A rough night in Lisbon

After events such as Lisbon, one can always count on Shakespeare.  Macbeth, sitting down in the morning for coffee and porridge after murdering the king in the night and having had a bit of verbal with the missus, is asked by fellow party-goer Lennox if he’s had a decent night’s sleep.  ‘Twas a rough night’ replies Macca, deadpan.  This is often used to teach the concept of dramatic irony to GCSE students in England, but if Shakespeare were alive today you’d probably prefer to just ask him – ‘You were taking the piss, right?’ Continue reading “A rough night in Lisbon”

It’s The Balls! 2019-20 LaLiga round-up.


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. Continue reading “It’s The Balls! 2019-20 LaLiga round-up.”

Four Seasons in One day

Four seasons in one day, rub-a dub-dub and it’s helter-skelter through what remains of our fragile sanity at the fag-end of the league campaign. Never fear, there’ll be a hammock and rest for us somewhere, in the close season at the end of the universe.  I was happy that football was back, and now I can’t escape it.

Continue reading “Four Seasons in One day”

After the Gold Rush

Don’t it seem like a long time?’  That’s from a song written by Ted Anderson and performed by Rod Stewart in 1971, in the days when the latter was still good.  And since he likes football, he’ll have been suffering too, and possibly singing that one in the shower.  Don’t dwell too long on that one.

Back on March 10, when Real Sociedad beat Eibar 1-2 in an empty Ipurua, the only consoling thought, like the First World War being likely to last ‘at worst, a few weeks’, was that the lockdown wouldn’t last either.  Now it’s been three whole months. The previous season finished on May 19th and started up again on Friday August 16th – a day Aritz Aduriz is unlikely to forget.   Anyway, Aduriz aside, that was a three-month break but one that was scheduled. Continue reading “After the Gold Rush”

A weekend with Drew Carey and the galácticos

Originally written March 2006 (adapted)

There was an interesting moment in the Bernabéu on Sunday evening, sometime around the 30th minute.  Cicinho played in a clever diagonal ball from the right, near the half-way line, intending it for Ronaldo to run onto.  But the striker saw it too late, thought about it, then decided not to waste his energy on a ball that was running inevitably to the opposition (Depor) defence.  As the crowd fidgeted with impatience, several boos began to float into the mild evening air.  Madrid were winning 1-0, but Ronnie was still unloved and unwanted.  Get thee back to Italy, the boos seemed to say. Continue reading “A weekend with Drew Carey and the galácticos”

The strange death of Norman the Hunter

One of the great cliché-truths about humanity is that each subsequent generation is weaker than the previous.  Or so the previous generation, declining in retirement by the fireside and about to be replaced, would have you believe.  When the scary Visigoths sacked Rome in AD 410, the ageing parents of the victorious soldiers, receiving news of the event by horsemen and carrier-pigeon, would have spat contemptuously into their own fireside flames and uttered the time-honoured phrase ‘Bah!  It wasn’t like that in my day.’

Back in their day they would have met real resistance, from real men whom they could defeat, but at the same time respect.  Defeating a bunch of Romans who by then were too busy strumming their lyres and scratching their syphilis was a day out in the park.  And if this is true of warfare it’s certainly true of football.  My father’s generation regaled us with tales of manly centre-backs coping with aerial bombardments from equally manly strikers, all of whom had seen action in the trenches the week before.   The players of the sepia-tinted era ‘didn’t mess about’ and in some ways this was probably true, given the circumstances that prevailed in the world before the swinging sixties began to distance the memory of all that real hardship that came before.  When the summer of love came along and we discovered sex and Black Sabbath, things would never be the same again.

You’ll probably know where this is going, because as I enter the last third of my life and sadly remain as obsessed with football as in the opening two-thirds, the untimely death of Norman Hunter last week caused me to reflect again on whether the great cliché is true – and one is forced to admit that it probably is.  This is an evidence-based conclusion.  I’m not doing it through some rose-tinted inability to assess the past.

Norman 2
Norman Hunter. RIP.

Norman ‘bite-yer-legs’ Hunter, in case you didn’t know, was a left-footed centre-back who formed a Visigothic partnership with the giraffe-like Jack Charlton, in the infamous Leeds United side of the late 1960s and 70s that also terrified Europe like the Barbarian hordes.  They certainly terrified me, and as a kid I hated them with a passion that now embarrasses me.    People talk about hard men now……ha!  I spit in your fire!  Sergio Ramos?  Had Ramos ever come within a social-distancing metre of Norman Hunter, he would have swiftly exited stage-left, pursued by a bear.

I’m not a great fan of those tedious ‘hardest player ever’ galleries that proliferate on the web, where status-challenged members of the male species gather in keyboard combat to produce the definitive hierarchy.  I’m not a fan because they never do produce the definitive list, and their perspectives are commonly narrowed by the fact that they’re too young to understand.  I spit on their carrier-pigeons, but I’m right.  All they have to do is to watch the excellent interview that Yorkshire TV did with the great Norman Hunter in 2015 to understand the truth.

Even at the age of 70, sitting hunched on his sofa and speaking in soft Geordie-tinted tones, you wouldn’t have messed with him.  And the great thing about Hunter was that as a player, he fitted the hard-man thug profile to perfection.  It remains an interesting fact that in general, football’s most celebrated thugs did actually look like criminals, with the notable exception of Man Utd’s Nobby Stiles, who looked like an undernourished young child, inexplicably allowed onto a football pitch.  Peter Storey, Vinnie Jones, Trevor Hockey, Chopper Harris – they all looked as though they’d done time in the slammer (some of them did) and John Terry, possibly the last of his line, will soon be earning post-football income as the next Guy Ritchie geezer-protagonist.  Roy Keane, lest his absence from the list cause anguish, was never a hard man.  He was a psycho. There’s a difference.

