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.

montaje-de-ronaldo-nazario--real-madrid--y-djalminha--deportivo---montaje-realmadrid-efe
The other Ronaldo (left).  Remember him?

A minute later, Ronaldo received a simpler ball in from Beckham, and with a sudden change of body language, from ‘Who cares?’ to ‘I’m still world class, watch this’, the Brazilian proceeded to take on the entire Deportivo defence, shimmying this way, feinting that way, steppin’ over, steppin’ under – the whole repertoire in a two-second burst.  Just as he framed to shoot, Coloccini got back and made a desperate tackle, pooping the party and spoiling the potential goal of the season.

But the crowd rose in appreciation.  It reminded you suddenly of the truth, of the facts that can be so easily obscured by temporary circumstance.  Ronaldo’s got a big belly, he was awful against Arsenal, he said some dumb things beforehand, he’s been awful for most of the season, he wants away…etc.  But for one sublime moment, the Brazilian, piqued by the boos, suddenly remembered what it was to be the best forward in the world – Henry who?   The Bernabéu remembered as well.

Funny lot, the Madridistas.  It was as if they were dying to forgive Ronaldo, like a parent who has been temporarily shocked into disliking his own child.  The tension lasts for so long, but you come back round in the end – you need to make up.  It’s so much better that way, in the last resort, when all the recrimination has died down.  It’s a while since I’ve been to the Bernabow, but every time I’ve been I’ve been struck by the same sensation – that the hardcore there knows its football.  They seem to have an uncanny ability to judge a player’s strengths and weaknesses.  And they know, for all Ronaldo’s inconsistency and refuelling habits, for all the daft things he has said to the press over the years, that he’s basically been the Number One, and that he can still do the business, given a fit of pique and a reasonably generous defence such as Deportivo’s.

santiago-bernabeu
Bernabeu residents – keen students of the game

After 78 minutes with his team 3-0 up, manager López Caro cleverly substitutes him for Cassano, thereby gauging to what extent the home crowd has forgiven.  Judging by the applause, the forgiveness is total.  Whether or not it is unconditional might depend on what happens in the Camp Nou on Saturday night – for hope springs eternal in the breast, of those obsessed with title quest.  Barça, resting their main men for the tie against Benfica this week, put out a weakened side at Málaga and drew 0-0 (albeit having a goal controversially disallowed).  If Real Madrid were to do the improbable and win in Barcelona, they might be able to start dreaming legitimately of pegging back the eight points that would then separate the two sides.  If Barça win, well….thank-you and goodnight.

I was actually high up in the gods in the press box for the game, a wonderfully giddy view from up in the high peaks, looking down almost vertically onto the early spring beige of the Bernabow pitch far below.  I was accompanying the excellent Drew Carey, an American writer, actor and comedian who was in Spain to film the week’s build-up to this week’s ‘clásico’ in Barcelona.  Travelling down to meet him on the Saturday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and was worried that I might have to politely explain that there was in fact no tradition of cheerleaders or of ‘time-out’ in Spanish ‘soccer’, but my hard-core English football snobbery was well wide of the mark, for he turned out to be most knowledgeable of the game.  Not only that, his ‘outsider’s’ view turned up some real gems – some of which could never occur to the more tired European eye.

 

An hour before the game, with Carey and his camera crew outside the bustling ground, an American tourist had walked up with a mock stagger and greeted the comedian with  ‘Man!  I cannot believe it!  Fucking Drew Carey….maaaan….this is the greatest day of my life!  What are you doing here? Maaaaan – wait till I tell my friends!  You are my HERO! Can I have a photo?’ to which Carey replied ‘sure’ in his reassuringly affable manner. Up to that point, I’d not quite realised how famous he was.  The tourist was clearly stunned.

When he finally floated off in a star-struck daze, Carey suddenly turned panicky. ‘Phil!’ he stammered.  ‘How do I get the other guys from the camera team (the ones who did not have press permission) into the match?  It’s not fair. Can we buy tickets?’ I assured him that we could, and that I could buy them around the corner, from the ‘taquilla’.  Buoyed by this information, Carey dug into his pockets and pulled out an alarming wad of euros, which he proceeded to stick in my shirt pocket.  ‘I’ve no fucking idea how much it costs!’ he shouted.  ‘Is 1,000 euros enough for the three guys?’  I assured him that it was more than enough, but when I tried to return him a wedge of the notes he refused, issuing his time-honoured phrase ‘whatever-the-fuck’.

drew
Drew Carey.  Whatever the f***!

When I returned with the three tickets (purchased for less than 200) he greeted me as if I were a magician. ‘Phil!  You’re a genius man! In the States, this could not have happened.  I love this country!’ he hollered, jumping up and down with child-like enthusiasm, rebutting my attempts to return him the change.  ‘Change?  You got change?  What is this place?  Paradise?’

