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May 6, 2013

Talk is cheap

Picking a particular theme this week is a bit tricky, given the amount of things that have been going on. I'll try nevertheless, but it might turn into a 'week in Spain' kind of thing. It must be that time of the year, when the rumours start to fly about the summer moves, the managerial merry-go-round, and the bane of Spain – the 'maletines' (suitcases) whose contents (euros) allegedly find their way into the grubby hands of players who have been tempted to make a little less effort than usual. The Segunda División is hotting up too, and the candidates for promotion are coming into clearer focus now.

We'd better start in the obvious place. Spain as a whole managed to take Champions League defeat on the chin, in the end. Real Madrid at least came close to a 'remontada' (come-back), and managed to recover a bit of dignity – an important thing for Spaniards. In this country, you wear your dressing-gown at home and you keep your nice clothes pressed in the wardrobe, ready for any public occasion. Nobody goes to the shop in a shell suit and curlers.

Barcelona's second capitulation, on the other hand, was a slightly more complex affair, and it was a strange sight indeed to see their players chewing on their cud, staring into space, unaccustomed to such sensations of impotence. It may do them good, in the long run. Success builds the character, failure reveals it? Ask Gerard Piqué, one in a rather long line of players this week who said rather too much, rather too quickly. The commentator who chose to thrust a mike under the defender's nose after Wednesday's 3-0 defeat to Bayern (to which Piqué contributed a spectacular own goal) could hardly have expected a speech of joy and bliss, and what he got may have as many consequences as the aggregate defeat itself. "Some decisions will have to be made in the summer," quoth Piqué, presumably hinting at a clear-out. Tito Vilanova, previously the quiet man, hit back by the weekend, with the acidic riposte that "the player who said that obviously hasn't considered that he might be one of the changes". That is unlikely, with David Villa and Alexis Sánchez the two players given the most thumbs-down in a quick vox-populi in Marca, but that comes as no surprise.

Whatever – it's good that Tito can get tough in public, since that seems to be the measure of a coach these days. Dirty linen being washed in private seems a thing of the past. Real Madrid's decent showing against Dortmund (although they hardly set the house on fire) and the subsequent 4-3 win against a stubborn Valladolid on Saturday in the Bernabéu also failed to prevent the washing-line being cluttered with all sorts of mucky stuff. You know the story by now. José Mourinho has a tendency to 'morir matando' (kill as you die) as the Spanish say, and decided to spray his machine-gun in all directions this weekend.

His basic thesis, as it has been for most of his three years in Madrid, is that "The Special One" is blameless. Even if this were true, the implication that it was the players' collective (headed by the 'sad' Cristiano Ronaldo) who were to blame for the poor start to the season is anathema to any footballer. No player objects to a hair-drying in private, but Mourinho's recent use of the media for the purposes of self-justification have been a step too far, a breaking of the unspoken code in football at all levels. His snide attack on Iker Casillas – that the goalkeeper considered himself to be above the rest, a 'first among equals', may well be true. It was certainly true of Raúl, and it did a lot of damage to Madrid, however much the revisionists continue to pray in the legend's direction. Mourinho preferred to ship Raúl to Germany. The town wasn't big enough for the two of them, but "The Special One" hadn't quite counted on Casillas' status, and then Sergio Ramos.

All managers who have done their FIFA badge will know something about group dynamics, and that among the 20-odd men in a playing squad there will always be a leader and a trouble-maker. Mourinho has dealt with plenty of these types before, but usually by getting them on his side. But he seemed to misunderstand a fundamental aspect of Spanish character, all the stranger for being Portuguese and a part of Iberia, and having served his apprenticeship at the Camp Nou under Bobby Robson. The Spanish might not be a proactively aggressive people, but when attacked they will defend themselves tooth and nail. As Tom Petty said, you can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won't back down. And they don't, especially awkward characters like Sergio Ramos. In the end, Mourinho, defeated by two players who knew they would win, has resorted to claiming that he would prefer to play in a country where he was loved, and at a club that wants him, presumably Chelsea. I suspect that he may be over-romanticising about his ex-lover, but the English press will certainly welcome him in open arms.