Norman Hunter was almost beyond categorisation, right at the extreme end of the continuum.  With his dark hair and drawn cheeks he looked like something out of a Hammer Films classic, half-way between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  He was a Geordie version of the Kray twins, with a slightly stooped gait when he played, as if he were scouring the horizon for prey.  A hunter indeed.

Kray twins
Norman (right) in Kray Twins mode

Whereas the slightly younger Italian assassin Claudio Gentile sported the ironic surname ‘kind’, Hunter was a  hunter.  I couldn’t stand him as a player, and I couldn’t stand the team he played for – although I recognise their greatness.  The young Visigoths these days just don’t get it, and indeed, I have felt the need to educate my own son in the lore and legend of Leeds United, in much the same way as I have desperately attempted to get him to appreciate Dylan and Beefheart.  He’s still struggling with the latter, but he’s ok with the former.  You can’t understand contemporary music without those two, and you can’t really understand football without some knowledge of the Leeds template.  That’s how good they were, and that’s why everyone hated them.

Hunter in classic pose, taking out Liverpool’s Steve Heighway

Hunter was a shy Geordie who’d been given six months to prove himself at Leeds in 1961, having given up his job as an electrical fitter two years earlier.  When Jack Taylor was sacked as manager and replaced by Don Revie, the rest, as they say, is white history.  Hunter was handed his debut in 1962 in the 2nd Division and never looked back.  A solid and keep-it-simple defender, he became the bedrock of the side that every football fan of my generation can recite, like some failed attempt at free-verse:

Sprake  Reaney Cooper

Bremner Charlton Hunter

Lorimer Clarke Jones Giles Gray

Sub Bates

When I interviewed the Spanish football writer Santiago Segurola for my book about Real Madrid’s centenary, he  took me for lunch to a posh Madrid restaurant.  A great writer and a hopeless Anglophile, he suddenly stopped the conversation half-way though the soup and stared at me with wide-eyed insistence.   ‘Leeds took their colours from Real Madrid. You know that?  Revie said it would give them confidence.  He liked the clean white thing – no colour, no distractions.’  As I was about to reply, he suddenly reeled off the free-verse line-up, ending with the inevitable rhetorical flourish of ‘sub…Bates’ – the sign of the true nerd.  Few  club sides in the history of football have traversed national and international cultures in such a way, and Hunter was a big part of it.

Leeds United, 1969-70. Nobody liked them. Nobody could beat them.                                               Norman Hunter standing, 2nd from left.

He represented a system of football now on the wane, where a single hard-man would be mono-programmed to win the ball, by fair means or foul, and give it quickly and simply to those who knew better.  He had a decent left peg, but in a side with Johnny Giles, Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner, you didn’t need Hunter to linger too long on the ball.  Indeed, centre-backs nowadays are not ‘ball-winners’ in the same way as Hunter et al, possibly because the role of the protective defensive ‘pivot’ was less developed in those days and centre-backs, more exposed, needed to depend on referees’  greater tolerance, cloaked by the general culture that prevailed.  Indeed, if you watch the Hunter interview, he talks almost reverently of the old ‘first tackle’ paradigm, where referees would only book players on the subsequent fouls.  So Hunter and his ilk took this as a licence to kill, and that’s what they did.  Would Leeds have been so successful without him?  Probably not.  He was kept out of the England side by Bobby Moore, a cultured defender who was fashioned from a completely different template – but who won fewer trophies.  Hunter did get 28 caps, but the set-up of the England side was different when he got to  play, of course.

Bobby Moore – fashioned from a different template

It is one of the saddest ironies, during this time of plague, that the 76 year-old Hunter was eventually felled by a protein that measures 120 nanometres. A nanometre, I am reliably informed by Wikipedia, is a billionth of a meter. You can do the Maths, but not necessarily understand its significance, unless you saw him play.  I never liked him, but I was moved by his death in ways that I never expected to be.  In the interview, Hunter is asked which forwards he most feared in those days, and before politely correcting the interviewer on his choice of ‘feared’ he responds by citing Andy Lochead, a player I remember from Burnley, but who was otherwise unremarkable.  ‘He was strong and solid’ says Hunter.  ‘He never said anything to you, but just looked you in the eyes’.  Real men, real tussles.  The age of iron, with its game-of-thrones celebration of hairy masculinity, with its threats and fist-fights but the manly handshake afterwards.  Neymar wouldn’t have survived long in this environment.  Messi would, because they’d never have caught him, but Messi is an alien.   And if you want a taste, the clip below is one of football’s most celebrated scraps, but only because Derby’s Francis Lee gets the better of Hunter.  It was the only time, until last Friday, that he was ever felled.

I’m unsure of whether this Visigoth-parent stuff is really worth celebrating, and the modern game has its villains, albeit pantomime ones.  Gifted players are more protected nowadays, not only by referees but also by a thousand cameras, watching every move, every breath they take.  De Jong’s famous lunge on Xabi Alonso, in the bright lights of a World Cup final, might even have gone unnoticed in the grainy black and white final of 1962, whose TV nano-audience was  unaware of anything but the distant time-delayed images.  Pele was kicked out of the 1966 World Cup for precisely those low-surveillance reasons.

Maybe it’s for the better that the game is losing its appetite for the Norman Hunters, but as ever, something is lost.  Something is lost of their villainous honesty, and of the respect and fear they engendered.  Whilst the rest of the country was hating Leeds and Hunter in 1974, his fellow professionals voted him as PFA Player of the Year, on the first occasion of that award.  It remains a significant moment in football history, and a symbol of the divide in understanding of the game between spectators and professionals.

Hey – and stay safe, because if it can get Norman, it can get us all.

Phil Ball  @PhilBallTweets




A tale of three footballers, sustainability, and digestive biscuits

The current crisis has meant that the football press, grown accustomed to its daily blathering about real live events past, present and future, has understandably lost its way a little.  Remember when the past was last weekend, and the future was next Saturday?   Here in Spain, the eventual acceptance of a total shut-down of football was akin to an annoying dog finally realising that if it didn’t stop yapping it was going to get a kick up the arse. In short, the yapping stopped.

