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Nov 8, 2004

VIP for the day

Funny old things, websites. A month ago I filed a piece for this column on 'The New Tourism', a phrase that had popped into my head only at the very last moment before clicking on the 'Send' icon.

The theme of the piece was based on an Australian journalist friend who had decided to take in some of the culture of Spain's cities and regions by attending as many football matches as possible in a very travel-intensive fortnight.

The variety of culture, people and landscapes that he had come across, not to mention decent football matches, had smacked of a new type of tourism in which foreign visitors could include in their package a visit to a match as a further conduit for their understanding of a given country - in this case Spain.

Who said that men cannot multi-task? You only have to watch a press officer go about his (or indeed her - many are women) business in the half hour before a match to expose the myth.

The article certainly provoked some responses, not all of them positive. One chap reacted tetchily to my casual dismissal of Badajoz, telling me in no uncertain terms that the Extremadura region was growing in popularity and infrastructure, and listing the many attractions it possessed.

Of course I knew this, but the only time I ever passed through Badajoz my exhaust pipe fell off, coinciding with the afternoon siesta. My memories are rather negative ones therefore, through no fault of the city - but anyway, we've signed the peace accord and he's now trying to interest me in properties down there.

Another person who got in touch was the jefe de prensa (Press Officer) from Racing Santander. The chap's name is Alberto Aparicio, and he is such a gent that he deserves an international mention.

In general, Press Officers receive very little credit for the job that they do and the hours they put in, and yet they are vital to the whole structure of a club. Watching a good one like Alberto go about his business on a match day enables you to witness the perfect balance between diplomacy and efficiency.

Who said that men cannot multi-task? You only have to watch a press officer go about his (or indeed her - many are women) business in the half hour before a match to expose the myth.

Like the conductor of an orchestra, everyone depends on him. The cameramen need to be allowed through, the press passes given out, the hangers-on to be dispatched, both mobiles to be answered simultaneously, the team sheets to be finalised, the press packs to be given out, the VIP passes to be approved, etc etc.

It looks exhausting, but if it's done with a smile people will remember.

Alberto had invited me to this weekend's clash with Numancia because he had read the article on football 'tourism', had had it translated and published in the club's weekly paper 'El Periódico Racing' and wanted me to repeat some of the things I had written to the local TV and newspaper.

Nevertheless, despite having a thousand other people to attend to, he never lost sight of me. Not only that, but I was invited up into the VIP bar, treated with wine and canapés, introduced to the club President and given a very posh seat (it was lined with soft, bum-warming material) with a great view of the game.

What more can a football obsessive ask for?

It wasn't my first visit to the club, but it cemented the impression that I left with last time - that despite some of the problems they have been through - a certain Mr Piterman (now at Alavés) having been one of them - they always give you their time.

There are some much bigger clubs in La Liga where the press officers get rid of you as quickly as possible and where the treatment is much colder. They may think that PR is something that looks like you're trying too hard (i.e. you're a loser), but they're wrong.

The way that the press are treated always influences the way that a club is viewed by the general public, in the long run. And bad PR is very transparent. People like Alberto, on the other hand, have been well-chosen - and the resulting happy atmosphere that seems to hang around the club is a direct result of their efforts.

However, Alberto liked the article because it coincided with his feeling that the municipal authorities in Santander were not doing enough to promote the club, or to use it as a vehicle to promote tourism in the Cantabria region.

Guerrero: Brought up the 1,000 (NealSimpson/Empics)

He himself had mentioned in the club newspaper, as an aside, that my Aussie friend had travelled across the roof of Spain from west to east taking in games in Galicia, Cantabria and The Basque Country, but had passed through Asturias without a stop - presumably because neither Oviedo nor Sporting Gijón are in the First Division.

It was a significant point, because his basic idea was that travel agencies in the area should be encouraged (or even subsidised) to package Cantabria not just as a rural paradise with a few sandy beaches but as a region that possessed a First Division Spanish football team.

Come to Santander, have a look around, walk along the prom, stay a couple of nights and visit 'El Sardinero', a re-modelled stadium (based on QPR's Loftus Road) which has hosted thirty-six seasons in the top flight since the professional league began in 1928.

That's not a bad record for a club of modest means, but Alberto and others obviously feel that the club is insufficiently exploited as a focus for Cantabrian culture. If Barcelona and other clubs can sell themselves as representative of their region, then why not Racing?

Their opponents at the weekend, little Numancia from the Soria region, had coincidentally figured in the original article too, as the kind of place where you could take in a different view of Spain and see a top football match at the same time. Whatever, I repeated to the TV and the newspaper pretty much what the club wanted, but hey, the canapés were very nice.

The other interesting thing was that Racing had scored 998 goals in the Sardinero (old and new) since 1928, and were two short of a celebration. It took a while to break down Numancia's stubborn rearguard, but once Moran had opened the scoring in the second half, destiny looked like it would be fulfilled.

And it was nice to be there when it happened, after so many years. The player to score the magic goal, Javi Guerrero, is ironically in dispute with the club and was substitute for the day. They should obviously sort matters out with him, because they looked a different side with him on the pitch.

Other things happened this last weekend that contributed to this idea that football has become a sort of cultural conduit, almost by accident. Levante beat Athletic Bilbao and are now up there in the Champions League positions, thus reminding folks that there is more to Valancia than simply Valencia, who lost to Getafe - which is a further reminder that there is more to Madrid than simply Madrid.

In the Second Division, tiny Eibar went top after beating Terrasa at home, which also serves to illustrate that there is more to Basque football than Bilbao, Real Sociedad and Osasana- not forgetting Alavés, of course, but they are now below Eibar.

No prizes for guessing from where this column's next report will come, in a fortnight's time. Meanwhile, if any other clubs out there fancy a bit of free promotion, all they have to do is get in touch. Mind you, if the canapés are not up to scratch...


  • Phil's latest book, An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure, is out now.

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

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