The Year of the Pig
I'm doing some stuff for the telly this coming week about the differences between Madrid and Barcelona as cities, and of course there might just be a chance of squeezing in a mention of football. More than a chance, in fact, since the programme will eventually be broadcast in the UK on the back of 'El Clásico', scheduled to be played in the Camp Nou on December 6th.
In fact, as the moving finger taps this keyboard, it is a year to the day since the infamous 'Partido de la Vergüenza' (The Game of Shame), when Luis Figo attempted to take a corner and was showered by most things imaginable save the kitchen sink - most memorable among the objects having been the head of a suckling pig. Dear old Marca, never one to miss an opportunity, helpfully declared the 365 days since as 'The Year of the Pig', adding the rider 'And we're not talking about the Chinese calendar either'.
So, just two weeks to go before the game that nobody wants to miss, and the first shots have been fired over the parapets. But that's fairly standard for the course. What is perhaps more interesting than the game itself - although we'll come to that - is the issue of FC Barcelona itself, and whether the recent signs of life emanating from the Catalan heartlands constitute evidence of a turn-around in the fortunes of the club, after four years of almost perpetual purgatory.
If a new era indeed dawns, there would be some cute parallels to be drawn with the recent elections in the region, the imminent retirement of Jordi Pujol (the long-time leader of the Generalitat), the new policies and PR campaign of Barça's new president Joan Laporta and the arrival of the new saviour Ronaldinho.
Add to all that the arrival of the lollipop-sucking but always provocative Luis Fernandez to the hot-seat at Espanyol, and things seem to be cooking again in the Cuidad Condal.
To begin with, there was quite a lot of chat over the summer as to which of the great rivals had made the best signing. Who would prove the best value for money - Ronaldinho or Beckham? My friend the barman, like most barmen up and down the country (I imagine) was adamant on the issue. Beckham was a poser who could take free kicks, and Real Madrid already had Roberto Carlos who was pretty good at them anyway. Ronaldinho was the better player - despite some question marks over his temperament. He'd fallen out with the aforementioned Luis Fernandez - but that's hardly an unusual occurrence.
It would seem, therefore, that my friend was wrong on both counts. Beckham, finally liberated from the right-sided shackles that Ferguson perversely imposed on him, has impressed all and sundry. The last thing that the Bernabéu faithful would now call him is a 'poser'. In fact the curious thing about the whole affair is that Beckham has fitted perfectly into the most traditional Real Madrid paradigm - that of the stylish worker.
Almost all of their heroes of the past, with the exception perhaps of Butragueño, have combined skill with industry. To the relief of marketing departments around the globe, Beckham has delivered - and most importantly, the locals rate him.
The locals at the Camp Nou also rate Ronaldinho, who is proving himself to be a much better player than the version who performed somewhat fitfully at PSG. So well is he playing, in fact, that Barça looked rather pale without him this weekend, losing 2-1 at Villareal in a game that they probably deserved to draw, but one in which they were clearly lacking inspiration, with the excellent Quaresma also out injured.
But Ronaldinho is not a better player than Beckham. Such odious comparisons, inevitable as they are, come over as a tad futile. Beckham has made some difference to Madrid. He's given them more fluency just in front of the defence with his ability to pick out colleagues at long and short range with a repertoire of passing skills that Claude Makelele, for all his virtues, could never dream of. But if you took the Englishman from the mix, the cake would still rise.
It's a very obvious point, but worth making nevertheless, since the opposite is clearly true in Barcelona's case. For this reason alone, one should perhaps be sceptical about the new dawn, although the young Portuguese winger Quaresma looks to have been a clever buy.
But it all seems a bit hit-and-miss, unlike the old days. Laporta wanted Beckham, but got Ronaldinho on the rebound. He got lucky, it would seem. He has not been so fortunate in his dignified but risky policy to kick out the 'ultra' element from the ground - a problem that his rivals in Madrid should surely have got to grips with years ago, but still seem reluctant to face up to.
The 'Boixos Nois' have of course hit back, daubing Laporta's walls a fortnight ago with various death threats, most of which they surprisingly managed to spell correctly.
