Money and conspiracy theories
Saturday night's game between Valencia and Malaga was an interesting one on several levels. The most obvious thing to say about it, if you've been watching La Liga for a number of years, is that it has never been on the list of 'must-watch' classic games, largely due to Malaga's lesser status in the history of Spanish football.
Valencia are ranked third in La Liga's all-time table, and are playing their 78th season in the top flight. Malaga are playing their 12th season in the big time, and are ranked 25th. Valencia are the third biggest club in Spain in terms of members, after the big two, and a national database in 2008 found that they were the third most supported club in Spain, with 5.3% of the country following the club. That sounds a bit piddly after the 32.8% that claimed to follow Real Madrid, or 27% for Barcelona, but it's significant in terms of its ranking. If you really want to know, the next three in the ranking were Athletic Bilbao, Atletico and then Betis.
Valencia's status in the national football consciousness is fixed, after winning 14 domestic trophies (leagues and cups) and six European titles. Malaga's is not, and the city remains more famous for having provided the country with Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas. But, of course, big money can come along unexpectedly these days, and a club's prospects and image can change overnight. We all know about the Al-Thani purchase of the club, the initial millions spent, and then the sudden about-turn in financial policy, resulting in the club's exclusion next season from European competition (if they qualify), pending an appeal in June (which is unlikely to prosper, according to most well-placed sources).
The team also suffered a painful exit from this season's competition at the quarter-final stage, losing to Dortmund in controversial circumstances in added time in Germany, a defeat Al-Thani condemned as "racist" – which was actually a bit silly of him. Nevertheless, the team is ticking along reasonably well in sixth place, and must play out the season under the assumption that their appeal will be successful and that their finishing position will see them in the top four.
Visiting Valencia on Saturday night, therefore, represented the clash of the nouveaux-riches against old Spain, pitting money imported overnight on gossamer wings of uncertainty against the gradual accumulation of collateral and financial stability. The latter, of course, is supposed to be Valencia, but financial matters have gone horribly wrong there for a raft of different reasons, some of them connected with the national recession itself, others connected with the old Spanish disease of the pelotazo (money for favours), and the rest a combination of bad fiscal planning and over-borrowing. The New Mestalla sits half-built, with no money to either finance its completion or its dismantling, and the old Mestalla, of the vertical walls and the hollering fans, sits on land priced too high to attract the investment that would release the assets for the new project.
Meanwhile, the show goes on and Valencia continue to overcome the perennial sale of their assets (Davids Villa and Silva, Juan Mata) and also aim for the shelter of the Champions League. They defeated Malaga 5-1 without actually playing particularly well, scoring four goals in a period of six minutes in the first half to leave their opponents bloodied and staggering. Their newish manager, Ernesto Valverde, is doing a good job and should soon be rewarded with a new contract. But there's a twist to the tale. Manuel Llorente, the club president since 2009, resigned a fortnight ago, a decision that surprised absolutely no-one, given the impossibility of his situation. He handed over the reins to Federico Varona, technically the director of Fundación Valencia FC, the club's major shareholder. The Fundación (Foundation) is actually propped up by a €75 million loan from Spanish bank Bankia, itself in all sorts of trouble, but the loan itself (allegedly approved by the local government) is now being questioned, and Varona has quit after 13 unlucky days in the post. He cited all sorts of reasons, but I won't bore you with them.
Where is all this leading? Well, to a bar in San Sebastian on Sunday night, basically. Here's where the plot takes a new twist. As regular readers will know, I promised to take a few trips to new grounds this year, and foolishly kept to my word, suffering sub-zero temperatures, physical attacks and financial ruin as a consequence. No matter – as Valencia well know, the show must go on. Now it's time to bask in the dusk of the season, stay at home and visit my local bar down the road for some football viewing and Sunday-night banter. I've mentioned this topic before, because the Spanish bar experience is unlike any other in Europe.
The new predominance of the pay channels and the fact that most people cannot afford them here means that the bars have benefited and become watering-holes for all sorts of beasts and high-plains drifters. And, of course, over time they get to know each other, and a sort of bantering hierarchy develops, dominated by the guy who either has the loudest voice, the strongest opinions or the most esoteric knowledge. It's always one of those three. As a foreigner I'm tolerated as if I were some slightly exotic creature (if English can ever be exotic) and my opinions are sometimes sought, albeit sardonically, because I appear from time to time on the telly. But this doesn't guarantee that my views will be accepted, and it can often be awkward when something you said the month before gets quoted back at you, just as you've finished contradicting yourself.
No matter. The main man in the bar I frequent is a chapucero (handyman) who owns a garage – a mythical figure in Franco's Spain, when money was tight and spare parts were non-existent. The chapucero would fix your car (and your house) for a reasonable price and a beer on the Friday night. No barrio (neighbourhood) could exist without one of these men, and they were invariably cocks of the walk. The one in my bar is close to retirement, sports a huge belly and a tiny, morose-looking wife, but is witty and sharp, and possessed of a startlingly esoteric grasp of Spanish football. He tends to dominate the scene, and on Sunday night, as the herd was muttering into its wine glasses about the plague of yellow cards that referee Mateu Lahoz was showing to Real Sociedad's players during their 0-0 draw at Osasuna, the chapucero bellowed: "Es que es un valenciano!" ("It's because he's from Valencia!")
Indeed he is. Mateu Lahoz is the slightly Teutonic-looking referee that Jose Mourinho likes and thinks is good, but that doesn't mean a lot. One can never be quite sure as to how ironic Mourinho is being at any given point in a press conference. Lahoz was designated, I subsequently found out, for the Osasuna-Real Sociedad match on April 12, by the Committee of Referees responsible for the administration of all Spanish league games. And when he booked one of Sociedad's stars, Antoine Griezmann, for nothing in particular, the chapucero went into a rage. "Allí está! Ya no puede jugar contra el Valencia. Es una conspiración, señores!" ("That's it! Now he can't play against Valencia next week. It's a conspiracy, gentlemen!")
Of course, this is probably nonsense. I wouldn't wish to initiate wild conspiracy theories here, nor be unfair to Valencia, a team doing well under difficult circumstances. I would simply say that the decision to send Lahoz - not only from Valencia but a former youth-team player with the club - to Pamplona was imbecilic. But what can you expect from the Spanish Federation, whose president, Angel Villar, has been in post since 1988, and will not be up for re-election until 2016? Twenty-eight years in the same post! What some see as stability others see as a divisive monopoly, in which Villar has made friends and enemies in equally worrying quantities. In 1993, Villar installed Sanchez Arminio, an ex-league referee, as president of the Referees' Committee and, surprise surprise, he has stayed there ever since. Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. In other words, the two most influential men in Spanish football have been in place for rather too long.
Whatever the truth, the game in Anoeta next week looks like being a cracker. So does the Madrid derby in the Calderon, coming three days after Real Madrid visit Dortmund, but unfortunately the derby is scheduled for two hours after the Athletic versus Barcelona game at 18.00 on the Saturday. If Barcelona win, an Atletico victory would mean the league title for the Catalans, who by that time will be back in their hotel in Bilbao with their feet up. It would be slightly unfortunate, but it would also mean that they could initiate the real celebrations at home to Betis the week after. But let's not sell the bear's skin before we've shot it, as the Spanish say. With Barcelona to visit Bayern on Tuesday, a lot of turbulent water could pass under the bridge before the end of next weekend.