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.

Blundell Park. Normal scenes.

This Saturday, as the pre-match hullabaloo played out in the kindlier surroundings of Real Sociedad’s newly packaged Reale Arena, I was moved to wonder how privileged I was to be in possession of a couple of member cards and the prospect of a game against Barcelona.  It’s been a long journey, for which one should always count one’s blessings.  Assuming that alien life does not bother with such daft stuff as football, the spectators attending were about to see the greatest player there has ever been in the known cosmos, plus a decent supporting cast as well.  Has the Lord looked down upon me in my dotage and decided that after the purgatory of Grimsby I deserved a bit of 5-star luxury?  I don’t know, but there are moments in life that sparkle gift-like, after you’ve climbed out of the rubble.  Where else was there to be, that Saturday afternoon?  What wonderful nonsense football is.

Apart from the great god Messi, in the ranks of the hosts dwelt the Nordic beast Odegaard, plus the local boy with the huge feet Mikel Oyarzabal – Pep Guardiola’s new fantasy boy, and much more besides.  A record crowd of 37,000 packed the rafters on a mild afternoon as the Basques, 4th in the table, put out a side whose average age was a mere 24, as compared to the longer teeth of the opposition (29).  But the beauty of the maths is that if you took out the ageing Nacho Monreal from the total, the home-side average dropped to around 12. Boys in short pants against hairy men.  What could possibly go wrong?

‘Bigfoot’ Mick Oyarzabal. Man City bound?

Hosanna in Excelsis! After some eleven minutes of home dominance, Busquets commits public assault on Diego Llorente, for which no VAR is required. Busquets complains, but Busquets always does.  It’s a Barça kind of thing, which is why Suarez signed for them. He feels at home there. Them against the world eh? Poor devils.  Bigfoot strokes home the penalty and it’s all to play for.

Busi assaults Llorente

Now you might like Barcelona or you might have your reservations about them as a club and an institution, but their one attractive constant is that they try to play football.  It’s generally brought them success, particularly after it ceased to be a punishable offence in Spain after 1975 – and for this one should be grateful. Real Sociedad also like to play open footy (although their title-winning side in the 1980s was made of less aesthetic stuff) and as the introduction implied, if you are brought up on English 4th Division fare, the meeting-point of these two sides, at this moment in time, is like moving from a dry-toast breakfast to a venison and wild-boar lunch – with all the trimmings.  Apologies to vegans.  It was splendid fare, despite the pony-tailed Griezmann returning home and spoiling the party as usual.  Is it just my eyesight, or has Griezmann got a huge bum?  I guess it helps him to balance.

Griezmann – good balance

Whatever, with new home sensation Ander Guevara pulling the strings in midfield as if he were touched by the muse of Xavi Hernandez, one could only gawp in wonder (at Guevara, not Griezmann).  Where do Real Sociedad keep finding these guys?  Some years ago, in the north of England, it was said that if you hollered down a mine-shaft, a burly centre-forward would pop out.  These days in the Basque Country, just wander along to any local school, holler into the playground and a whole host of midfielders will scurry to your beckoning. But anyway….perhaps we have arrived at the point where we have to talk about Martin.

Deciding to write about football confers a certain responsibility to be objective, but crucially it also requires a certain degree of restraint.  Of course, we have all lapsed, but not necessarily confessed our sins.  I once wrote on ESPN that Ruben Pardo was destined for greatness, but I should have exercised restraint.  Pardo wasn’t even on the bench on Saturday.  He still belongs to the squad, but as far as anyone knows he’d gone fishing.  Is one therefore entitled to get excited about Odegaard?  Oh yes.  It would be very odd indeed, 15 years on from this article, to re-read it and find that the whole Odegaard thing was but a false dawn.  At the moment, the only player in the European leagues who is close to Messi – or what Messi does – is this young man from Norway.  Real Madrid got it right, for once – although even then, it wasn’t entirely clear that they knew they’d got it right.  Well they do now.  What’s so special about this 20 year-old Viking?

Ring in the old, ring in the new?

The point about greatness, or potential greatness in football is actually very simple. The player destined to jostle for space on that all-time podium of ten, or fewer, must conform to the ‘he does nothing wrong’ label.  This doesn’t mean that they never misplace a pass or perhaps lose the ball occasionally but rather that everything they decide to do is correct. To jostle with the greats you have to consistently make the right decisions, or as Toshack once said ‘To know when to pass and to know when not to pass – that’s the hardest thing to teach’. Well sure – but Messi and Zidane never had much of a problem with that, which proves the pudding.  Watching Odegaard against Barça was also part of Saturday’s privilege because you knew that the home fans were watching a one-off event, a game where for some random reason they had been gifted the sight of this rare genius.  Indeed, he was more influential than Messi on the day, despite Messi’s assist to Suarez, and the blonde loanee has now earned the right to be branded with the epithet of greatness that only the Spanish language can confer. Lots of folk in San Sebastián keep asking me what I think of Odegaard, and I simply reply, ‘Es la hostia’. This refers literally to the Holy Host, but figuratively it means ‘He’s the dog’s bollocks’, or something a little more Anglo-Saxon in nature.  I reply to them with this phrase because I have heard the rest of them using it too. There is no greater praise possible in the Spanish language.

