Continuing the travel series through Spain, this week takes us to the city of Zaragoza, in the region of Aragon. It's the fifth biggest city in Spain, with a population exceeding 700,000, and naturally enough it boasts a top-flight football team, quite apart from a rather beautiful Basilica and Cathedral. The city's not actually so far from San Sebastián, where I reside, but for some reason or other I'd never been to the Romareda before. I guess over the years I've grown accustomed to the luxury of living within two hours' drive of four or five First Division sides, depending at which level Alavés have been playing in at the time - but Athletic, Osasuna and Racing de Santander have always been an easy drive away, with Real Sociedad, of course, on the doorstep.
I've been to Zaragoza itself plenty of times, however, largely because it's where you stop for lunch on your way to Barcelona. It's Spain's equivalent to Las Vegas, not because it has any particular associations with betting but because it looms out of a bleak, semi-desert landscape when you're least expecting it. The road from Pamplona to Zaragoza is a film producer's delight, with huge empty skies and dark mountains brooding in the distance. Little pueblos are lost in the blink of an eye, and there's a strange sort of beauty in the yellow-stain emptiness. A couple of hours south of the verdant luxury of the Basque Country, and you're suddenly in hard-core Spain, with all its bleak mysteries and two-horse town desolation.
Industrialisation in the late 1960s boosted Zaragoza, a town with acres of land to expand into, and despite the present recession the city still looks faintly prosperous. But it's a slightly cold place, vaguely edgy and quietly unwelcoming. Don't rip up your tickets yet, but I've never been particularly drawn to the place. However, an away day with Real Sociedad looked like a way to beat my Romareda duck, so I caught a bus on Sunday lunchtime and headed south.
The Romareda was built back in 1957, and it's beginning to look much crumblier than the new flats and commercial centres that have sprung up around it. Built with a pitch below road level, the walls look small from the outside, and the perimeter takes up less urban space than many other top-flight grounds. Once inside, however, there's a feeling that you're in a ground that represents a real football community, one that would live and die for its team. The ground holds 34,000, a decently average-to-big stadium to cater for the size of the community, huddled inside the urban confines to avoid the darkness on the edge of town.
There's some comfort here for the locals, and you can feel it the moment you walk in. Despite their poor home form - three of the last four games have ended in defeat - there's a sizeable crowd and a hostile solidarity against the men in orange from Real Sociedad, themselves on a much better run with only one defeat in the last 12, and that one coming at the Bernabeu.
Zaragoza start off by huffing and puffing in a frenzy of hyper-activity, but it comes to nought. As soon as Real Sociedad get the ball down and into their best players - Carlos Vela, Antoine Griezmann and Xabi Prieto - Zaragoza look like they might easily crumble. And crumble they do, on 11 minutes. Vela is allowed to stroll unmolested up the park, and without further ado plays in a diagonal ball to Griezmann on the left of the penalty area. The young buck has time to make a cup of tea, drink it and wash up the pots, but instead he just scores, low to Roberto's right.
Eleven minutes later, the game is as good as over and the crowd is incensed when young debutant Hector takes out Vela and is sent for an early shower having picked up the first yellow of his career ten minutes before. Amazingly, this is the seventh consecutive game that Real Sociedad have played against 10 men, but the abuse that accompanies the sending-off is different from the sporadic, lighter witty stuff from the Getafe fans I heard last week. There's real hatred in this noise, a real fear of losing. And when Asier Illaramendi - the new Xabi Alonso by the way - vaguely fouls a Zaragoza player and there is no yellow card forthcoming, the crowd around me begin to hurl some predictable insults Sociedad's way, most of them alluding to drug-taking and terrorism.
The latter is an old canard, but the former is a new one, precisely a week old. Sociedad's ex-president Iñaki Badiola declared last week that when he took over the club in 2008 he found 'proof' that there had been systematic doping of the players, paid for by a secret 'B' fund. It remains unclear as to why he has revealed all this now, and not in 2008 when he claimed to have first known about it. His silence may in fact be a legal offence, if it comes to a real investigation, but Badiola has never shied away from a good court-case, most of which he tends to lose. Also, five of the six substances quoted were in fact not illegal, but as the old phrase goes, sh** sticks. And it gets worse when Imanol Agirretxe makes it two, on 32 minutes. The crowd howl, Zaragoza's heads go down, and Sociedad look a different breed, confident young colts strutting around in the corral.
