The King’s Cup runneth over

They’re black-and-white memories, sepia smudged, of toddling down the street to the corner shop opposite the grey-tide promenade of my home town, buying a quarter bag of sweets of my choice for the English FA Cup Final and hurrying them back home to guzzle with my dad whilst we watched the game on TV – the annual Saturday afternoon event of my childhood, and the day when I seemed closer to him – a man wary of outward displays of emotion or of wanting to spend a great deal of time with his children.  But the FA Cup Final seemed a momentous event in the calendar, the feast of the BBC build-up from 11 0’clock onward an impossibly lavish treat for a young nerd such as myself – no matter the teams.  When you supported a local side that occupied the nether regions of the English league, the FA Cup Final was something weighty and pivotal. I loved it, and I remember (in embarrassing detail) every one that I saw.

English FA Cup Final, 1923.  Don’t remember that one.

The decline in the romance of the FA Cup was inevitable, once the greater commercial rewards of the expanded European competitions came into play, although one senses that some tattered flags of emotion still remain, flapping in the winds of FIFA’s multi-national wilderness.  Two years ago, when my own son played in the Scottish FA Cup it was a poignant entry in the pages of my own football scrapbook, although sadly my own father didn’t live to see his grandson play the game.  And for the last 29 years, here in Spain, I’ve been forced to endure the two-legged tedium of the ‘Copa Del Rey’ (King’s Cup), a tournament whose royal legacy was recovered in 1975 after Franco’s death, during which time it was known modestly as the Cup of His Excellency the Generalissimo.  It was tedious because the two-legged format was deliberately stacked in the big sides’ favour, especially given the fact that they would enter the tournament late due to European commitments, by which time the toiling competitors who had set off from the start were knackered.

Nevertheless, Spain has its own stories and legends to sustain its interest in the cup – the Maradona-tinted bloodbath between Athletic and Barcelona in 1984, Atlético Madrid’s win over Barça in 1996 that won them the coveted double, Deportivo’s win in the Bernabéu in 2002 to ruin Madrid’s centenary party, the following year’s final of the unfashionable between Mallorca and Recreativo de Huelva, and shocks such as the infamous ‘Alcorconazo’ that doomed Pellegrini at Real Madrid and which has haunted the club ever since, lest something similar be repeated.  That 4-0 defeat away in 2009 to a side in Spain’s ‘Segunda B’ (3rd tier) was one of the most seismic results in the (then) 107 years of the competition. It is still not considered a polite topic of conversation in Madrid’s footballing circles. Barcelona also lost to Segunda B sides on three occasions over a nefarious four-year period between 2001 and 2004, defeats which, in hindsight, toughened them up for the years to follow.

1984 and the butcher leaves his calling-card

But these were isolated specifics in a rather more turgid whole, a competition whose last eight editions have been won five times by Barcelona.  It won’t be this year.  The RFEF’s decision to do away with the two-legged format, include sides from the ‘Tercera’ Division (effectively Spain’s fourth tier) and tie them with top-flight sides almost from the outset has lit the tournament’s blue-touch paper and produced some wonderful and quirky meetings.  Big names have been wobbled and toppled like skittles, with Atlético Madrid’s defeat to Cultural Leonesa a particular eye-opener.  The game which pitched disco-island Ibiza against Barcelona was also a lot of fun.  Second Division Mirandés, who actually reached the semis in 2012 as a Segunda ‘B’ team, finally succumbing to Athletic Bilbao over two legs, are at it again. Their 2012 adventure was one of the great cup runs, captivating the nation that year.  Now they’re in the semis again, from a town of 40,000 inhabitants in the chilly province of Burgos, in northern Spain. After struggling against lesser opponents in the opening two rounds they subsequently beat Celta, Sevilla and Villarreal, and have drawn Real Sociedad in the semis, the first leg of which takes place this Thursday, in San Sebastián.  The semis now return to the old two-legged format, but maybe that’s okay.  The Spanish football overlords are habitual mess-makers, potentially incapable of organising a chimps’ tea-party, but this time they got it right.  I managed to take advantage of the early-round draw and watched 3rd Division Tolosa lose 0-3 to Valladolid in their tiny ground.  It was a lot of fun.

Night sky over Tolosa’s only stand.  New cup, new romance.

The wonder is, however, that they took so long to change things – though there are still further improvements they could make, for example by introducing an open format into the 4th round, so that the smaller side does not by default play at home.  Always awarding the smaller side the home tie is a nice idea, and it made for some eccentric ties in the earlier rounds – Real Sociedad’s 0-8 win at Becerril, for example, in a town with a heaving population of 780 being a particular stand-out.  Sociedad’s president immediately invited the entire town to a home game of their choice in San Sebastián, with free buses provided and free entrance.  They haven’t taken up the offer yet, but it was one among several memorable games the newly formatted tournament produced.  Nevertheless, the attraction of playing an away game at a top-flight club is also a considerable one, and the present arrangement hinders that.