Nevertheless, figuratively-speaking, when humanity is used to having its coffee and croissants every morning, it’s a bit brutal when they’re whipped away the next day and replaced by a glass of water.  Hence football writing, good or bad, fulfils a social function and can make a contribution to domestic lock-down blues, along with the re-runs of classic matches being played out on Spanish telly at the moment.  I particularly enjoyed Spain’s 12-1 win over Malta last week, the final and clinching goal bizarrely scored by Juan Señor, causing the ecstatic commentator to temporarily put his orgasm on pause and utter the priceless ‘Si Señor!’ phrase that has echoed down the years ever since.  It probably made quite a few people smile – a necessity in these most surreal of times.

Si Señor!

As I might have written in the abstract to my PhD thesis (failed) on Albert Einstein, ‘Time is an inconvenience between football matches’.  I never did finish the doctorate, and that was the best line in it.  When I was a younger chap in pre-internet England, the summer break from football – mysteriously labelled ‘the close season’ – was a tough time.  The only way I could get through the empty months of football-less tedium was to adopt an Australian team and follow their results each week, sadly convincing myself that I was actually interested. I adopted ‘Sunshine City’ because it sounded like a cool name, but of course they were rubbish.  I still have no idea to which city they belonged – possibly to a suburb of Melbourne (answers on a postcard please) and anyway, it seemed to me that all cities in Australia were blessed with sunshine….. but I digress.

The most common theme to crop up in the Covid-19 quality football press has been the theme of sustainability.  Several writers have pointed to the fact that amongst other aspects of life, the relentless consumerist-capitalist-free-market-infinite-growth paradigm is being exposed as a poor business model, as a road to ruin.  It’s taken 100 days to fell the global economy.  Sting’s old song ‘How fragile we are’ never sounded more apposite. We are informed that the pandemic has exposed the basic unsustainability of rampant consumerism, as if we didn’t already know.  Well we did, but until something actually punches you in the face, you tend to pretend it’s not there.  It’s an interesting feature of Homo sapiens, and is nicely summed up by psychology’s distinction between ‘impending’ and ‘present’ danger.  Impending danger is something like global warming.  We kind of know we should change our lifestyles, but what the hell?  Pass me that plastic bag.  I forgot to bring my sustainable organic canvas version to the supermarket today.  Never mind – there’s always tomorrow to ratchet up my lost moral points.   Present danger is the punch in the face, the kick up the arse or the sort of experience Boris Johnson is currently undergoing, one which will presumably make him less blasé in the future (if he has one).

Football?  Well, it looks like it’s in present danger, from where I’m sitting at the keyboard.  We always knew that it was an unsustainable business model (UBM from this point forth), but only now has the real ‘WTF’ moment arrived.  Did Barcelona really pay Liverpool 145 million quid for Coutinho?  Was that real or a dream, Alice?  Whatever it was, it ain’t going to happen again.  Barcelona FC, for the last two decades a consistent member of the top-five richest clubs on the globe, lasted precisely two weeks before applying to their autonomous government (and therefore to the tax-payer) for an ERTE, better known as a furlough in English parlance, for its non-playing staff.  This only happened after they’d managed to reach an uneasy agreement with their players to cut 70% of their salaries, for the time being.  Barcelona, and others like them, are swimming in a pool of shit entirely of their own making.

Coutinho.  The last of the great WTF’s?

Liverpool’s similar action, widely condemned in the English press last week, came on the back of paying 43.7 million to agents in the last financial year.  WTF?  They back-tracked, of course, but their original action showed how far these institutions have their heads stuck in the sand.  But it’s not the sand of some placid Merseyside beach but rather a desert storm raging around their collective arses, all stuck up in the air waiting for the effects of wind erosion to peel the skin from their exposed buttocks, if you’ll excuse another extended metaphor.

Of course, in the post-Covid reflection period, football should not be prohibited from generating money.  It just has to distribute its wealth more equitably.  You can hear the Homer Simpson ‘Doh’ echoing around the empty stadiums right now. Indeed, one of the weirdest effects of the pandemic has been the sudden perspective-shift of how we see footballers and other overpaid members of the workforce.  The big clubs are not the only ones to blame.  When the agent of my son’s mate (here in San Sebastián) was touting him to English clubs in League One and Two last summer, I was shocked to hear how much money was on the table for a kid who only recently started shaving.  Bury might have gone bust, but that was pre-pandemic.  How realistic was their wage structure anyway?  Whatever it was, and the Bury issue was a complex one, the death of a football club is a serious issue.  In these ever-more empty times, its impact on a community can be devastating.  It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.


Since the lock-down here on March 14th, I’ve had three brief encounters with top-flight footballers. Let me tell you about these random trysts, because they were very strange, and they set me thinking in ways I’ve never thought before about bloody footballers.  The first one was with Ander Guevara, the 22 year-old central midfielder who this season had begun to consolidate his place in the Real Sociedad squad, having been definitively promoted from the B team last summer.  Guevara is from Vitoria in the west of the Basque Country, but came east when he was fifteen.  He’s good, in a sub-Xabi Alonso sort of way.  He’s a lesser mortal, but he’s good. Anyway, he lives in my neighbourhood, as do the other two I subsequently met.  Basically, the morning streets were almost empty (we can go out to the shops but nothing more) when I spotted him walking towards me.  Maybe I’m just getting old, but young players that you’ve only seen from the distance of your stadium seat look ridiculously young when you see them up at close quarters, dressed in civvies.  They look mildly absurd, and slightly haunted, scurrying along like recently-hatched baby turtles heading desperately for the tide.  I decided to break the silence as we approached each other and quipped in Spanish ‘Tranquilo.  No te voy a pedir un selfie’ (Relax. I’m not going to ask you for a selfie) at which he emitted a slightly worrying, high-pitched giggle.  And then was gone – just an ordinary little bloke on a deserted street, under the same tatty umbrella of circumstances as the rest of us.