On the previous afternoon, theatrically emerging from the sacred sanctuary of the dressing-rooms into the blazing light of the Bernabéu – the ‘Hala Madrid’ anthem echoing around the empty stadium – we’d scurried along the cinder track and ducked under the perspex roof of the ‘banquillo’ (bench), onto whose blue padded mock-leather many more famous arses have descended.  Well, more famous than mine anyway.  Drew Carey sat back and stretched out his legs.  ‘Man this is the life.  This is so comfortable. I cannot believe this.  This is Business Class!’   I sat back and dreamed I was the young Raúl, about to go out there and make my home debut, against Atlético Madrid.  But I couldn’t move, sunk down into the leather, awaiting the smiling hostess and the complimentary drinks. Drew launched into a rant:

‘This is why they’ve gone down the tubes.  It’s obvious.  This would never happen in the States.  Doesn’t matter how much you’re earning in baseball or American football, you sit your ass down on a hard wooden bench.’  ‘It’s kind of symbolic, I offered.’  Drew’s point was a good one, as was the further suggestion that if he were the president, the first thing he would do would be to restore the wooden benches and bring back some sort of authenticity to the whole scene.  It seemed a fair point.  How anybody could prepare for a game in such a pampered environment seemed hard to fathom.

benches
Business Class for the subs

But joking aside, the tension between Real Madrid as an institution, as a concept – and Real Madrid as just eleven players out on a football pitch, seems forever on the agenda as you make your way around the gleaming stadium, then on through the newly-furbished museum with its pompous self-glorification and the shameless statistical barrage of its historical greatness.  Look on my Works, Ye Mighty, and despair – it seems to say.  Don’t let the three years without a trophy fool you just yet, the display implies.  And indeed, watching the team strut their stuff on Sunday, relatively unmolested by anything resembling a real challenge by a curiously muted Deportivo, you could see that the galáctico idea wasn’t necessarily a bad one, and that the Beckhams, Ronaldos, Zidanes and company, shorn for a while of all the circus that surrounds them, are in fact not marketing puppets at all, but wonderful footballers, capable of things that it is truly a privilege to witness at close quarters, given the occasional chance.

galacticos
Galactic ball-protection

As Van Morrison wisely remarked. ‘Why can’t it always be like this?’  That’s not an easy one to answer.   It was also a privilege to be with Carey at close quarters, as he turned out to be a genuinely funny and humane guy.  I wasn’t expecting him to be. Indeed, as he invited me to the clásico for the coming weekend, I politely declined, informing him that I would be working in Berlin.  ‘Berlin?  Fuck Berlin!’ he insisted.  ‘Come on man – we’ll have a great time!’  But I knew that it was better to cut it there and then. We stayed vaguely in touch and he e-mailed me that he’d read one of my books, but super-famous folks have lots of fish to fry.  I didn’t expect to stay best buddies forever.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Seattle Sounders
Drew Carey – back home

And that following Saturday night – I hope he caught a glimpse of the bench at the Camp Nou.  Business or Tourist Class?  It might have made all the difference.

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.

DSC_3251

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.

DSC_3260

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.”

DSC_3267
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.”

DSC_3262
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.

Jonathan-Sesma
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!”

Athletic5
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.

DSC_3276

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.

mnac-barcelona-0809
Montjüic

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.

pista-central
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!

process
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
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.

662x372a_23171116tienda-online

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).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHeW2kBaFIs

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!’

Rayo

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 

Chaos reigns

Do you think we’ve had enough upsets already? Well, my money is on two more this weekend. Yes, Real Madrid and Barcelona won’t win their matches. Even in that case, with subversion and chaos taking over LaLiga, they may not lose the first two spots. Should be an extremely entertaining weekend.

Shall we? Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win. Continue reading “Chaos reigns”

Messi records another record

Let’s talk about Barça and Madrid eh?  Five games gone, and by next weekend that’ll be seven (there’s a full programme during the coming week), so how are the big boys doing?  Maybe before we consider the question, it’s worth mentioning the fact that Messi’s performance against Girona, in which he scored (of course), was his 423rd league game for Barcelona which surpassed his ex-teammate Dani Alves’ total – handing him yet another record – this time for the most league appearances by a foreign player in the history of Spanish football.  He’s played 644 for Barcelona’s first team in total, but it’s the league figure which is significant for the statistician anoraks.  Continue reading “Messi records another record”

The Hamburger Chronicles

One of life’s great dilemmas is when you travel to an away match and are unsure of where and when to eat.  In the south-west of Madrid on Friday night, in the town known as Leganés, I ask the stressed-out barman in ‘El Tiburon’ (The Shark) if we could partake of two hamburgers, the ‘Tiburón’ special and ‘El Clásico’, the latter’s ingredients seeming to have little connection to the famous game it appears to be named after, but then again the former is also struggling to justify itself, with a certain lack of shark-infested waters to the south-west of Madrid.  It’s 21.15 and the Leganés-Real Sociedad game starts in exactly an hour, about ten minutes’ walk from the Shark.  The pallid old barman shakes his head; ‘It’ll take a while’ he says, nodding his head sideways to the kitchen, in which a lone frantic woman is cooking in a frenzy, as opposed to a frying pan. Continue reading “The Hamburger Chronicles”