On Wednesday, Athletic entertain Granada in the opening semi-final, and there is no sense of a favourite to go through.  Granada are having a half-decent season and will fancy their chances if they can emerge intact from a howling San Mamés, especially after having knocked out the holders Valencia in the previous round.  The obvious attraction of these Barça-Madrid-less semi-finals is that there exists a considerable possibility of an all-Basque final, an event that has moved Spanish meme-makers into a frenzy of activity, most of the jokes being made at the expense of the newish king Felipe VI.  To the background of the famous post-Franco incident where the captains of Real Sociedad and Athletic walked out for the derby carrying the Basque flag, the king closes his eyes and contemplates the scene (to be played in Seville) with the phrase ‘Joder que pesadilla’ (fuck, what a nightmare!) in his thought-bubble.  Poor Felipe, booed relentlessly at the five finals over which he has presided since taking the reins from his old man – (Barcelona have been in every final since his accession) might have been hoping for a rest this time around.  If the two Basque sides make it to the final (the last time was 1910) then the TV will once again be obliged to turn down the volume during the booing of the Spanish anthem – a healthy sign of democracy for some, but for others an annual national embarrassment.

King Felipe’s nightmare

Then again, Felipe does like football, but was forced by his father to support Atlético Madrid, a club whose supporters have not been traditionally known as fans of secessionist causes, ahem.   It remains to be seen, in the event of a Basque final, whether the Spanish FA will further embarrass themselves by putting on a pre-match entertainment spectacle consisting of dark-haired Carmen clones, wafting their fans and dancing Sevillanas to the frenzy of gypsy flamenco guitars – a bit like wheeling on Chas n’ Dave to sing a quirky God Save the Queen for Celtic v Rangers at Hampden Park.

In short, Mirandés v Granada is the one the authorities, deprived of their clásico money-fest, will be praying to the saints for.  It would certainly be cool if Mirandés were to make it, but the semi-final on Thursday will be marked by the curious fact that two of the Second Division’s side’s best players are on loan from Real Sociedad, and can play, contractually-speaking.  John Guridi plays in midfield and winger Martin Merquelanz, the star of their show so far, is a really sweet and funny kid who has suffered a number of personal setbacks in his journey so far, and deserves the chance to play a cup final.  I watched him develop as a player with Real’s feeder team Antiguoko, and he was an obvious talent, albeit a scandalously idle one at times.

Merquelanz – heart divided but a star in the making.

Glancing at the league, Barcelona’s midweek defeat in the quarter-final in Bilbao and Real Madrid’s startling 3-4 home defeat to Real Sociedad had the usual effect of galvanising the sides, resulting in both of them winning tricky games this weekend, Madrid 1-4 in Pamplona and Barça 2-3 at Betis. The cup is still important enough here to impact on the scene in general, and there is a lower incidence now of teams putting out reserve sides for the matches.  This is entirely healthy, and this season’s competition has quite rightly earned rave notices.  All it needs now is an all-Basque final and the king to put on a stoical face as the television volume is turned down to keep up patriotic appearances.  You can’t help but love it.  And if I’m not physically present in Seville, I’ll be buying my annual bag of e-infused sweets with enough chemicals to kill a horse, looking skywards from time to time to commemorate those sepia days on the sofa with my old man.

Starmix e-fest.  For kids AND grown-ups.


We need to talk about Martin

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. Continue reading “We need to talk about Martin”

Malteaser (or ‘A Tale of Two Goalies’)

’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.

Morata gets the first of seven

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.

1984 and the infamous goal

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.

Avenging the sins of the father

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.

Everybody’s after Fabian, but mainly Klopp & Zidane.

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.


Granada Armada

Before this weekend, Granada had only been top of LaLiga once before, coinciding more or less with the overthrow of Allende’s Chilean government in September 1973 by Pinochet’s cronies. The coincidence is of no relevance whatsoever, but I thought I’d drop it in anyway.  It seems like a long time ago, in a season when they eventually finished in 6th place, two places above Real Madrid and two points shy of qualifying for the old UEFA Cup.  It was their 6th of eight consecutive seasons in the top flight, their best run yet since their relatively late foundation in 1931, and probably their best season to date, if you ignore 1959 when they lost to Barcelona 4-1 in the Generalísimo’s Cup Final. Continue reading “Granada Armada”

Give us a mention!

In military theory, after a defeat, an excess of self-reflection and analysis of exactly what went wrong is seen as healthy, but only up to a point. This is because there was an adversary, and the adversary prevailed.  You lost the battle – but it wasn’t all down to you.  In psychology this is called ‘chronic analysis’ and it tends to be so self-absorbed that you fail to see the other factors – perhaps you know where this is going.   If you just lost 0-3 to Barcelona, as Eibar did on Saturday, you probably wouldn’t need to spend the rest of the week self-flagellating.  Eibar played okay, but Barcelona simply took advantage of their different level of quality.  Analysis over, and move on.  Real Madrid, however, were drowning in chronic analysis over the weekend, or at least their friends in the Spanish mainstream press were.  Maybe the squad flew home from Mallorca after their 1-0 defeat thoroughly aware of what went wrong – and what did go wrong? Continue reading “Give us a mention!”

Three weeks fasting in the wild

The British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once observed that ‘A week is a long time in politics’.  Eduardo Alvarez more recently remarked that ‘three weeks is a long time in football’, and so here’s Liga Fever again, just as you were beginning to think that you could no longer stand the silence of the international break.  It’s tough out there, I know.   During a fortnight in league-less space, nobody can hear you scream. Continue reading “Three weeks fasting in the wild”