Ander Guevara gets to grips with some Barça player

That little episode paled into insignificance a few days later, however, when on a sunny afternoon in the same deserted neighbourhood I’d gone out for a walk with my shopping-bag as pretext, in case the police should ask.  Had the old Kinks’ song been uppermost in my mind (Sunny Afternoon) and the line ‘The taxman’s taken all my dough’ have popped into my head, it was then serendipitous indeed that the great Xabi Alonso should be walking towards me at that very moment, him coming down the slope, me going up.  Unlike the young Ander Guevara, whose slings and arrows of career decisions will all arrive in the future, Alonso looks decidedly unhappy.  In fact I almost fail to recognise him.  He seems smaller and paler than I remember, and hardly a walking ad for Boss.  Scuttling along the pavement like some paranoid Winston Smith in Orwell’s ‘1984’, he keeps snatching furtive glances at his mobile phone, as if he fears some terrible news.  His actions resemble a man who grabs his mobile back from his partner, lest she see those silly light-porn video clips his dumb mate insists on sending.

Xabi comes home

Alonso lives about 200 yards from me, and although we do know each other by sight he keeps a low profile.  I mean that I don’t often see him, but also that he has no need to lie low because the Basques generally respect people’s space, and don’t go in for that annoying fan thing.  It’s one of the reasons why he’s come back, apart from wanting to have his kids educated in Basque for a while, a language in which both he and his wife are native speakers.  As you can imagine, there isn’t too much Basque hanging around in Madrid and Munich.   Anyway, although we share three languages it’s English that pops into my head by default, and as he approaches with his head in his phone I quip ‘Don’t worry – I won’t ask you for a selfie. Keep my distance and all that’ at which he looks up, slightly startled, and almost stumbles, like I’ve taken him out in the centre-circle.  As he passes me he offers a faint acknowledgement, but it could be just a ‘Who is that idiot?’ look.

I let him fade into the distance and then look back, slightly amazed at the whole episode.  He seems a creature of little significance, a pale nobody framed against the silent urban landscape.  It’s an unsettling moment, but it zooms the current circumstances into big- screen HD.  Alonso will be happy that nobody can now ask him for a selfie, but what role does he now play in society?  Coach to a Real Sociedad B team that is neither allowed to train nor play. And does anyone currently give a monkey’s toss?  No they don’t, but they will when this is all over.  What struck me in that street, however, was that we may never hero-worship in quite the same way again.  I’m not criticising Alonso specifically (he’s always seemed a decent enough bloke), but the private-jet antics of goons like Neymar and friends will cut less slack in the public eye than was previously the case.  We will continue to pay for the privilege of seeing these great athletes strut their stuff, but one suspects – if you’ll excuse the phrase – that the goalposts have inexorably shifted.  And that might not be a bad thing.

Anyway, look – this is getting a bit long.  When I was at ESPN, the great John Brewin once told me, as we supped a pint on a London street, ‘Phil – don’t write any more than 1,500 words.  After that, people take the dog for a walk.’  And I’ve still got to tell you about the third player. It was Mikel Oyarzabal, if you must know, and I didn’t say a word to him.

Spain v Sweden - UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier
Mikel Oyarzabal. Big feet, big future

He was in front of me in the supermarket the other day, and I can confirm that he has unfeasibly large feet.  I don’t know if Pep still wants him at Manchester City, but if he does he should know that he eats digestive biscuits, but the ones with sugar in them.  There – that’s knocked 10 million off his sale price. WTF?

Phil Ball





The Canary Chronicles

Original written, ESPN April 1, 2013: https://www.espn.com/soccer/columns/story/_/id/1395277/ball:-the-canary-chronicles

Lazing on a sunny afternoon, Easter Sunday to be precise, we decide to head back from the beach to our apartment in Corralejo, on the island of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. Hey – even ESPN FC scribes are allowed a vacation and besides, it’s freezing cold in northern Europe and wet and windy in northern Spain. Here, some sun is guaranteed.

On the outskirts of the town, the grand stadium Vicente Carreño Alonso (capacity 2,000) sits square and squat to the side of a large roundabout, corralled inside a low white wall and surrounded by brown desert scrub. There are six skinny sets of floodlights sticking up, needle-like, into the cloudless blue sky, and the small fists of brown mountains shimmer behind in the hazy distance.


There is nothing better than casually investigating a Spanish football team, all the better for being stuck near a roundabout on the outskirts of a town with a population of 14,000, on an island better known for hordes of English and German tourists than for its footballing traditions. I know from Wikipedia that Club Deportivo Corralejo are in Tercera, Spain’s third division, which is actually the fourth division – but more of that later.

I haul the car off the main road onto a dirt track that leads to the stadium’s main green gate, closed today because there is no game on Easter Sunday in Group 12, the division in which the minor Canary Island clubs compete. After Tenerife, Fuerteventura is the second biggest island in the archipelago, 100 km off the west coast of Africa, but its snoozy, tranquil feel makes you wonder whether human habitation was ever really intended to take root.


The stadium walls sizzle in the afternoon heat. My son climbs onto an electricity hut to take some shots of the pitch over the height of the walls. As we walk back to the car, a sporty-looking 40-something chap pitches up in a loud yellow football bib and begins to open the green gate with a key. I wander over and ask if we can go in to take some shots. The man has a striking, weather-beaten face, with long hair and a noble jawline. He seems overwhelmed by our request and ushers us eagerly over the threshold. Once inside, the green expanse of the pitch is blindingly colourful compared to the dusty dun exterior.

We walk out onto the pitch. The man’s name is Jorge, and I ask him if he is an ex-player. He laughs. “I wish I were! I’m the groundsman. I look after the place, make sure everything’s OK. But that’s not too difficult,” he says, gesturing at the artificial surface. “Much easier for maintenance. But I like to come here in the afternoons, run around the perimeter a bit, kick a ball around for a while. Keeps me going, you know.”

