If instincts do actually plead, then mine are pleading with me not to write this piece, but bollox to that. It’s been 9 years in the silent making, and on the eve of the World Cup in Doha that I allegedly kissed ass for in an (in)famous article for ESPN back in 2013, I thought I’d re-visit this dangerous ground – more aware now, of course, of the bilious nature of social media than I was back then. Better writers than me are still being lynched for attempting to say anything positive about the event, so I’d better mind my proverbials, but anyway….whether or not silence is more golden, here’s my little cliff-leap contribution.
When anyone asks me which team I support, I always flinch slightly at the verb. I don’t ‘support’ Grimsby Town. The word suggests a pastime, a hobby, a magnanimous gesture. My relationship with this team is something entirely different, as if they were an inexorable part of me, and me of them. They’re not an appendage, because that suggests something physical, but rather a part of my personality. I’d prefer this not to sound too holistic or spiritual, but for those who worship at altars outside of the church of football, it’s a notion that cannot easily be understood.
Omicron arrived on a free transfer, the crowds came back, masks were breathed into and sarnies smuggled whilst Real Madrid, and not their noisy neighbours Atlético, won the title with an ease that was not on the cards in pre-season. Strange and unexpected things also took place – Vinicius suddenly decided to be a world-class player, Luis Súarez finally looked just a little too tubby and Xavi Hernandez returned from the desert to claw back his beloved Messi-less Barça from the brink of implosion to the runners-up spot. Several teams with Euro-competition squads were rubbish, for example Valencia and Celta, with Villarreal the unlikely heroes of the Champions League but failing to make an impact in the league.
Real Madrid’s decision to wear black for the clásico at home – unprecedented if you ignore the time they once wore pink – gave the headline writers some cheap and instant metaphors for their weekend round-ups. The obvious one being that they’d dressed up for their 120 year anniversary with a kit designed for the occasion, but ended the game in funeral colours. Madrid remain nine points clear of Sevilla who could only draw at home to Real Sociedad, but the 0-4 result says a lot about this season’s rather curious dynamic.
If Real Madrid win their visit to Mallorca on Monday night – or if by the time you’re reading this they already have – you might be tempted to conclude that the race for the title, if thus it can be called, is over. In truth it hasn’t really been a race, and Sevilla don’t really look as though they can sustain any meaningful challenge now, with ten games to go. If Mallorca were to surprise us all, then hope might spring eternal, but it would still be a long shot. Even a bad result in next Sunday’s clásico for the leaders – entirely possible given Barcelona’s current form but equally improbable given their visit to Turkey on Thursday – would not cripple Madrid’s pretensions.
I’ll be brief this week, since there is no mystery to the round-up. Almost everything went to plan, with no surprises – which means that if anyone got a high score on the quiniela (football polls) this week in Spain, they’ll be disappointed with the prize money.
Funny old thing, isn’t it – the way that certain teams become a byword for a certain approach, or a certain ability – and then they suddenly forget how to do it, for no apparent reason? But football’s a funny old game, and that’s why we love it so. I refer principally to the rather splendid game at the Wanda on Saturday which saw Atlético Madrid, desperate for a tranquil victory as in their duller but effective days of yore, win 4-3 at the death with ten men on the pitch. Suddenly they can’t defend, but they can score. As the Spanish say, ‘Mundo al revés’ (It’s a topsy-turvy world). They’ve now shipped eleven in the last four games, and ice-man Oblak has suddenly turned all fallible, as if it had been a sham all along.
Oh what a lovely weekend, with lots of interesting games and results to keep LaLiga lovers happy – where the sun finally broke through the clouds at Barcelona, shining on the Catalan paupers as they fielded their glossy new collection of Premier League rejects. Only Griezmann was missing from the party, but Luis Suarez did manage to score against his old mates, even apologising as he ran back to the centre-circle…….but nobody seemed particularly interested.
Quite a compelling weekend’s action in Spain, with some knife-edge encounters but also the death of Paco Gento, mourned at the beginning of the Elche match in the Bernabéu. One of Spain’s most iconic players, his fame and influence bestrode two eras – from the post-war crackling radio generation to the emergence of a television public – from the black and white recordings of Real Madrid’s European dominance to the era of colour, or more precisely, from the 1956 European Cup final in Paris to the 1971 Cup Winners Cup final against Chelsea. When his teammate Alfredo di Stéfano died in 2014 it felt as though something had ended – that tangible mix of pipe-smoke and maleness that characterised the game in general, or the sense, more specifically, that there could never be players like him again, players who stood apart from systems or who refused to conform to them. But Gento was still standing. There was still something left.