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Senin, 07 Maret 2011

A busy week

It's been a tireless week of football, with a full midweek programme having been played, and two of the three Spanish sides (Valencia and Barcelona) playing for their lives in the Champions League this coming week. The sofa is likely to stay warm. Besides, there has been incident a-plenty occurring off-stage too, which I'll try to shed some light on during proceedings.
Real Madrid's 7-0 win over Malaga in midweek resembled a quiet training session at the end of the season, just before the players go on holiday. Malaga's resistance was low, but mysteriously there was no complaining from Pep Guardiola that Madrid get it easy (cue the famous accusations from Madrid that Sporting had gone easy on Barcelona). Besides, certain sections of the Madrid-based media were too busy rubbing Manuel Pellegrini's nose into the dirt, after they had accused him pre-match of 'arrogance'.
Well - the Chilean may be many things, but he ain't arrogant. He was simply making a point to the gathered press hounds before the game that under him, Madrid had accumulated a record number of points. He was not suggesting that he was either better or worse than Mourinho, but the vicious campaign started against him last season continues, laughing at his plight as Malaga struggle at the foot of the table and mocking him post-match with 'Record? Sure! The most goals Malaga have ever conceded in the Bernabeu'.
As you may be aware, Pellegrini was made uncomfortable from the beginning because the Madrid-based hounds wanted Mourinho. They wanted him because of his alleged anti-Barcelona stance, but mainly for his well-earned reputation for sound-bites. They also wanted Madrid to be the cock of the walk again, the headline makers. Pellegrini was un triste (a saddo), a gentleman yes, but sin cojones (no balls). So they smeared him and attacked him on a weekly basis come rain or shine, and the rectors of the club followed their lead and appointed the Special One in summer.
The Mourinho acolytes have so far played the game with their crooked bats and stuck to their story, and anyway, Madrid have improved a little. They've reached the Copa del Rey final, their football is more consistent, they are in with a decent shout of further progress in the Champions League, but as with last season, the only fly in the ointment remains the Barcelona factor, which has not changed one iota. What has changed is the press' relationship with Real Madrid.
Suddenly, those who were a party to Mourinho's appointment are beginning to measure their words more carefully from their poisoned keyboards. The discovery this last week of the fact that one of Real Madrid's travelling 'security personnel' (aka bodyguards) was stabbed in the crowd as the squad came out of the airport - and that he had been just in front of Mourinho at the time, has led to a feeling that the Portuguese coach's penchant for fanning the flames beyond boiling point is becoming detrimental to the club, both for their image and for the potential problems it may yet cause in the near future - as if the weekly provocations of the press, the Spanish RFEF, the referees, Spanish culture, Jorge Valdano and several communities were actually turning into a problem for which victories on the pitch might not ultimately compensate.
Mourinho is an intelligent and at times amusing speaker, and his complaints about various aspects of the running of La Liga are worth taking note of, but as the Spanish put it so beautifully, se ha pasado tres pueblos (passed through three towns - 'gone too far'). And talking of pueblos, the latest to feel the Special One's contempt has been Malaga, a team that Mourinho apparently would not consider coaching if he were one day to be sacked by Madrid - a statement used to rebut Pellegrini's apparent insistence that he had done a better job by this stage last season.
Malaga (the pueblo) reacted with frothing indignation, whilst the implication that Pellegrini had been trying to get one over on Mou had been invented by the papers anyway. What a mess - which concluded in Malaga's mayor Francisco de la Torre accusing Real Madrid's coach of the ultimate sin, una falta de respeto (a lack of respect) and then coming out - seemingly without irony - with the wonderful phrase, Es un payaso y un mal educado (he's a clown with no manners). None of which helped his team to avoid the dubious distinction of being the first to lose at home to Osasuna since the Neolithic Period, or more accurately 21 matches. The new manager effect continues to pay dividends up in Navarre.