Jorge the groundsman

As if on cue, a ball is already on the pitch, about 30 metres from the goal. My son Harry, starved of one for the last few days, shakes off his flip-flops, jogs up and hits the ball barefoot. He doesn’t catch it quite right, but the ball still arrows up into one corner, and nestles nicely into the net. Jorge approves. “He’s good,” he coos. “You can tell by the way someone approaches a ball. I used to do some scouting,” he continues, as Harry fishes the ball from the net. “The problem here is that nobody really stays. Why would kids want to come and watch this club or even play for us? There’s no future in it. The best ones all go to the mainland.”

Harry Ball-Lindsay hits the target, despite the pressure

He changes tack. “Hey – you’re not Spanish are you? You speak well. Your son speaks even better!” I explain that we live in San Sebastián, and that Harry was born there. “Ah – they say that’s a nice place,” he replies, with a slight note of lament in his voice. “Ha – I’m Spanish, and I’ve never been to Spain!” he laughs. “I’ve never been on the mainland. No call for it. We have everything here now. My parents suffered – no electricity, not much running water, but now we have everything, apart from good football.”

This is not entirely true. Corralejo were founded in 1975 but, after a series of fusions, have ended up as the present side, and in their first season in Tercera, in 2009-10, they finished top, only to lose out in the play-offs to a Catalan side. Down the road in the capital, Puerto del Rosario, the team is in Regional Preferente, a ladder further down.

A relative metropolis of 34,000 people, the town produced Braulio Nóbrega, who now plies his trade for Hercules, but who scored the famous back-heel for Getafe against Spurs in London in 2007. Subsequently transferred to Zaragoza, his career almost fell apart in 2011 when he was arrested on charges of sexual assault.

Jonathan Sesma, once of Valladolid, was a native of Las Palmas but is the only vaguely famous player to have turned out for Corralejo, back in the 1997-98 season.

Johnny Sesma, sort-of-famous son

Jorge doesn’t seem to recall this, but begins to wax eloquently on the topic of Canary players in general. “Valeron, Silva, Pedrito, Ruben Castro – they’re all the same types. They don’t use speed or strength. It’s too hot for that here. They had to use their brains. It made them think better than other players. Look at Valeron. He’s still going. Que bueno es (he’s fantastic)!”

He forgets to mention Valeron’s team-mate Manuel Pablo – also a son of Gran Canaria, the island that, along with Tenerife, seems to have produced the most players. Pedro and Jeffren both moved to La Masia from the latter, and the Canary scene in general has proved a good breeding ground for intelligent players. Jorge’s theory may be correct. At a distance, Harry plays competent keepie-ups in his bare feet, and Jorge asks what position he plays. When I tell him he’s a central midfielder with Real Sociedad’s feeder club, Antiguoko, he says: “We need one like him here. Bring him over here for next season. We’ll look after him!”

Harry, two weeks later (left, blue shirt) versus Athletic Bilbao

Tercera is a complex labyrinth of a league structure, and is really the fourth tier after La Liga, Segunda A and Segunda B. Several of the professional reserve sides cut the teeth of their young players there, but the grand majority of teams are part-time. Some teams pay their players a nominal match fee, some pay win bonuses only and some pay nothing at all.

I ask Jorge how they cope in Group 12, when they have play on the other islands. “Yes, it’s expensive. We can go by boat to Lanzarote, but to the other places we have to fly. We cut deals, but it’s still too much. The worst thing is” – he shakes his head at the injustice – “the worst thing is that when we got to the play-offs, there were people at the club who didn’t want us to go up to Segunda B, for that reason.” He rubs together his middle finger and his thumb in the Spanish gesture for money.

There are 18 groups in Tercera, making up a morass of 361 teams. The groups almost tally with the country’s 17 autonomous communities, but the sheer size of Andalucia means there are two groups there, which explains the slight discrepancy. The 18 group winners play a two-legged play-off series, with the nine winners promoted to Segunda B, which itself contains four groups of 80 teams. All of that means it’s difficult to make comparisons with the fourth level of say, English football, where the 24 teams are all professional and usually represent larger urban centres. Nevertheless, Corralejo are technically a mere three consecutive promotions away from the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. It seems strange to contemplate this on a sunny afternoon in a tiny, deserted stadium.


The night before, we’d driven into town and sought out some distant Spanish football, apologetically chalked onto the viewing list of a bevy of English-style pubs offering a mix of English Premier League, Celtic and Rangers fixtures, and the occasional rugby union game.

In the gloomy cavern of a pub, each corner seemed to have a different screen and game being played, and the cacophony of mixed ESPN and Al Jazeera commentaries blended into a sort of incomprehensible mass. The English owner seemed happy that we wanted to watch Zaragoza-Madrid, but failed to tempt us with further offers of fish, chips and mushy peas. We left in the 80th minute, since my beer had run out and I didn’t fancy another one, and we were fairly convinced that it was going to end in a draw.

Indeed it did, the 1-1 scoreline denying Madrid any false optimism about cutting into Barcelona’s lead after the Catalans’ 2-2 draw at strugglers Celta an hour earlier. The games’ chief interest – apart from Leo Messi’s 19th consecutive scoring appearance – resided in their role as warm-ups for this week’s Champions League action, with the opposition relegated to the roles of mere sparring partners.

Of course, neither Celta nor Zaragoza could afford to drop points, since their reality is very different from planet Barcelona-Madrid and, although both will be pleased at avoiding defeat, Deportivo’s 3-2 win at fellow strugglers Mallorca means it’s getting a bit tighter down there at the bottom. Canary-born veteran Juan Carlos Valeron played 88 sublime minutes at the ripe old age of 37, and Manuel Pablo, of the same vintage, managed to last the whole game.

