If instincts do actually plead, then mine are pleading with me not to write this piece, but bollox to that. It’s been 9 years in the silent making, and on the eve of the World Cup in Doha that I allegedly kissed ass for in an (in)famous article for ESPN back in 2013, I thought I’d re-visit this dangerous ground – more aware now, of course, of the bilious nature of social media than I was back then. Better writers than me are still being lynched for attempting to say anything positive about the event, so I’d better mind my proverbials, but anyway….whether or not silence is more golden, here’s my little cliff-leap contribution.Continue reading “Wot – no beer? Give us a break.”
On March 20th, 1910, about 60 metres from the house where I now sit at my keyboard, Athletic Bilbao, sporting for the first time their iconic red and white stripes, defeated Vasconia (about to become Real Sociedad) 1-0 in what was essentially the final of the breakaway tournament UECF (Spanish Union of Football Clubs), now officially recognised in the history books. Remigio Iza scored the goal in the 56th minute and the ref (Lavat) had come from across the nearby French border to San Sebastián to officiate the tournament’s games. Madrid FC were the other side, and the next day they lost to Vasconia 2-0 in what was essentially a 2nd/3rd-place play-off.Continue reading “The 111-year delayed derby”
I’ve recently finished writing a kids’ novel, and during the process of coming up with the ‘elevator pitch’ (the blurb to convince the literary agent in less than 20 words) I’ve learned various things, the most important of which is that if you don’t have a simple story line with characters who have punchy kid-like features, you can’t write the pitch….and therefore your book probably sucks, or won’t sell.Continue reading “Literary pitches, football bitches”
Phil reviews what’s happened so far, with special focus on Real Sociedad
The international break is always a good time to take stock. You take off your mask, breathe in breathe out, then decide whether, nine games in, you’re up and running again with the current season and the state of your nation. Maybe this season there’s little choice, confined to barracks as we are, slowly getting used to turning off the pop-up ads on the footy-streaming site and assimilating the fact that Rakel, 22, whose arse has just appeared in the far north-eastern corner of your screen, does not actually live around the corner. It’s all part of the new reality of bums, buffering and empty terraces. Bring it on.Continue reading “The LaLiga show….so far”
I’ve been asked to write about Messy-gate but it seems to me that the situation hardly requires a profound analysis. But maybe that’s the point, because the behaviour of the Barcelona president and his diminishing band of acolytes is so bizarre that one can only rub one’s stubble in wonder. Is there any sense whatsoever in their ‘policy’, if such it can be labelled? Now the league’s got involved and sided with Barça. Conclusion? Read on. Continue reading “It’s getting messy”
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 ‘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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. Continue reading “The King’s Cup runneth over”
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”
’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.