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Sep 24, 2012

Fight the good fight

In Eamon Dunphy's wonderful book 'Only a Game?' he narrates, in semi-diary style, the events of a season in the old English Second Division, warts and all. Loadsawarts. It's a carbuncular book. It was the first of its kind, but it remains the best, and it spawned a whole genre of inferior imitators.

At one point late in the book, Dunphy's career with Millwall is going down the tubes, because he's getting older and a younger midfielder is being preferred to him - among other reasons. Left out of the squad for the first time in years for a Saturday match, he stays at home and mopes on his sofa, switching on the old BBC sports programme Grandstand to watch the final scores. Millwall have lost at home, and he is exultant. He shakes his fist with glee in front of the TV, as if his team-mates' defeat were an endorsement of his own feeling that he is not finished yet, that he shouldn't have been dropped. And yet as an intelligent man he feels guilty. He knows he is supposed to ring them and sympathise - but he doesn't.

When I first read this book back in the 1980s, I was stunned by its brutal honesty. I couldn't put it down. It seemed as though the whole lid had been lifted on how pro footballers behaved and thought, as if up to that moment we had preferred to believe that they were really super-human beings, existing on a different level to us, with distinct emotions and a different mindset. And then Dunphy recounts how he celebrated his own team's defeat, and of course we could all identify with the dirty reality of his confession.

Playing team sport is both wonderful and painful. It's wonderful because of the companionship it provides, and the occasional moments of euphoria it yields, but it's painful in the constant pressure it exerts, and the fear of failure it induces. The moment you realise that the manager doesn't rate you - it can be a word or a glance, or the fact that he's stopped berating you in training (he doesn't care anymore), it's a terrible thing. And that kid who joined in the summer, whom you recognise in your heart of hearts to be better than you - he's taking over. You're on the way out, you're losing your mates, you're getting older.

They are not the only ones in Europe, but the Spanish press likes to see a bit of internecine warfare on the training ground or even better, out on the pitch. The recent nonsense about the sadness of Cristiano Ronaldo has been smoothed and massaged by the pro-Madrid elements of the Spanish press to such a remarkable extent as to almost take Spain back to the days of the documentary news programme 'El Nodo', used by Franco to keep the folks thinking that everything was just fine, and that Real Madrid really were super-humans.

And of course, the unexpected dropping of Sergio Ramos against Manchester City only fuelled these flames. Perhaps Ramos had spoken out of turn (wouldn't be the first time), or played badly in Seville (he played well, I thought). Again, the Madrid press were quick to print the 'Aqui no hay conflictos' headlines (here there are no conflicts), printing photos of a smiling Ramos on the training ground, and then, on Saturday, after Barcelona had struggled to a late 2-0 win over Granada in the Camp Nou, the papers and the Sunday highlight programmes were all focusing on a tiff between David Villa and Leo Messi, in which Messi appears to criticise his team-mate for not playing the ball back to him with a first-time pass. 'A la primera!' he scowls, prompting Villa to shout back that he was trying to do just that.

The intention is obvious here - an attempt to divert attention to Barcelona, to try to nurture a petri-dish of conflict where it doesn't really exist. Surely, players berate each other all the time? That certain programmes chose to suggest that Messi was really a bad-tempered little fellow (he shouted at Tello last season against Milan for not looking up and centring the ball to him) is clearly absurd.

Messi does appear to be a fairly calm chap most of the time, and it might be news if he gets cross, but when I played football, I loved it when there was a guy in the team who would shout and complain, just so long as he was fair, and just as long as he was good enough himself. It kept you on your toes. The best teams have always had a shouty guy, one to whom the rest deferred. Football is a canine world - it's very hierarchical. There's a certain way of behaving in a dressing-room, a certain way of talking, depending on where you are in the pecking order. If you ignore this, as some over-confident young players sometimes do, they are soon put in their place.

Indeed, Tito Vilanova shrugged off the inevitable questions in the post-Granada press conference, claiming that it was a healthy sign, and that top professionals will always demand the maximum from their team-mates. It was a good answer. Also, Barcelona weren't playing very well, Xavi was on the bench, Andres Iniesta was in the stands, and there was a little bit of tension floating about. Sounds fairly normal to me. It will take more than a little spat to destabilise Barca this season, you suspect. They aren't stuffing teams like last season, either on the domestic or the international front, but they are continuing to win. Glass half empty or half full? Your answer will be conditioned by your preferences, and possibly by where you live.

It is true, however, that factions can exist among large squads of players, and that this can affect on-field performances, with players convinced that others never pass to them, because they only play ball with their mates. Kevin Keegan famously remarked that when he joined Hamburg, none of the players passed to him for the first month, making his baptism intolerable. Then he did a press conference, and tried to do it in German. So impressed were his team-mates that they gave him the ball next game, and he never looked back. All these dumb little tensions are an integral part of the game (as Dunphy was trying to say in his book), and to overcome them is part of the secret of success.

Spanish players are, in general, much more publicly critical of each others' play than say, the English. In England, I was always taught to encourage my team-mates, even when they messed up. In Spain, on the basis of the few games I played when I first came here, it's open-season on feelings. Make a mistake and you know about it. There's much less verbal diplomacy here, which is why I find the recent stuff about tensions-at-the-top rather amusing.

It filters right down to junior level and to the relationship between players' parents. My son Harry has re-joined Antiguoko here in the north of Spain after his season in the States, and at this pre-professional level - and with this club especially - the stakes are high. Parents gather at the training sessions and banter amicably, but cliques form and people are wary of saying the wrong things, although they often do.

The father of the kid who plays in my son's position clearly feels threatened by his sudden re-appearance on the scene, and tries to avoid me in the evenings, up at the ground. When the team lost a rare game last Saturday, with my son on the bench, I was dying to point out to the gathering, when they were discussing it a few nights later, that two of the goals were clearly the fault of the central midfielder, but I guessed that they would know why I was saying this. His father kept looking at me, quietly murderous, as if he knew what I was thinking. He knows his son's days in the comfort-zone are numbered. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and it teaches you loads of stuff.

Of course, the bigger news this weekend was the suspension of the Rayo Vallecano-Real Madrid derby, a game that had been hyped for a variety of reasons but mostly for the economic and political contrast that if formed with Real's previous game, at home to the new aristocrats of football, Manchester City. Rayo are many things, but aristocratic is not one of them. Indeed, the failure of their floodlights, allegedly disabled by the cables having been deliberately cut, is proof of that.

As I write this late on Sunday night, Jose Mourinho wants the game to go ahead on Monday at 17.00, in natural light, but Paco Jemez, Rayo's trainer, prefers later so that the fans can come after work. The Spanish don't do nine-to-five, preferring nine-to-eight, with a three-hour mid-day break.

Ah - they've just announced that it'll start at 19.45. Some folks (the few who are still employed) will miss the first half then. Deportivo v Sevilla is scheduled to be shown on the open La Sexta channel at 21.30 the same night, and so clearly, Canal Plus (who are offering the Rayo game) have decided on the time so as not to clash with the later game. So much for football being a live sport eh?

Elsewhere, Mallorca kept up their good work with a 2-0 defeat of a poor Valencia, and remain in second place in the league table, followed by Malaga who managed a draw up in Athletic's San Mames. Atletico Madrid moved into the fourth Champions League spot with a 2-1 win over Valladolid, who put up an unexpectedly good fight. At the other end, Osasuna remain rooted to bottom spot after a 3-1 defeat at Zaragoza, but as of this Sunday evening, they are only three points behind Real Madrid. All to play for!

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