Last week, Pedro scored the goal that gave Spain their vital 1-0 win in Paris, and David Silva scored for Manchester City in their home win over Newcastle. The Canary Islands continue to wield their influence. And, of course, next Sunday tiny Corralejo (population 14,000) take on Union Deportivo Telde from Gran Canaria (population 90,000) in a mid-table clash in Spain’s colourful and obscure Division Three, Group 12.

I’ll be back in San Sebastián, but Jorge will be there, and perhaps another 500 hardy souls, baking in the sun on the open terracing. It’s always worth remembering that – without these games, these places, and folks like Jorge – the professional game would collapse in on itself and cease to exist in its present form. That’s why I always stop and have a nosey, to remember the roots. Sometimes, the fruit at the top of the tree gets a bit too heavy.

Phil Ball, April 1 , 2013

Catalan Summit

I was at the ‘Derbi Catalan’ on Saturday night – at Espanyol’s ground up on the top of the Montjuic hill overlooking the north side of Barcelona.  The Catalan press had been drumming the game up all week, and were really going for it by the Friday, describing the game as potentially the most evenly-contested in the recent history of the encounters.  Poorer neighbours Espanyol, after struggling for most of last season, have started reasonably well, and although their ten points from six games was overshadowed by Barça’s sixteen, you got the point.  The programme printed for the game pushed the same point, that it was ‘El derbi més igualtat de les darreres temporades’ – which I presume means something like ‘The most even derby in recent seasons’.  The folks in Barcelona labour under the curious belief that everyone understands their language – an almost endearing habit that has at least ensured the development and current healthy state of Catalan.  Whatever – they certainly know how to put on a show.  Walking up in the dark from the Plaça España towards the Olympic Stadium on the hill, there was an absolute bedlam of lights and music as the city celebrated the 75th anniversary of the  Montjuic fountain.  Coloured cascades spewed and frothed up into the night, classical music pounded out into the air and blue laser lights cut pathways into the black sky above the Palau Nacional.  Folks waved sparklers and swayed along to the music, as if oblivious to the fact that 300 feet further up the ascent a football crowd was also gathering.


The Estadi Olimpic was actually built back in 1936 for an alternative Olympics to the notorious one being held over in Berlin, and was redeveloped for the 1992 event.   It may not be a great football stadium, but since Espanyol decided to make it their temporary home after the Sarrià finally closed they can boast probably the most stunning setting of any football ground in Europe.  Problem is that you can easily get caught out up there, on a night match.  The game started at 10 p.m., and although the day had been warm in the city, by the end of the game, as the midnight chimes drew near, my thin jacket was being cut to shreds by the piercing night winds that were howling around the top of the shallow-sided Olympic bowl.

The Estadi Olímpic (in the daytime)

The other problem had occurred earlier on, during the climb up to the stadium.  As you get higher and higher, past the Miró, past the Palace, past several more wonderful fountains, the elevators take you onto an ever narrowing path that leads you through the woods up to the summit.  At a small bar on a bend of this path, a group of Espanyol fans were sitting, watching carefully for any Barça fans unwise enough to go to the game.  It reminded me of that series of Cath Tate postcards in which aliens, having visited Earth, swap observations with each other regarding their experiences.  In one of my favourites, two aliens hover above our planet, one of them having just made a visit.  One of them asks, ‘Well – intelligent life or not?’, to which the other replies ‘Those with brains seem ok.  Those with testicles I’m not too sure about….’.   Watching the group of Espanyol fans mercilessly abuse any Barcelona fan who walked peacefully past was enough to make one ashamed of being male.  Nibbling on a cheese and ham sandwich and sipping a beer to one side, I watched while kids as young as nine or ten, hand in hand with dad, were subjected to some really nasty stuff.  Amusingly, after some twenty minutes of this spectacle, two enormous skinheads out of your worst nightmares emerged onto the path, Barça scarves dangling conspicuously from their bomber-jacketed sleeves.  The group of Espanyol fans went mysteriously silent, and failed to utter another word until the two chaps had waddled out of sight.  Ah Brave New World, that hath such people in it!

Deco. Remember him?

Enough.  Onto the game.  Barça won 1-0, courtesy of a weird but spectacular early strike from the excellent Deco, and Espanyol were truly awful.  Tamudo looked traumatised by his experience in Lithuania in midweek, De la Peña was well shackled by Marquez, and there was precious little threat from anyone else.  It still seems odd to watch De La Peña play against Barça, the team in which he rose so spectacularly to prominence, but Xavi Hernandez is a worthy successor.  Whilst everyone else strolled around indifferently, Xavi always looked purposeful – turning the direction of the play in an instant, and always looking neat and tidy in his distribution.  He’s taken a while to develop, but he suddenly looks the most accomplished of Spain’s midfielders.

As a spectacle, any atmosphere there might have been was killed off by the sheer open magnitude of the stadium, its gently curving walls panning back out into the night and allowing the noise to float away, muffled up into the huge black sky above.  Try as it might, the place just doesn’t look right for a football match.  The dark perimeter track cuts the players off from the stands, so that from the top of the bowl they look like subbuteo players on a dining table.  When Deco scored, no-one seemed to notice at first.  The action seemed so far away, in some other space-time continuum, that there was a mysterious gap in time between the ball hitting the net and the gradual grumbling and groaning that bubbled up from the home spectators.  The stadium was only two-thirds full at most, and as derbies go in Spain, the atmosphere in no way compares with the anarchic madness of Seville v Betis, the Real Madrid v Atlético matches, even the Galician encounters.  Most Barça fans had stayed at home to watch the game on TV, fearful, one suspects, of the hardcore Brigadas Blanquiazules fans who do not have the friendliest of reputations.