Founded back in the early 1980's, their name is a faithful testament to their collective IQ. At the inaugural meeting of the peña (or penya, in Catalan) they decided to call themselves 'The Crazy Boys', but unfortunately misspelt the 'crazy' part, which is actually 'bojos' in Catalan. 'Boixos' means 'hedges' or 'bushes' - not quite the effect they were looking for.
The best part of the tale, however, is that the leader of the new penya, on realising the next day that a spelling error had occurred, decided to stick with the defective version because he considered the mistake in itself to be crazy. So watch your backs - the Bush Boys are out to get you.
The Bush Boys actually denied any involvement in the death threats, but they were certainly involved in last season's absurd fracas at the Camp Nou, when the resentment towards Luis Figo, volubly expressed the previous season, went several miles over the top.
The Spanish FA, led by its 'Anti-Violence' committee, decided with some justification, to close the Camp Nou for a couple of games. Joan Gaspart, back then still in charge, decided to challenge the decree and appealed against it. It is still unclear on what grounds he appealed, but his public pronouncements at the time, drowned in dysfunction, were of the opinion that Figo had 'provoked' the crowd by deciding to take the infamous corner (he normally took them anyway) and that no-one provoked him 'in his own house'.
Stirring stuff - but the tactic of delaying the closure of your ground by simply exploiting the legal loopholes is hardly setting a clear moral precedent. Laporta, before taking up the reins of the club this summer, declared during his campaign that he would put an end to the issue if he was voted in, telling the Sports Minister that he would withdraw the appeal and accept the original two-game sentence.
Two weeks before a repeat of the fixture, and nothing has been done.
Little Castellón along the coast might have reason to resent this uneven-handed justice, having just completed their two-game exile this weekend after the referee was hit by a cigarette lighter in the recent cup game against Valencia. One law for the rich?
The lighter actually hit the referee, whereas the folks who flung several mobile phones, the pig's head and a bottle of JB whisky at the Camp Nou simply had poorer aim - probably due to the whisky, but anyway, the point remains.
The scenes at the Seville derby last year also earned a sanction, as did the unseemly scrap between Villareal and Zaragoza at the end of 2002, but these clubs took it on the chin and accepted the punishment. It's a tricky issue, but Laporta is doing himself no favours by campaigning heroically on one front, then contradicting his actions on another.
Back on the playing front, the jury is still out on Frank Rijkaard. He seems to have gained the respect of the press for his calm manner, his immediate mastery of Spanish and his obvious attempt to sex up the play a little. Whereas the Bernabéu has always demanded style and industry, the Camp Nou has simply demanded the former. The culmination of this philosophy, fleshed out by the wonderful 'Dream Team' of the early 1990's, has to some extent cast a shadow on subsequent events at the club, and shone a wan light on Cruyff's successors.
Rijkaard, whose managerial career so far is hardly a basis for confidence, has been handed an enormous responsibility. He may yet grow into the post, but there are already rumours doing the rounds that he does not get on with Txiki Begiristain, ex-Dream-Team architect and new Director of Football with a set of clear ideas which might, in the end, not include the likes of Rijkaard. We shall see. The Dutchman certainly deserves to be given a chance, and in terms of the strictly personable, he makes a refreshing change from his predecessor.
Ironically, he was undone at the weekend by a side containing three-ex Barça players - Reina, Riquelme and Anderson - the latter scoring the winner with a splendid diving header in injury time. Since Riquelme is on loan, Rijkaard might even consider bringing him back to support Ronaldinho, and bring some more imagination into a midfield forever limited by the willing but one-dimensional Xavi.
Whatever happens, Figo won't be taking the corner kicks on December 6th. Beckham will undoubtedly be handed that particular privilege, but if the Bush Boys are still a bit cross with him for spurning them in the summer, he'd better send one of his minders out to the shops to buy him a crash helmet.
Hell hath no fury like a Catalan scorned, but it's to be hoped that the only flying pigs this time around are strictly metaphorical ones.