Returning to Madrid, the problem is that they have for decades hidden behind the self-proclaimed view of themselves as un club señorial. It's a slightly snobbish idea, and it appeals to the traditional concept of Spanish manners and public dignity, a necessary virtue of its aristocracy and a mirror held up to the bourgeoisie, a class that arrived later in Spain than in many other European countries. Real Madrid still like to portray themselves as the aristos, the exemplars at the centre of the state. Their personnel make you very aware of this when you deal with them. And of course, Pellegrini was the right choice in this sense.
Florentino Perez saw him as a conduit through which to restore some dignity to the institution, after so much presidential controversy (in the post-Perez interregnum), and so much conflict. And now he has to double the goons, so that his manager does not get attacked. He has to attempt to somehow re-establish a working relationship between his right-hand man Valdano and Mourinho, whilst all the while isolating the latter further and offering no verbal support for him. Mourinho's paranoid insistence - for example, that the referees and the RFEF are against the club, because the one is easier on the Catalans with the cards and the other give them less recovery time than Barcelona after European action - does not really stand up to factual analysis. Something seems to have snapped, and it suddenly looks as though Mourinho's support structure is crumbling.
Even Marca, his principal champion and proto-employer, are beginning to turn. No-one is bigger than the club. This truth impales its logic in the end. Unless Mou gets a trophy this season, or reins things in, the unthinkable might happen. He could always go to Grimsby. They're managerless at the moment and would surely keep the seat warm for him.
Soccernet"Without foreigners we might not be the best, but we're still lions"
What has been happening elsewhere? Well, I was in the fabled Lezama on Saturday, to watch a fantastic Athletic Bilbao youth side beat my son's team 3-1 in a keenly-contested game. In the bar at half-time I took time out to read the various posters and witticisms hanging on the walls. One read Fumar es malo, pero ser del Real Madrid es peor (Smoking's bad for you, but supporting Real Madrid is far worse). That's pretty good, but the poster that proclaimed 'Without foreigners we might not be the best, but we're still lions' fell somewhat flatter. This is because the other big news of the week concerned the fact that for the first time in 113 years, Athletic had sent out a team (at Zaragoza) without a single Vizcayan player in the starting ranks. Much is made of their Basque-only policy, which is stretching things a bit anyway - but now they have put out a side with no players from the region of which they are the capital. It rings rather hollow. Lezama, Bilbao's version of La Masia, has a philosophy and a history that deserves respect, and the U-16 side I watched on Saturday augurs well for the club's future (there were eight Vizcayans in the starting eleven), but it is worth remembering that the two clubs in La Liga who field the most local players are Espanyol and Real Sociedad. And the latter would field even more if Athletic hadn't nicked half a dozen of them over recent years.
Real Madrid also played without Cristiano Ronaldo for the first time this season in the league and won 3-1 in some style at Racing Santander. Do they play better without him? It might be a little reckless to say so, but as ever, when the star is away, the mice come out to play, and take more responsibility. Karim Benema (two goals) looks a new man, and Ozil was inspired. Even Sergio Canales got a game (in the second half), but that just looked like Mourinho wanting to stir things again. The young star's ex-fans whistled and applauded in what sounded like equal measure, but the lad looked uncomfortable.
Also looking uncomfortable - although he was trying hard not to show it - was Ali Syed, resplendent with his green club scarf and his little dance to the side of guest president Florentino, just before hostilities began. Ali must have been aware of the intense media scrutiny of his business affairs, at least from abroad.
Australia's largest land developer, Keith Johnson, has been very outspoken about his dealings with Syed's capital loans firm, Western Gulf Advisory, in the Sydney Morning Herald. Yet despite this media attention, the Spanish press, and particularly the Cantabrians, have not delved into Syed's businesses. Johnson's decision to go public in Australia, means that Syed is firmly under the spotlight and has questions to answer. It's a headache Racing can do without, just when they thought they had found their saviour.
However it turns out, the RFEF must look at the wider picture and bring in a policy of screening, as did the English FA in the wake of the Notts County scandal. La Liga is in a parlous enough state, financially speaking, without people simply walking in and helping themselves to a slice of the fiscal pie.

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