Saturday wasn’t his best match, but he was still good. As Valverde said, ‘He’s not a player you can track.  He’s unidentifiable’.  I like that, because that’s the problem you face with Messi.  Interestingly, Barça decided not to man-mark him, because they usually win the possession percentages, but on Saturday they didn’t (53% to Sociedad).  Real Sociedad’s midfield, still without Illarramendi, is a thing of beauty and wonder.  Odegaard, Merino and Guevara, or Zubeldia normally – the new Casemiro – is a fine mix.  When they threw on Januzaz and Barrenextea later on it just got ridiculous.  I felt sorry for Barça.  Busquets and Rakitic are looking like warmed-up fries.  De Jong? He’s okay, but he’s nowhere near Odegaard.

Odegaard has got the lot, as well as the Protestant work-ethic. There’s a bit of Laudrup in him, a bit of Riquelme – a mix of Europe and the Americas. He keeps it clean and he wants to be the best.  Well he almost is.  Like Messi, he has that ability to keep his body between the opponent and the ball in such a way that a whole army might track his progress as he runs horizontally across the pitch, only to be suckered by a sudden right-angle pass that only he saw hours ago. When he drops off to get the ball, you can see that he has the whole configuration worked out ahead of him.  As he moves forward, the configurations shift but he controls them entirely, as if the whole game is under his Nordic command.  A twenty-year old in charge?  It’s unreal. Only Getafe managed to stop him this season, by kicking lumps out of him, but that’s Getafe.  Forget them. They’ll be a distant memory when Odegaard is still talked about, 50 years from now, if we manage to survive.

He insists that he will see out the two seasons of his loan, but the way the Madrid press talk him up now, it’s difficult to see that happening.  In some ways it makes it better though, as if Real Sociedad’s fans know that they have to enjoy him now. Carpe diem and all that, or carpe tempus. Whatever, the game ended 2-2 after Piqué was wrestled expertly to the floor by Diego Llorente, with the clock ticking down.  Piqué did the Piqué-thing, laughing that ironic laugh as if to say ‘The world is against me, against Barça, and I’m right’.

Piqué.  Having a laugh.

Well, the VAR should certainly have intervened, but maybe they’d noticed that he’d pushed Llorente in the first place.  It was a great game. Let’s not get bogged down in silliness.  Real Sociedad were marginally the better side, and probably deserved to win.  Hey, but Valencia lent Barça a hand on Sunday.  The clásico looks interesting for Wednesday. One wonders how it will be next season if Odegaard is back in that fold.

Phil Ball

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.


The Long Read: The Rise and Fall of La Quinta del Buitre in Five Matches

It would not be stretching a point to say that the ‘Quinta del Buitre’ of the late eighties changed the face of Spanish football, planting the seeds of what was to come in the following decades. After a long spell in which hard work, courage and fighting spirit had become the arguably limited values of Spain’s approach to the beautiful game, four kids from Madrid and one from Huelva brought flair to the table, played as though no goal difference was big enough, won European competitions after years of drought and made many believe that the “Furia Española” tag had indeed become obsolete. Heck, even Pep Guardiola states that the Quinta was Real Madrid’s best version ever. Continue reading “The Long Read: The Rise and Fall of La Quinta del Buitre in Five Matches”

Decline and Fall

When I was writing ‘White Storm’ for Real Madrid’s centenary, a book commissioned by a British publisher and endorsed by the club as kosher, I got to meet various interesting people at planet Bernabéu. Some were more interesting than others – but that’s the nature of a multi-national enterprise, although it felt less like an impersonal leviathan back then in the early naughties. One of the most interesting (and remarkably open) folks I spoke to was Jorge Valdano.  Valdano wasn’t everyone’s cup of coffee back then, but as Director of Football he acted as a public buffer between the club’s supporters, the press and Florentino Pérez, then a relative newcomer to the presidential post but already beginning to put his ‘galácticos’ policy into action. José Angel Sánchez had been in his post as head of marketing for about two years, and was already Pérez’s most trusted lieutenant. Continue reading “Decline and Fall”