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Mar 29, 2004

A week of contrasts

A bit of the old yin and the yang this week, where the absence or poverty of one served to highlight the presence or brilliance of another.

Down in Seville the rain hurtled from the skies as if Andalucia had suddenly become Manchester, snuffing out the game between Betis and Barcelona. As the groundsmen desperately tried to squidge the pitch free of water, the Betis supporters stood impassively in the rain, waiting forlornly for the game to start.

You got the impression they would have stayed there until midnight, if necessary.

Spain's legendary and most faithful supporters were eventually applauded home by the sodden Betis players, who themselves had been standing motionless in the rain by the side of the pitch, as if in solidarity. Rather nice that. I don't think I've ever seen players applaud the crowd before for simply hanging around.

But there's always been a special relationship between Betis and their fans, which is more than can be said at the moment up in Celta de Vigo, where yet another home defeat - this time to Zaragoza - resulted in fans barracking Raddy Antic after the game and pushing and abusing several of the players as they tried to leave the stadium.

Not a pretty sight, and not the first time that this has happened in Spain, but the Celta fans seem to have been in permanent rebellion for the whole of the present annus horribilis, instead of getting behind the players.

By Monday afternoon Antic had decided that he'd had enough, and handed in his resignation. By walking before he was pushed, he forfeits the right to the rest of the salary stipulated in his contract - and although he's not exactly poverty-stricken it shows the extent to which he wants out.

He lasted all of nine games, after taking over from the more humble Miguel Angel Lotina. Unhappy times for old Raddy, who ironically enough began his Spanish adventure playing for Zaragoza in 1978, in the same team as Miguel Muñoz, his opposing number for Sunday's game.

Celta's fans would do well to heed the famously strangled cry of colloquial Andaluz, '¡Viva er Beti, manqué pierda!' (Onward Betis, even when we lose!), the club's upbeat and happy slogan.

But the poor Galicians are hopelessly lacking in confidence, down on their luck, and are sliding on their backsides down the slippery slope of a season that had promised so much. Their first venture into the Champions League in the history of the club has resulted in some kind of melt-down, and they look destined for a return to the Second Division.

In the absence of Betis, their rivals and neighbours Sevilla travelled up to Madrid for a niggly-looking fixture with the league leaders. There was trouble at the mill during the last game between the clubs, the cup semi-final when Valdano lost his temper and marched to the ref's room at half-time.

But in the league encounter in Seville in November, Madrid were on the end of a 4-1 stuffing, a game in which José Antonio Reyes took their floundering young defence apart and finally convinced Arsène Wenger that the time had come to bring him over to London.

How Sevilla could have done with him in the Bernabéu, as a recovering Real returned the November compliment and went one better with a 5-1 drubbing.

And to stay on the yin and the yang theme, there is little doubt as to who is Spain's winger of the moment. Whilst Reyes is still settling in at Highbury, his rival for the attacking left-sided berth of the national side, Rodríguez Vicente, is simply playing out of his skin.

Last week it was Ronaldinho, but having been forced to take a weekend rest due to the rainy season it has been Vicente who has moved into the spotlight.

Real Betis, where the fans are always fervent
Real Betis, where the fans are always fervent

He began in midweek, with a brilliant performance in Valencia's UEFA cup win, practically winning the game single-handedly, then continued the run at Santander on Sunday, scoring twice and causing a defender to put through his own goal for the third.

With Spain playing a friendly against Denmark in midweek, Reyes won't be getting a look in.

Vicente, always an interesting but an annoyingly inconsistent player, has suddenly blossomed into the major performer that he has often threatened to become. This column has said it before, but the cup of Spain's wide attacking options runneth over.

Having to choose between Reyes and Vicente is bad enough, but over on the right Iñaki Saez has a similar quandary over whether Joaquín or whether Exteberría.

For some curious reason he has dropped the Betis winger for the Denmark game, but there are not many national squads who would exclude such a player from their gathering, even for a single game.

Good and bad in the UEFA Cup this week too, with the two V's, Valencia and Villarreal, going through. Their coastal and cultural cousins, Barcelona and Mallorca however, fell victim to a couple of British sides in the shape of Celtic and Newcastle respectively, the English side surprisingly making mincemeat of the boys from the Balearics.

Mallorca continued their miserable week by handing bottom side Murcia only their third win of the campaign, lifting them to a nicely rounded 20 points. Hope springs eternal, of course, but they are still twelve points adrift of safety, and of Mallorca.

Same story in the Champions League, where Deportivo's disappointing failure to keep the score down in Milan was counterbalanced by Real Madrid's comeback against Monaco - for whom Fernando Morientes, on loan from the Spanish leaders, predictably scored.

He was nevertheless applauded by the Bernabéu faithful, not for the goal itself (which keeps Monaco in with a chance) but for his glance pointed skywards in half dedication, half apology to those among the dead who had been Real supporters.

It was another interesting example of player-supporter relations this week, brought into focus by events beyond the control of the rich and the famous, but events close enough to elicit spontaneous and at times moving gestures from them.

Ironic though that Morientes, never a particularly popular player in his time at Madrid, should receive warm applause from those same supporters for scoring a goal against their interests. There's humanity in football after all.


  • Read White Storm, Phil's brilliant book on Real Madrid. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk