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The Toe Poke

Pichichi: The race is on

Goals - don't you just love 'em? Thirty-five this weekend, six of them in the heart-stopping Basque derby in Anoeta between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao that finished 3-3.

I've just got back from the game, and whilst it was undoubtedly entertaining for a neutral observer, for the committed it was ample evidence of why both sides are struggling. Since both teams have conceded bucketloads this season, a 0-0 on the pools would hardly have been a sensible investment.

The game also had a curious added element with the presence of the Turkish forward Nihat - supposedly on his way to Spartak Moscow a fortnight ago and left out of the Real side for the last two games, but now retained until May due to the recurrence of a serious ankle injury to his striking partner, Darko Kovacevic. In a curious twist to the Bosman ruling, with Nihat out of contract in the summer, Spartak had offered €3 million for his immediate services, which they have now withdrawn. For a club like Real Sociedad, in serious financial straits, the money represented something, despite the fact that before his knee ligament injury last season CSKA had been prepared to pay €12 million for him.

Now that Nihat has decided to stay at Sociedad until May (when the Russian league must close its inscriptions), Real Sociedad have asked - but not yet received, a retainer for Nihat's services, to in effect 'secure' the player. All well and good, but it seems a rather curious practice. How much can a club ask, and receive, in these circumstances? Spartak, in theory, can now get him for nothing, but unless they pay the retainer, Nihat can go where he likes. A crumb of comfort for Real Sociedad, but legally a rather strange case.

Whatever, in case no-one in the Premier League has noticed, one of Europe's top strikers is still going for next to nothing. Newcastle were rumoured to be interested, and well they might be. Just watching the little striker terrorise Athletic on Sunday evening with two wonderfully taken goals was evidence enough of why Chelsea were rumoured to have been behind the original CSKA offer. These days, the market moves in mysterious ways, but we all know what that means.

The Spanish take their top scorers very seriously indeed, talking incessantly of who occupies the 'Pichichi' spot of both the top flight and Segunda 'A'. The curious word originates from the nickname of one Rafael Moreno Aranzadi, a small-framed forward who played for Athletic in the second decade of the 20th century. He made his debut in 1911, scored the very first goal at San Mamés in 1913, went on to play (and score) for Spain when they surprisingly reached the semi-finals of the Belgian Olympics in 1920, then died tragically in his prime of typhus in 1922, at the tender age of 29. It was probably this early death, as much as his status as a striker, that ensured that the top scorer's trophy would be named after him - a tradition begun in 1929. A bust of him stands at San Mamés, and his death caused the sort of commotion that accompanied the premature passing of Rudolf Valentino.

Aranzadi's nick-name has for ever linked the club to the trophy and goalscorers, and it seems fitting that Spain's all time top-scorer, Zarra, was from the same soil. 'Zarra' (whose actual surname was the unpronounceable Zarraonaindia - try it), still holds the record for the most Pichichi trophies - six in all, won between 1944 and 1953. He won a hat-trick of Pichichis between 1945 and 1947, equalled by several but only surpassed by the Mexican Hugo Sánchez, who managed four consecutive seasons in the early 1980s.

Interesting too to note, for the anoraks amongst you, that the first four Pichichis between 1929 and 1932 were from the two sides who slugged it out in the derbi on Sunday. Real Sociedad's Bienzobas was the first, with fourteen goals from eighteen games, followed by three seasons of Athletic, with Gorostiza and Bata to the fore.

The foreigner who tops the list behind Zarra is of course the man currently recovering from a heart-attack, the Argentine Alfredo Di Stéfano, now a Spanish citizen who played for Argentina, Spain and Colombia, curiously enough. He dominated the 1950s with Real Madrid, after which Ferenc Puskas took over, managing four trophies in five seasons, despite the beer belly. Sánchez took the prize five times too, equalling Di Stéfano, and the only other Spaniard to reach the more-than-three elite was Quini (Sporting Gijon and Barça).

Of course, it was interesting that so many goals were scored this weekend, since this season's current Pichichi (and last season's runner-up) Sam Eto'o was playing for Cameroon and scoring a hat-trick, of course, whilst Barça had to make do with a mere 2-0 win in his absence.

Then again, Eto'o was probably quite relieved to be out of the Spanish spotlight after a controversial week in which he spat at Bilbao's defender Expósito and then appeared to receive a racist admonishment from Javier Clemente, who claimed that those who spit 'have just come down from the trees.' When asked to elaborate on this phrase, Clemente claimed that he was making a general point, and that lots of people (white as well, he implied) were capable of both spitting and therefore of descending from the branches. No fines have been issued as yet, but Clemente appears to be in line for a mild chastisement.

Like Luis Aragonés before him, Clemente is the Pichichi of ill-formed phrases - of talking so much that nonsense inevitably rears its head, somewhere down the babbling line of mixed metaphors and garbled syntax. Though he belongs to a generation upon whom it was less incumbent to watch their political p's and q's, he is still prepared to draw a substantial salary from the purses of the new one. As such, he should be more prepared to understand and conform to its demands. Eto'o should also try to stay in the limelight for better reasons too - like scoring goals, for example.

At present, of the seven top scorers in the top flight, only two are from Spain. This is consistent with previous seasons, where on only six occasions since 1985 has the Pichichi been Spanish. It doesn't look as though the pattern is to change this season, although the excellent David Villa, an Asturian born and bred, is trying his level best to catch Eto'o. He's now scored 13 for Valencia and is five behind, with Ronaldinho in third spot on eleven. Depor's Diego Tristán, a consistent scorer over the years and the Pichichi in 2001-2002 is the next Spaniard on ten, one ahead of South American triumvirate Ronaldo, Milito and Riquelme.

As one might expect, the top-scorers tend to reside in the sides that are up amongst the leaders (this season, for example) but this is not a necessary condition for attaining the mantle. As recently as the 1999-2000 season, Salva Ballesta (currently plying his trade for Málaga) scored an impressive 27 for Racing Santander who finished a poor 15th that season, only four points off the relegation places. Pizzi scored 31 for Tenerife in 95-96, although they did finish fifth that summer. Worth mentioning however, since it remains the only occasion on which the island club have boasted a Pichichi in their 63 years of existence.

Last but not least, lest Eto'o should forget, the most goals ever scored by a Pichichi in a single season remains at 38, banged in by somersaulting Hugo Sánchez for Real Madrid in 89-90, equalling Zarra's identical haul from 1951. Madrid played 38 games that season, and won the championship scoring a record 107 goals, whereas in 1950-51, Bilbao finished a modest seventh after 30 games. They'd be happy to finish there this season, but out of respect for mathematics we'll award Zarra with the all-time trophy. After the week that Athletic have had, it's the least we can do.

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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