Mourinho claimed last week, in a face-to-face with the enemy, that the Spanish press hated him. That's not quite true. Madrid's spokesmen, the tabloids Marca and AS, have both decided to end the diplomacy now that they can see the direction the wind is blowing. It's open warfare now, which is slightly ironic given that it was Marca's repulsive campaign against Manuel Pellegrini that got Mourinho the job in the first place. He was the man who would bring the fabled 'Décima', and end Barcelona's hegemony. Well, he brought them three consecutive Champions league semi-finals, a league title and a Copa del Rey (with another possibly on the way). It's not bad by normal standards, but Mourinho failed to land the big one, unfortunately now the litmus-test of true success.

At the same time, to do him credit, he managed to expose a lot of the hypocrisy and blather that emanates from the Madrid press-pack, a group that has done as much damage as any in the past. If they hate him, that's why – but they'll sure miss him when he's gone. Already, Marca's readers have allegedly claimed that they don't want Carlo Ancelotti next season, which is an inauspicious start.

So who do they want then? Jupp Heynckes? The Bayern coach is 67, four years younger than Sir Alex Ferguson, and looks good for another couple of years yet. Apparently, he's already been sounded out for the job at Athletic Bilbao next season, the rectors thinking that he might fancy a return to one of his old haunts. He was at the old San Mamés between 1992 and 1994, three years before his famous spell at the Bernabéu, which saw him sacked a week after they won the Champions League after a 32-year dry spell. Ernesto Valverde is also on Athletic's list, but obviously the present incumbent, Marcelo Bielsa, isn't. Bielsa to the Bernabéu! Come on, Florentino. You know it makes sense.

Meanwhile, the Real Madrid players seem to have closed ranks, with Ronaldo claiming that he wasn't really bothered about whether Mou stayed or not, and another of the manager's Praetorian Guard, Pepe, telling the press that Mou's comments about Casillas were "inappropriate". Apart from the fact that it was a big word for Pepe, it was noticeable that the players no longer see any need to stay in Mourinho's good books. That's why we know he's really leaving now. He can come to Grimsby if he'll take a pay-cut. The fish and chips are exquisite.

Let's also have a look at the 'maletines' issue. Last week, a fortnight after the event, Jose Javier Barkero of Levante accused four of his team-mates of a lack of effort during the 0-4 home defeat to Deportivo, a game that substantially boosted the Galician's hopes of survival. The players at whom the finger was pointed were Sergio Ballesteros, Gustavo Munúa, Juanlu and Juanfran, to whom Barkero has subsequently apologised. The weird thing about the issue is that Barkero never said, "You must have been paid a backhander!" Levante, of course, have nothing at stake now – which means they are a classic target for 'maletines' – but it was the Spanish press who interpreted Barkero's words as an accusation of match-fixing, despite the lack of actual evidence.

Why this interpretation? I can remember dozens of occasions in my playing days when team-mates accused each other of not trying enough. It would seem, therefore, that the culture here is so shot-through with the maletin mentality that, in the eyes of many, Barkero's accusations could only mean one thing. Deportivo, of course, have threatened legal action, since the finger is also pointed at them. This is ironic, given that the club is in administration and doesn't have two céntimos to rub together. And remember, it isn't actually illegal to pay a relaxing team to play well – what you can't do is pay someone to lose. That's the implication here, which is why Deportivo are talking to their lawyers. The Spanish federation, reacting to the crisis, has pledged to "investigate", which is tantamount to saying that it'll do absolutely nothing whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Levante were more careful to make an effort (1-1) at bottom club Mallorca, in the clash of the Titans on Sunday. Depor themselves failed to beat Atlético Madrid at home (0-0) and have dropped back into the bottom three along with their neighbours Celta. Zaragoza continued their recent revival with a second consecutive win after a 16-game drought, and Granada's surprise win over Malaga has also contributed to the Galician couple dropping back into the mire.

To conclude on a feminine note, San Mamés registered an attendance of over 30,000 for Sunday's all-or-nothing final clash in the SuperLiga Femenina, a game that would decide the destiny of the league title. Athletic's lionesses, who have led all season, blew it at the post, and lost 2-1 to Barcelona, gifting the Catalans their second SLF title.

The girls succeeded where their male counterparts failed last week, and the latter might have to wait another week still with a tough one coming up at Atlético Madrid. They'll get there eventually, even though – whilst 2-1 down to Betis at half-time on Sunday night, and their lead over Madrid down to a mere eight points – the Madridistas on the threads were beginning to dream. Leo Messi came on and put paid to that, but looking at the fixture list, Barcelona look most likely to secure the title on derby-day at Espanyol. Until then, we all hope that José Mourinho continues to keep us entertained.

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