The relationship between the two sets of fans is a complicated one, and is not easy to explain unless you live in the community.  Espanyol (or Español as it was spelt up to 1994) were founded exactly a year after their more illustrious neighbours, and have only been out of the top flight for four seasons since 1928 when the professional league began.  For a team on their more limited resources and much smaller fan base, that represents a considerable achievement.  They’ve had their moments, winning the first King’s Cup of the professional era in 1929, winning it again in the millennium season with a UEFA Cup final appearance in 1988 sandwiched in-between.  But in purely sporting terms, they’ve never been really rated as a rival to Barça – who of course have always been more focused on their dog-eat-dog affair with Real Madrid.  The name ‘Español’ is obvious in its cultural and political connotations, in the city that is the flagship for all things Catalan.  In terms of being provocative, it’s a bit like naming a team ‘Orange United’ to play in the local Dublin league.  The usual notion that the team was founded to attract the working-class immigrant vote in the city is not strictly true, since the founding member was the son of the University rector, and anyway, immigrants to the city have always found identification with Barça the more logically integrating move –  but it is nevertheless true that the club eventually attracted a right-wing element in Catalan circles that simply didn’t buy into the ‘Catalanista’ credo.  But it’s a tricky one.  Espanyol fans emphasise the fact that they too, are Catalans – but with a different interpretation of what that means.  It certainly makes for a fascinating mix, but the atmosphere at the derby was slightly edgy, as if it was desperately looking for a fight.  But over what I’m not sure.

In terms of the football, Barça were massively superior.  They suddenly look solid at the back again, and even with several players out injured, the midfield is a neat and threatening collective.  Unless they suffer a big drop in form or confidence, they could go all the way.    It looked like an evenly-contested derby before the kick-off, but ninety minutes later reality had kicked in.  Espanyol are scheduled to move into a new home in the 2005-2006 season, down in the suburbs of Cornella.  They’ll be hoping it can give them back some atmosphere and identity, as in the good old days of Sarrià.  Meanwhile, the season ahead looks like being another struggle, made even worse by their neighbour’s recovery.

Messi replaces Deco, October 2004.  English writer up in the stands behind doesn’t even notice.  16 years later, digital means permit the insertion of this photo into the original article….

Phil Ball, October 2004

A Rayo of Hope

As you trudge gamely up the gradual slope of Albuferas in the district of Vallecas, past chain shops, cheap shops, cell-phone accessory shops, boarded-up shops, gaming parlours and dozens of small bars and cafes, you pick up that narrower sense of what it really feels like to live in a capital city – in this case Madrid – as opposed to simply imagining from the outside that everything is the Castellana, or Sol, or the Parque del Retiro. Vallecas used to be a town, but is now an official district in the south of Madrid, with around 300,000 inhabitants.  Nevertheless, there’s an immediate and messy sense of community, something in the sticky autumn air that suggests that the place has its own identity.  It’s late afternoon, everyone and his grandmother is out, and everything seems to be pointing to the top of Albuferas where Rayo Vallecano’s little stadium is alleged to be.  I’ve walked up from my hotel on Avenida de Barcelona – a strange-sounding street in this district, and everyone I’ve asked has insisted that it really is there.


Well, I know it’s there, of course – in this age of Google Maps and digital paraphernalia, but I’ve deliberately been asking for directions in order to sniff out the attitude of the community towards its team.  It always works, and here, in this unpretentious, multicultural and obviously working-class neighbourhood, the people I ask are all keen to help.  ‘Just keep going and you can’t miss it!’ an elderly couple enthuse, in stereo.  ‘We’re not going today because we’ve just been to a wedding!’ the wife adds, as if this is vital information.  ‘Ah!  Congratulations on tying the knot at last’ I quip, at which the tiny bow-legged husband, who has seen better days, lets out a spittle-infused guffaw.  ‘Muy bueno!’ (good one!) he cackles, and points me to the pilgrimage-site at the top of the hill.

The higher up the avenue I get, the more the strewn street cafes contain Rayo fans, with their distinctive white shirt and its thick red diagonal stripe, placed onto a previously white shirt in 1950 in homage to River Plate.  Some fans wear the posher-looking away strip, with its black background, but everyone wears the kit, in some shape or form. Fans of Real Sociedad, today’s visitors, wear blue and white stripes and mingle into the thicker mass of people who are gathered up at the traffic lights where the avenue narrows and the squat little walls of the stadium at last come into view.  The Estadio Teresa Rivero, named after the wife of the ex-president and cartoon-like villain Ruiz Mateos, is something of a legend among La Liga’s more appreciative band of ground-hoppers, and it is to my eternal regret that the place has somehow managed to ignore my own advances, after all these years of wandering around Spain in search of football’s holy grail.  My only excuse is that the schedules have never coincided, the runes have always failed to show.  It’s just one of those things, but today I‘ve nipped down on a quick flight from San Sebastián, sacrificing my own son’s game against Barakaldo to finally attend the legendary Rayo Vallecano gig.

I stop at the lights and look across. The east side of the stadium seems indistinct from the tight urban sprawl that surrounds it, like a semi-natural phenomenon that has grown up through the cracks in the road.  Chaos presides.  There are souvenir stalls, sweet stalls, vans selling churros, and higgledy-piggledy queues of folks waiting to get in.  I squeeze through the masses and enter the official shop to buy a club ‘monedero’ (wallet) for my son but devastatingly, the woman at the counter informs me that there has never been a Rayo wallet.  They have key-rings, mugs and what looks like a Che Guevara hat with a club badge on it, but no wallets.  I express my disappointment as my WhatsApp chirrups that the Barakaldo match back home has finished 0-0.

