particularly in a country where the powerful can still make you or break you, with shocking ease.
So why not use a more interesting mix of people for VAR duty, rather like public jury duty? The three could be a referee, ex-player, a member of the public and/or a journalist, for example. You laugh (because neither will they be neutral) but they are more likely to respond intelligently when asked to explain how they came to their controversial decision during the Monday space. Instead of having the tedious weekly procession of coaches spouting clichés and looking glum in their post-match press conferences, why not have post-match or post-weekend VAR conferences? At the very least, it would stop the conspiracy theories. And it would get huge TV audiences.
Leganés feel that VAR sent them down. Maybe. But nobody has been obliged to justify that non-punishment of Jovic….and thereby lies the problem, members of the jury.
The five most surprising outcomes of the season: Ah – now you’re talking! What were those then?
Real Madrid won the league title. This may seem a tad controversial, but things didn’t end very happily for the club last season, the summer was one of gloom, and the general view was that Zidane was too keen on keeping and protecting his senile Pretorian Guard, whilst the signings he made were wholly uninspiring – Jovic turned up, James Rodriguez came back, Mendy turned up to ruffle Marcelo’s lovely hair and Eden Hazard appeared with a gut like Puskas, but he had been injured. With golden balls Asensio injured in pre-season, Fede Valverde was the promised one, but things didn’t look too rosy. 3 draws in the first 7 games followed by defeat at Mallorca had the faithful grumbling, but in the end they cruised it, winning all but the final game of the post-pandemic footy fest.
How good were they? Well….they were solid at the back, with largely the same personnel who had been less so the previous season. The difference was Courtois, whose credentials were constantly questioned last season, largely by people who know very little about football. The Belgian is world Number 2 to Oblak, but that’s no shameful stat. Was it as simple as that? Well….Benzema seemed to decide at last that he’s not an advanced midfielder and is actually a striker. It’s not a question of his past (impressive) goal-scoring statistics – it’s a question of leading the line. He finally decided to do this, and the entire team benefited.
Ramos was back to his pugnacious best and if they got the breaks, well, that’s because they often do. VAR discussion, see above. And remember – the last time RM won the title, it was because of their midfield. Nobody said that, this time around. Interesting.
Granada. On an annual budget of 37 million (Bale + Hazard’s combined salaries), newly-promoted and with players who’d been in Segunda B only a year before, they led the league for a brief May-fly moment but then refused to go away, never sinking below 10th spot and then rallying towards the end and making it into the Europa League with a more-than-decent 7th finish. They were also very unlucky in the King’s Cup, losing out in their own stadium to a late goal by Athletic, a team who had been informed before the game by the referee that he wouldn’t book any of their players who were on yellow cards. It was rather scandalous, but as we have known for years, referees are never held accountable for their behaviour in Spain, unless of course they disallow a goal by Real Madrid or Barcelona (okay – you knew that was coming).
Sevilla. Nobody rates Lopetegui (I’m not sure why) and everyone was waiting for him to fall on his Basque nose. Well he didn’t, and Sevilla played some very good stuff at times. They also looked strong and aggressive, and apart from the occasional wobble (drawing at home to Celta, losing at Eibar, getting stuffed at Barça) they were good to watch. Loved Lucas Ocampos. Nutter.
Vinicius. He got several shots on target this season.
Raúl García. Athletic’s villainous Pirates-of-the-Caribbean bad guy managed to stop elbowing opponents and mouthing at referees long enough to finish as Athletic’s top scorer, with a more than decent 15 goals. Well…someone had to replace Aduriz as elbow-in-chief.
Five interesting facts for the season:
- Real Socieded won 0-8 at 4th-tier Becerril (population 754) in the King’s Cup and subsequently invited the entire town to a freebie in Reale Arena stadium at the game of their choosing (as long as it wasn’t Real Madrid or Barça). Real Sociedad paid for the transport, free lunch and entry to the ground. The town turned up for the game against Valencia. (Sociedad won).
- Deportivo de la Coruña were relegated to Segunda ‘B’ twenty years after winning the league title.
- Getafe had as many fans attending their matches during the lockdown as had previously turned up before the pandemic.
- Iago Aspas looks like Tin-Tin (Athletic’s Asier Vilalibre looks like Capt Haddock).
- Getafe had three players in the top five most-carded players for the season (Damian, Nyom and Mata). That’s interesting because you’d have expected all five to be from Getafe.
Five names to have emerged this season:
Alexander Isak – Real Sociedad. Fast, vertical, lethal. Nobody saw him coming, but they know about him now. Murdered Real Madrid in that 3-4 cup win in the Bernabéu. When he gets to occupy less bench and be more consistent, he’s going to be worth a LOT of money. Nice kid too. Learned Spanish in something like two weeks and is awfully polite. Hello Gareth?
Lucas Ocampos – Sevilla. As my father-in-law would have said ‘Mad as a duck’ but you’d want him on your side. Scored lots of goals, kicked lots of arse, and was second only to his compatriot Messi in ‘regates’ (152), which means the amount of times you’ve left an opponent on his bum.
Ansu Fati – Barcelona. Came, saw and now threatens to conquer. Like Isak, but with a wider repertoire, he’s unlikely to fade away. Ridiculously good for one so young. One of the few positive things to emerge from the Camp Poo this season.
Pau Torres – Villarreal. One of the best centre-backs in Spain this season. Good with his feet, good with his head, one Spanish cap already and lots to come, one suspects.
Pervis Estupiñán – Osasuna. He’s a very good full-back, tireless and aggressive but I feel obliged to include him for the 2nd year running because of his fantastic name. With a name like that, it is doubly impressive that he ever got anywhere at all.
Five piles of horseshit about next season:
- The VAR system will improve by reflecting carefully on the errors made this year (I wrote this last year).
- Neymar will leave PSG and work voluntarily for charity.
- Juanma Lillo will stay at Manchester City beyond Christmas.
- Barcelona will sign the appropriate coach.
- The King of Spain will be delighted to attend the all-Basque delayed Cup Final in December because by then spectators will have been allowed back and they would never dream of booing the monarch.
And….the five best goals:
- Gerard Moreno (Villarreal) against Valencia
One of the best goals I’ve ever seen. Cazorla’s lay-off, after a huge punt from his own goalie is remarkable, and Moreno’s volleyed finish is pure art.
- Aduriz (Athletic) against Barça
First game of the season – and it set the tone for Barça, in a strange way. Aduriz came on and scored it late on, and the crowd went understandably ape-shit at his wonderful scissors-kick, all the better coming from a player who, 9 months later, would retire and have a hip replacement.
- Casemiro (RM) against Espanyol
It’s not the finish but the back-heel that sets it up. But it’s going to be talked about for a long time.
- Lucas Pérez (Alavés) against Atlético
It’s an old-fashioned goal from an old-fashioned player, but you just love the way he puts his head down, ploughs through the opposition and belts it into the top corner. Sepia stuff.
- Benzema (RM) against Valencia.
In a season where almost everything he tried came off, this one was probably his best, with a flick over a defender’s head and a volley that was out of the Captain Tsubasa school.
Time for a rest….summer’s here, the time is right, for dancing in the street. Just wear your mask, ok?