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Aphids suffer potato blight

Assuming that there was any stuffing left in Alavés to be knocked out, Dario Silva's 91st-minute goal for Málaga up in Vitoria at the weekend looked suspiciously like the proverbial nail in the coffin - if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors.

Poor Alavés have now not tasted victory since mid-February when they narrowly beat Villareal at home, and the eight games they have played in since have seen them pick up a mere two points, scoring a puny four goals in the process.

Last week they lost a crucial six-pointer to fellow-strugglers Recreativo, and the Andalucian side, despite slipping up at Santander this weekend, are otherwise showing distinct signs of upward movement. Not so Alavés. The present doom and gloom seems a far cry from their generally upbeat performances in the past few seasons, performances which had seen them earn a reputation as dogged but skilful campaigners, very much the minnows of the scene, but enjoying every minute of it.

Back in the late 1970s, when Osasuna were promoted to the Spanish First Division, the Basques celebrated the presence of three of their teams in the top flight by coining the chant 'Somos dos, somos tres, solo falta Alavés!' (We are two, we are three, we're just missing Alaves!). Most Basque supporters can quote the original chant, and it says almost all there is to say about Alavés' traditional standing in the Basque footballing hierarchy.

Whilst Athletic Bilbao had long been a major force in the Spanish game, Real Sociedad were about to become one, and Osasuna, from Pamplona, had joined the party, the country cousins over in the Alava region to the west had been floundering around in the murky depths of the regionalised third division and had only just swum up to the lighter surface waters of the Segunda 'A.'

When Gonzalo Antón, a self-made restaurant owner from nearby Miranda del Ebro, officially took over as president in 1998, things were already changing fast, thanks to his previous backroom decision to bring in the Basque Jose Manuel Esnal (nicknamed 'Mané) as manager from Levante. Alavés went up to the First Division for the first time since their brief appearance in 1955 and have generally performed solidly on a limited budget.

Everyone remembers them for their wonderful UEFA Cup run back in 2001 (if not for their dodgy pink shirts), that culminated in that astonishing 5-4 finale in Dortmund against Liverpool but which also resulted in the inevitable poaching of their three best players - Javi Moreno, Cosmin Contra and Fabricio Coloccini - all currently employed by Atlético Madrid.

The latter two of this semi-holy trinity were both attack-minded defenders, but as is the problem for sides such as Alavés, they were on loan. The shop-window of European football meant the application of the eternal paradox factor - by performing well they ensured that they were unlikely to stay with the kind hosts who had had the grace to advertise them. Javi Moreno also decided to take the money and run, but has returned from Italy a richer man but a poorer footballer, currently chewing gum on Atlético's bench when he would probably be much happier back up north at his spiritual home.

Now it's backs-to-the-wall and an ominous looking game next week away to Valencia. Their only hope is that last year's champs, slowing to a halt in the league, will be tired out from their exertions against Inter.

Alavés are one of those rare creatures in the Spanish league that no-one seems to dislike very much. Their famous run in the UEFA Cup that year symbolised everything that was good about Spanish football, demonstrating that a side shorn of household names, from a city that hardly anyone knew existed, could reach the final of a major European tournament playing in a style that few associated with La Liga; hunting-in-a-pack organisation, solid work-rate and an uninhibited swashbuckling attack mentality.

It was almost total football, minus the orange shirts but at least with Cruyff Jnr doing his bit for the cause, after his unproductive stay at Old Trafford. Everyone in Spain was backing them for the final against Liverpool, an unimaginably rare example here of cultural and sporting consent. We may never see its like again, especially if they go down at the end of the season.

The team hails from Vitoria, a small, elegant city, situated in the western part of the Basque Country, just north of the wine-growing region of La Rioja and south of the industrialised urban complex of Bilbao. The city is the administrative capital of The Basque Country, not its spiritual heart. Basque is spoken officially in the government buildings, but you would struggle to hear it on the streets. The town feels northern Spanish, as opposed to Basque.

At Alavés' ground Mendizorrotza ('Serrated peak' in Basque), situated on the original 1924 site on the southern edges of the city, you may see the occasional banner unfurled in protest at the plight of ETA prisoners, but little else. As in Osasuna, Spanish league players are welcome here, and Vitoria's more easy-going cultural identity seems to be the reason for the team's general popularity.

Although the original town became rich on the back of the wool and iron trade, the Alava region as a whole suffered poverty towards the end of the 19th century, particularly when the staple potato crop failed. The club's nickname, 'Los Babazorros', would seem to mean 'Potato ticks' or 'aphids', in reference to the 19th century blights, whilst others insist that it means 'He who is over-fond of beans'.

Jordi Cruyff celebrates his goal for Alaves in <i>that</i> UEFA Cup Final
Jordi Cruyff celebrates his goal for Alaves in that UEFA Cup Final

Whilst researching Spanish clubs' nicknames a few years ago, I became intrigued by the fact that no-one was too sure about what 'babazorro' meant, and various telephone conversations with club officials only served to confirm the mystery. 'Zorro' actually means 'fox' in Spanish, and on match days, sure enough, a smiling fox bounds around the perimeter track giving out sweets and programmes - a bizarre but endearing mistake by the club, since 'baba' means 'saliva'. So 'The Salivating (or dribbling) Foxes' would be the nickname, assuming Spanish roots.

That's pretty bad, but the true meaning from the Basque - 'The potato aphids' - is hardly the sort of upbeat phrase you would want to be chanting at a UEFA Cup Final. 'Come on you aphids!'

Back in May 2001 I wrote a piece for The Guardian, three days before the game in Dortmund, in which I mentioned the strange nickname. As is their wont, one of the tabloids picked up on the story and on the afternoon of the game in Germany, Liverpool supporters could be seen roaming the streets of Dortmund with banners proclaiming 'Scousers eat Aphids'.

But those were happier times. Now it's backs-to-the-wall and an ominous looking game next week away to Valencia. Their only hope is that last year's champs, slowing to a halt in the league, will be tired out from their exertions against Inter Milan in midweek.

Unless they begin to pick up some points, and unless cousins Osasuna perk up a bit too, the glut of Basque derbies that have been a common sight in La Liga for the last three seasons would appear to be coming to a premature end.


Phil's book on Real Madrid, White Storm, can be bought via the internet. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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