Christmas Crackers – the View from Spain

So the apocalypse failed to show on cue. It has a habit of doing that. It was also supposed to take place on December 12 (12.12.12 and all that), but it finally made an appearance on the evening of December 22, when the backside of Saint Iker Casillas was announced by Chendo, an ex-player and now club delegate, as the new occupant of the Real Madrid bench for the game in La Rosaleda, Malaga. Reserve goalie Antonio Adán – ‘Adam’ in English – was there at the beginning, and thus it shall be at the end. The runes have spoken.

 The collective intake of breath in the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal was involved in the decision too) caused a drop in oxygen levels hitherto unmeasured by science, and the media fuss caused by José Mourinho’s little stunt will continue to affect the media’s Richter Scale for some time to come. It was almost as if Mourinho had decided to define his legacy on his own terms, as the man who will be remembered in Madrid for dropping Casillas, who is the latest in a longish line of Bernabéu untouchables who have served the club with distinction but who have also crossed the line when it comes to limiting their roles as player and captain.

There is always a player at Real Madrid who is considered to be the ‘symbol’ of its beating heart, the flag-bearer of madridismo and its symbolic partner españolismo. He is normally the captain, was probably, but not necessarily, born and raised in Madrid, and most important of all, he will have won the unconditional respect of the Bernabéu. They are never dropped, a theory to which Saint Iker’s ten-year run as first-choice goalkeeper attests. The Spanish use the word indiscutible (unquestioned), and this line of players stand, as it were, for the fixed traditions and standards of the institution, above and beyond its seasonal vicissitudes. Luck comes, luck goes. Barcelona triumph, the shadows lengthen in Madrid, then fade again. Presidents come and go, as indeed do managers rather more frequently, but these iconic players are a fixed value of calm above the chaos on the Stock Exchange floor.

Before Casillas there was Raúl, before Raúl there was Emilio Butragueño, Manuel Sanchis, José Antonio Camacho… the list fades back into Spain’s footballing history. Barcelona’s story is similar, but the club has been a tad more reluctant to put all its eggs in one basket and to trust the club’s destiny to a single player, at any moment of its history. This is part of Catalan seny (common sense), evident in the way that the community embraced Johan Cruyff but never quite trusted him, either as a player or a coach. The Catalans are wary of dictators. They’re more tolerant of them in Madrid.

But you never know. The Christmas break has a funny way of changing the horizon, depending on what is happening at any particular club. Málaga are an interesting example themselves. Fourth in the league but perfectly capable of climbing higher, still in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, handed the prestigious ‘Golden Boy’ prize adjudicated by Italy’s Tuttosport to the continent’s most promising young player in Isco (Messi, Fabregas, Rooney and Agüero are previous winners), everything would have been fine on the farm if it were not for the awkward little business of UEFA’s recent sanction, banning them from participation in Europe the next time they qualify within the next four seasons.

It may strengthen their resolve to win the Champions League this season (stranger things have happened – see Chelsea), but as far as Christmas goes, it’s like putting the turkey in the oven early morning and only discovering, eight hours later, that you forgot to turn it on.


Manuel Pellegrini

Málaga, in classic Spanish style, will challenge the decision, and although one could argue (and the Spanish have) that UEFA is making an example out of various lesser clubs – Málaga being one of six thus punished – it seems odd that a club with such easy-to-tap reserves has failed to avoid what it must have seen coming. One finds it difficult to believe that the Al-Thani family has a cash-flow problem, although you never know.

Málaga have gone overboard on the righteous indignation adjectives, calling UEFA’s decision “incomprehensible and abusive”, but their failure to pay a whole list of creditors (players included) by last week might also be seen as worthy of a few interesting adjectives. It is also true, nevertheless, that UEFA’s criteria for excluding clubs or withholding payments earned from previous competitions are somewhat muddy. But if you’ve got any nous at all, you keep the books clean. Real Madrid and Barcelona may indeed be massively in debt, but their creditors (the banks) will never call them in whilst their massive collateral in stadia and players stand as witness to their basic wealth. Málaga have an unfeasibly rich owner, but it ain’t quite the same. Rich owners disappear. Stadiums occupying vast tracts of valuable land do not.

Anyway, I’ll finish there. It’s Christmas, and La Liga takes a break until the first week of January, when I’ll be eyeing the Real Madrid v Real Sociedad fixture, although it’s being played a wee bit too late for me to catch a flight north, post-match. Any offers of a private jet gratefully received. I’ll also be at Fulham v Southampton on Boxing Day (December 26), but that’s a long story. Grimsby Town sit atop the Conference National in England, so all is basically well with the world. Happy New Year!

Read Phil Ball’s entire article here on soccernet.

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