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Dastardly Foreigners

In an attempt to escape from football over the Easter period I travelled to England, where they allegedly play a game answering to this description. During my stay, I caught fleeting glimpses of it on the television, but it failed to engage my attention for longer than a few seconds. Driven thus to the written word, I purchased an excellent book entitled 'Shite's Unoriginal Miscellany', a title that describes the contents to perfection.

Within this erudite work I learned two important things - one; that there are sixteen breeds of sheep that one may not have heard of, and two; that there is a school of thought called 'solipsism'. I vaguely remember the second from my university days, but I never understood it. As to the sheep, I was interested to learn that of these obscure breeds, one is called a 'Scotch Blackface'.

This seemed to sum up very eloquently my feelings towards Sir Alex Ferguson this weekend as I resumed this column, post-vacation. Not only that, but it would seem that Manchester United's desperate manager, now firing random bullets at all the unseen enemies that he would wish to blame for his own team's failings, has decided to sign up to the belief that 'the only thing that one can be sure of is one's own existence, and that true knowledge of anything else is impossible'.

That's a definition of the first one - 'solipsism'.

Excuse the arcane beginning, but as the guardian of this column about Spanish football, I feel compelled to begin with a defence of the culture in question. I read with interest on Saturday's return flight that Fergie had got a bit hot under the collar regarding referee Graham Poll's suggestion that the Manchester United full-back, Gary Neville, was a 'cheat'.

I don't know whether he is or not, but even if he were, Ferguson would be unlikely to admit it. Poll had remarked at a ref's meeting that it was very 'clear that players are excelling at simulation', in reference to the fact that he thought he should (with hindsight) have booked Neville in the recent game against Arsenal.

Be that as it may, Ferguson responded, with some justification, that it was odd that Poll should single out Neville. Whilst this is true, Ferguson's anger was clearly of the 'everyone hates Man Utd' model, never the most objective of perspectives.

To also be fair to Poll, he obviously required an example. But worse was to come from the flying Scotsman. Rapidly losing the plot, the knighted gentleman of the realm proffered the opinion that diving, the 'simulation' to which Poll had been alluding, was 'something that foreign players have brought into the English game' - by which I assume he meant by extension things like ball control, accurate passing, good defending, good nutritional habits and so on.

It's a pity that when some English players go abroad they are occasionally imprisoned for pillaging and roasting the neighbourhood, whilst with some minority exceptions they have absolutely no influence whatsoever on the foreign game, but we'll overlook those little problems.

The man in question suffers in the sunshine as United lose at Portsmouth.
The man in question suffers in the sunshine as United lose at Portsmouth.

One foreigner that Ferguson obviously would never accuse of cheating is Ruud Van Nistlerooy, and for this reason alone he is reluctant to lose him. Apparently the Dutchman's agent, Roger Linse, had been chatting to Barcelona officials recently, but Fergie claimed that this was untrue.

Then again, if he were so convinced that Linse had been nowhere near a Barça employee then his subsequent outburst made little sense: 'You can't trust these people. You are asking me to trust a Spaniard. Just look at Real Madrid, who were apparently not interested in Ronaldo and not interested in Beckham'.

Excuse me for being a trifle politically correct, but does this not amount to calumny and xenophobia of the lowest order? I still fail to understand why Ferguson has not been asked to 'explain his comments', as the official refrain goes. One cannot question referees, one cannot question FIFA, but it seems fair game to accuse the Spanish, en masse, of being untrustworthy. Or perhaps if one is a knight of the realm the occasional faux pas can be overlooked?

We might as well go back to the days when black players were deemed ok, but only until the winter set in. Never trust a Spaniard eh? Well - that's a bit rich coming from a man who seemed perfectly happy to do business with Barcelona last year. When Ferguson, like Henry II before him, cried in anguish from his throne, 'Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?' (Beckham), Barça answered the call.

Or perhaps the surrogate father meant that he never wanted to sell Beckham after all - for which reason he left him on the bench against Real Madrid last year so that the sneaky Spaniards might never know what a good player he was.

Interesting too that Ferguson speaks of never trusting agents (especially foreign ones) when he was quite happy to meet one in a hotel in Lisbon in 2000, with a view to buying Luis Figo. It was a funny coincidence that Figo just happened to play in the same position as Beckham - but Ferguson's plans were busted up again by those untrustworthy Spaniards, and the Portuguese winger went to Real Madrid, Beckham's ultimate destination.

Of course, the Spaniards do dive quite a lot, but then again so do English players. As ITV pundit Andy Townsend quite rightly remarked, the foreigners just do it better. Anyway, Ferguson might be getting on a bit, but there's no excuse for such stuff. What sort of example does it set? What sort of message does it convey? He's been a great manager, but with the exception of José Antonio Reyes, it's not Spain's fault that Arsenal are about to win the English Premiership.

Talking of championships, the league over here is certainly hotting up, with only those untrustworthy souls Barcelona showing any sort of constancy. Real won the Madrid derby over at Atlético with ten men and no Ronaldo, which put paid to the theory that they couldn't win without him and also brought to an end a thoroughly miserable few weeks during which their morale and confidence had hit rock bottom.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy - the root cause of Fergie's xenophobic outburst?
Ruud Van Nistelrooy - the root cause of Fergie's xenophobic outburst?

Beckham, in the news for all the wrong reasons (never trust an Englishman) at least managed to make the winning goal, and was substituted after 70 minutes presumably to allow him to catch the last flight to London where Posh's 30th birthday party had just begun.

Just to prove the inconsistency theory, their tormentors last week, Osasuna, lost 1-3 at home to rapidly improving Espanyol, and Valencia blew it at home to Real Sociedad, only managing a 2-2 draw.

Deportivo, now flying the lone European flag for España, looked to have other things on their mind when they stuttered to a 1-1 home draw with Valladolid and effectively kissed adios to the title. Barcelona stuffed Malaga 3-0 at home and thus keep alive the hope that they can catch the leading pair, always assuming they can pull off a win at the Bernabéu next week.

Yes - it's 'clásico' time again, and it promises to be a cracker. Maybe Sir Alex would like to tune in. He might even learn a thing or two.

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