Excuse me for writing this phrase before, but the greatest moment for any football nerd is the moment when you finally emerge into the noise and colour of an unknown sporting arena.  And despite the creeping standardisation of the football experience, no stadium is ever remotely the same.  The second you emerge into Rayo’s peculiar arena, you’re getting the latest snapshot of 87 years of a particular neighbourhood’s emotional repository.  The ground is famously three-sided, with the southern goal simply a white wall, behind which two apartment blocks stand with the best views in town.  As I take in the initial scene, I can see that several of the apartments’ windows are open, and that the folks inside are settling down for the game.  The absence of Canal Plus satellite dishes on the building is therefore significant.

tower block

My ticket says Row 4 Seat 20, but when I reach my place an entire family, clad in Rayo’s colours, is already installed there, all nibbling furiously on pipas (sunflower seeds) and smoking like industrial chimneys.  I indicate to the youngish mother that someone is in my place, but far from this causing a problem she immediately apologises and offers up her little daughter in a sort of sacrifice.  ‘You – out of there now!’ she chivvies the young girl, but I protest that it isn’t necessary, and that I can sit next to her (the mother) in the free seat that ends the row.  ‘Sure – fine’, the woman  nods, approving of this solution.  ‘Nobody ever sits there anyway’ and I settle down on the margins, as the new member of the family.

The low angle of the late afternoon sun stains the pitch with shadows, and it’s quite difficult not to squint, but the stadium seems tightly-packed and straining at the leash. The away supporters, in surprisingly large numbers considering that Real Sociedad played in Leverkusen in the Champions League three days previously, are over to my left, but over to the right, behind the goal where the Rayo Ultras gather, there appear to be no seats at all, an illusion created by the fact that the occupants of this famous section prefer to stand.  Dotted amongst them there are Real Sociedad supporters.  Here the Basques are made welcome, unlike some other grounds in Spain.

The place holds 14,000, and although there are only some 10,000 inside, it feels packed and noisy, as if it were a major social event.  Rayo were great last year, and almost made it into Europe, but this season, saddled by La Liga’s smallest annual budget of 7 million euros (which is half of Cristiano Ronaldo’s salary) and the usual book-balancing exodus of players (Leo Baptistao to Atlético, Javi Fuego to Valencia, Piti to Granada, José Casado to Malaga, Jordi Figueras to Betis and Jordi Amat to Swansea) the team lies bottom of the table, with three points from seven games – and those points coming from a 3-0 win against Elche on the opening day.  Amazingly, coach Paco Jemez took Rayo to 3rd in the European league table of ball possession last season (58 percent average), surpassed only by Bayern and Barcelona.  Now his new team is having difficulties settling down, but you wouldn’t know that there was any problem, once the game gets under way.  The fans’ identification with the team is total, and my adopted family hollers with excitement every time Rayo pass the half-way line. This is quite often, of course, because although it may be an optical illusion, the pitch seems tiny and Real Sociedad are having difficulties coping with it.  Preferring a high-line pressing midfield, the twin pivots are simply not in the game, annulled by Rayo’s defenders’ ability to knock longish balls into the limited space behind the centre-backs, eliminating any fussy midfield stuff.  It takes Sociedad’s technically more gifted players about 20 minutes, but then they work it out and begin to look the better side.

On 24 minutes the ‘Bukanero’ contingent of the Rayo fans behind the goal begin to bounce and chant, and basically continue until the end of the game. The noise is deafening, coming from such a relatively small bunch. The previous 23 minutes of silence is in protest at the Spanish federation’s timetabling of certain games at 23.00 hours, which included the Rayo v Levante game earlier this season.  The Bukaneros are a bit different, ‘ultras’ whose founding principles are ‘In defence of our team, our neighbourhood and always free from racism and fascism, values which we will never represent’.  The Rayo fans in general are seen as left-leaning, in contrast to some of the more thuggish far-right elements at Atlético, and the prawn-sandwich set at the Bernabéu.  The anarchist-vegan ska band (how’s that for a truck-load of principles?) from the 1990s known as ‘Ska-P’ were popular in Spain and of course supported Rayo, penning a popular song about them entitled ‘Como un rayo’ (Like a lightning flash).


As the game trundles on, Real’s Imanol Agirretxe inexplicably heads the ball over the Bukanero crossbar when it was far easier to score, and my family collectively slump into their seats with relief.  ‘Lucky for you he’s rubbish today!’ I offer, like some vicar offering a calming cup of tea.  The mum laughs, exploding a cloud of smoke from her lungs into my eyes.  ‘So you’re supporting them eh?’ she says, winking.  ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone!’  But there is no threat, no suggestion of potential violence anywhere.  For example, a youth to my right is frothing with testosterone, and when Carlos Vela goes down rather too easily under a challenge, the youth springs up and shouts ‘Venga maricon!’ (Get up you poofter!), upon which his father calmly intercedes.  ‘Don’t say that’ he advises.  ‘You don’t say that kind of thing anymore at matches, and besides, you might hurt the player’s feelings.  He might be gay’, he says, all in a measured schoolmaster tone. He says this in front of his hairy working-class mates, as if such discourse were perfectly normal in such a context. I want to add that Vela is not gay, but decide to stay out of the conversation.  The boy mutters ‘cojones’ (bollocks) under his breath, but it’s an interesting moment.

To cut to the chase, Sociedad or Agirretxe) spurn a host of chances and then Rayo get themselves a penalty, in the 88th minute, when Jonathan Viera goes down under a challenge from keeper Claudio Bravo.  Under the shadow of the Bukaneros, the referee decides not to risk anarchist revolution and points to the spot.  My family (and the rest of the Rayo-clad stadium) go completely wild.  ‘Calm down’ I joke.  ‘You haven’t scored yet’.  At this, the mother lets go another smoke-fuelled gem that basically sums up the whole Rayo thing. ‘I know!’ she screams above the din. ‘That’s why we’re celebrating now.  He’ll probably miss!’


But he doesn’t miss, and the folks go home happy. For once, I don’t mind that my team has lost.  Walking down Albuferas with the crowd, I get into conversation with three Madrid-living Brits, who all profess themselves die-hard Rayo fans.  One of them (a Blackburn fan) offers his own simple conclusion. ‘It’s a real football stadium, a place where the cameras would prefer not to go.  But once you’ve been there, why the hell would you ever want to go to the Bernabéu?’   Why indeed?

Phil Ball