But I make a mistake. I stand up to applaud Agirretxe's goal. It's not a fist-pumping sort of celebration at all - I'm not that stupid, and neither is it accompanied by any woo-hoo hollering. I just clap a few times and sit down. I'm happy. That's when it happens. My grey scarf, wrapping me up against the Aragon cold, is suddenly grabbed from behind my neck and pulled upwards violently, making it into a sort of noose, forcing me to stand up. Turning round and expecting to see some skinhead assailant, I find myself staring at a 60-something grey haired gentleman, with the tired looks of an ageing history professor. I pull my scarf back down, just before the noose throttles me and attempt to gasp something out, but he howls me down: Estas provocando, cabrón! (You're provoking us, b*****d!) he informs me, purple-faced with rage. Si aplaudes otra vez, te mato! (If you applaud again, I'll kill you!) he adds, jabbing his finger at my nose.
The last time I experienced first-hand violence at a football match was at Gigg Lane, Bury, in 1975. I'd thought those days were over, but obviously, pensioner-thugs are the new rage. It's a serious piece of violence he's just carried out, and of course, there's nothing I can do. As in some kind of nightmarish zombie film, I look around for some human warmth and support, but encounter not a drop. The worst thing about the scruffy little incident is that absolutely no-one intercedes on my behalf. I'm not expecting someone to beat the guy up for me. Alone with this man, fisticuffs at dawn, he would stand little chance. Men size each other up very quickly in these situations, and I know I could handle him, were I that sort of person. But this is not the point. Using the herd as his shield, the man commits a minor atrocity and humiliates me publicly, simply for supporting my team. Not even my neighbours to either side offer a word of solidarity, or sympathy. Stunned into temporary silence, I try to re-focus on the game, wondering whether I should just call it a day. Eventually I say to an elderly gentleman to my left, 'Was that reasonable? Was I provoking them?' He looks ahead, like an indifferent soldier. La gente está quemada he says (They're on a short fuse). Si dices algo, lo toman como provocación. Cuidado (If you say anything, they'll take it as a provocation. Be careful) he says cautiously, and leaves me to my demons.
At half-time I walk past my assailant without a glance, but make a note of his seat number. Down in the bowels of the stadium near the cafeteria, the security guards stand around, chatting up some club employees. I contemplate reporting the incident, but the heavy look of the guards and their obvious affection for the home side dissuade me from this action. It's my word against his. No one is going to testify on behalf of a Real Sociedad fan. So I walk down behind to the end of the stand, to see if there are any spare seats, but it's not clear that there are. For once, I regret my decision not to sit up in safety with the press pack.
I grin and bear it for a further 40 minutes. Sociedad completely dominate proceedings, but fail to score on a number of occasions, much to my relief. I watch the game like a myxomatoxic rabbit, eyes caught in the headlights, unable to move. When I do glance back, the professor has gone, but some of his more vocal supporters are still there. They immediately shoot me hostile glances. I decide to go. Mejor que me vaya (I think it's best that I split) I tell the old gentleman, at which he nods, as if I've finally said something intelligent. I hightail it onto the tram, back to the sanctuary of my hotel. On the tram, I hear with some relief that Zaragoza have scored from a late penalty, which means I was saved the humiliation of any ironic cheers in my direction.
Football eh? Only a game. Sometimes you wonder if it's all worth it - the time and energy you waste, and the percentage of your life that you dedicate to it. It's been that kind of week, with the ludicrous video of the Real Madrid hyenas and Hannibal Pepe-Lecter on the Catalan TV3 sparking far more controversy and air-time than the rape of seven Spanish women in Mexico. C'est la vie, I suppose, but the worst accusation to throw at the video-makers would be that it is an incitement to violence, on the cusp of the Copa del Rey second leg and the following league Clasico. Violence is still around, I have just been reminded.
It's difficult not be excited by this coming week's events, however. Real Madrid versus Manchester United has that special ring to it, and just the prospect of it is enough to help shake off the Zaragoza effect. Valencia and PSG should be interesting too, with Ernesto Valverde's men coming back into form at the right time, and Real Madrid strolling to a 4-1 win over Sevilla in preparation for the big one - Cristiano Ronaldo warming up with a hat-trick. Atletico lost surprisingly to Rayo, in the 'other' Madrid derby, and Espanyol continued their climb up the league with a 4-0 win at Athletic, who continue to confound theories of their imminent recovery.
Whatever, I think I might just stay at home next weekend and watch the telly.