Sunday night at 9 p.m. isn’t a great time to turn out for a footy match, with the northern nights drawing in and the winter cold creeping into the air. It’s dark and smells of November and Real Sociedad are hosting Valencia at this infernal time because it’s the ‘partidazo’ (the big game) whose attractive look has already relegated Granada v Real Madrid to the 18.30 slot, so there’s some silver lining to the logic.
I huddle up below the press box zone with my bro-in-law. He’s also a Brexit exile and we cover a variety of issues – world poverty, imagery in Eliot’s Wasteland and why he’s forgotten to bring the cheese and ham bocatas he promised. The bocata is a Spanish institution, taken to games (smuggled in during pandemics) and wrapped lovingly in foil so that at half-time there is an orgy of tinkling and rustling that fills the air with sounds unheard in other football cultures. In more traditional times, a man without his bocata was a figure of amusement to his mates, its absence indicating a problematic marital moment or a dereliction of wifely duty. So when my bro-in-law returns sheepishly from the shop below he informs me that there are bocatas for sale on the other side of the ground, but not this. Scandalous stuff, and for all that Real Sociedad are a fine institution, representing a city that is Europe’s foodies’ paradise, its catering remains strictly 4th Division. Top o’ the league? We’re ‘aving a laugh but unfortunately we have no sarnies today.
Flash forward to the witching-hour and the game ends scoreless, with Real Sociedad reduced to 10 men and Valencia’s players oddly celebrating their miserable point in little high-five packs down below on the green. Real Madrid return to the top by virtue of their win at Granada and all is well with the world of sponsorship and commerce. It’s difficult to understand why Valencia are celebrating, but they are. They sit in mid-table with a decent squad coached by a psychopath who has no interest in sport – I refer to the Dark Lord of anti-football José Bordalás, a man who makes his spiritual mentor Carlos Bilardo look like Mother Teresa.
As you may know, Sauron-Bordalás churned out a squad of terrifying Orcs at his Getafe factory for several seasons, led by Gothmog-Damián and others of similar ilk, now abandoned to their fate as real players in a real team, happily beating Cádiz 4-0 on Sunday and looking as though they may be on their way upwards. Meanwhile, Valencia, demonstrating the sorry decline in its institutional parameters, have employed Sauron to coach a squad containing various non-Orcs, such as Guedes, Gayà, Soler, Costa, Wass, Gómez, Cheryshev (on a good day)…..men who can actually play football.
Let me hasten to add that I have no problem with hard, aggressive teams. The Simeone syndrome strikes me as a legit part of the noble game, for it can be opposed and defeated. But cynicism is something else, and the problem with Spanish football, with its inherent institutional weakness and its tendency to sweep all issues under the carpet, is that it employs referees like Melero López who, aside from being wholly inept actually seem to grow in stature the more they shaft the sides who want to play football. López seemingly decided to experiment with a new approach on Sunday night, to let the game ‘flow’ by ignoring all fouls and blowing for none of them, like some poor copy of an English ref type, much admired in Spain. Of course, Bordalás could not believe his luck. In the first half his side was predictably semi-violent, but in the second, having presumably pointed out to his Orcs that the Basque hobbits were entirely unprotected, all pretence of restraint was withdrawn. It was roughly akin to inviting Putin to the Oxford Union to lecture on world peace.
Interestingly, around the 70th minute, I was suggesting to my in-law companion that Aritz Elustondo is surely the best centre-back in LaLiga at the moment, wholly ignored by Luis Enrique who prefers the inferior versions of Pau Torres and the calamitous Eric Garcia. It makes little sense. The centre-back pairing of Elustondo and Robin Le Normand (also scandalously ignored by Diddy Deschamps) have conceded very little this season and are the main reason for La Real’s lofty position. As I spoke, Elustondo was being mightily provoked and harassed by Helda Costa and Hugo Duro, who were of course under orders to do just that. The referee did nothing, as was his plan for the night, and voilà, five minutes later, Wass cynically tripped Elustondo sending him spinning as he tried to set up an attack. Wass is a decent sort, but is reluctantly becoming an Orc. Elustondo tumbled like a drier, spun and kicked out at his aggressor, and was rightly sent off – the point being, however, that he’d been attempting to set up an attack, not foul anyone. Now he will spend two games on the sidelines, and Real Sociedad will begin to slide down the rankings until everyone in the murky sponsor-led brotherhood is happy. It’s just the way it is, but the fact that one side tried to play football and yet were completely unprotected from one that had no intention of playing…..seems to me a sad indictment of LaLiga. But no-one gives a flying flamenco. Had Melero acted thus with Real Madrid it would have been a national scandal. This is not sour grapes, but simply the way things are here – and it’s ok. In some ways it’s comfortingly consistent. Were it to morph into a fair competition I would probably stop liking it.
The other reason why Real Sociedad won’t win the league is that they’re not good enough, like Sevilla. Despite the quality in their ranks, most of it local and some of it imported, they don’t have a Modric, a Kroos, a Benzema and a Casemiro. Madrid’s destruction of Granada at the weekend was a reminder of what happens as when all these chaps tick, which despite the age and mileage of some of them, they can still do, with a bit of help from their young friend Vinicius.
Vinny is a curious case, as if he’s suddenly found the right psychotherapist, the one who pushed the button. I love that 3rd goal, where Benzema, Modric and Vinicius cook up a three-man puzzle for the two poor stranded Granada defenders, who failed the test with flying colours. The training-ground simplicity of the goal belies the instinctive understanding among the three Madrid players. Loads of decent teams would have blown that chance. Whatever, I’m looking forward to December 4th and the visit to Anoeta. I’d love to be proved wrong, of course, and it would be nice to stuff them. Just thought I’d throw that in.
Barcelona will be up there too before long, in case it’s not obvious. They still look fragile without Pedri to hold things up, and the news that Aguero may have to retire is hardly inspiring, but there is still too much in their ranks for most sides to cope with. They got away with it against Espanyol, and the luck that accompanies new coaches accompanied Xavi, but they’ll make the top four before too long. ‘tis written, if not in the Constitution then certainly in the TV sponsors’ little black books. Mind you, despite Villarreal’s inability to dry their spark plugs, Barça won’t be looking forward to visiting them next week.
Anything else of note? Well, Levante still haven’t won, and travel to Betis next week, so it might be 15 games without a win soon enough. Rayo beat Mallorca as I was writing, and move into 6th place, which is cool. They’ve won 6 of their 7 home games – the best record in the league. If they could improve on their travels, who knows? Next week…..you guessed it – they must pass through the Black Gate into Mordor and enter the bat-infested realm of Bordalás-Sauron. It may be their greatest test yet, to emerge unscathed from battle. We wish them luck on their journey.
Phil Ball, San Sebastián