When Saturday Comes
When I was a kid in England, I used to hate the summer. I still do, in some ways. World Cup years excepted, summer was a strange time, mysteriously called the 'close season' in England (what is it close to?) denuded of football and thus of all emotion.
For me as a kid, time was an inconvenience between football matches, and to some extent, that's still the case. Football obsessives live in a permanent state of infancy, but are usually prepared to admit as much.
It's the same now in Spain. In summer, there's nothing to talk about, apart from the weather perhaps. But during the football season, you can crank up a conversation with anyone in a bar about the ins and the outs of the league, and of course, as reported in this very column, I once overheard two nuns arguing with their Mother Superior over lunch as to the over-defensive tactics of Javier Clemente at the helm of the national team.
I was reminded of how Spain is a football paradise this very weekend, although the threatened referees' strike (over pay - or a lack of it) - called off at the eleventh hour - stopped me from wangling a second consecutive freebie and swanning off down to the Camp Nou to contribute to yet another documentary. How thoughtless of those referees!
Anyway, Saturday went roughly like this:
• 1. My son was playing in the San Sebastián beach league at midday, and if his team won, they would pass through from the second group stage to the semi-finals. They drew 1-1 and bowed out, but it was exciting stuff.
Real Sociedad's players had gone for a 'paseo' along the prom at the time of the matches, and spent their time gawping down from the high promenade wall at the games. People were out in the sunny weather, drinking in cafes, strolling - all to a football backdrop.
• 2. My childhood team, Grimsby Town, were playing in the afternoon at home to Wrexham, and needed to win to maintain their promotion challenge from the old English Division Four. Late lunch needed to be eaten in time for this game to be followed kick by kick on the web. We won 2-0.
• 3. Real Sociedad, the local side, were playing at 8pm at home to Málaga, in a dog-eat-dog relegation struggle. They had to win, and you could feel the tension in the air in the city as the afternoon wore on. Deciding not to go to the game because friends were coming round for supper, the right bar had to be decided on for watching this one - close enough to home for getting back for the Barcelona v Real Madrid game (I mean supper), on at 10pm on Spanish TV. Exhausting stuff.
Sociedad won 3-0, but I was ordered to go shopping at half-time for some ingredients for the supper my wife was kindly preparing for our guests. Under instructions to buy crushed almonds for the carrot cake, I spent a worrying five minutes unable to sort out the complex issue of what was crushed and what was not, almost resulting in missing the opening five minutes of the second half.
• 4. Barcelona v Real Madrid - an excellent game despite the efforts of the referee to turn it into farce, or of certain players, whichever way you look at it. Roberto Carlos, booked for the penalty that never was, then proceeded to accuse referee Medina Cantalejo and one of his linesmen of being 'a pair of shits' - a sentiment I fully shared at the time since their previous threat of a strike had kept me from visiting the Camp Nou, but maybe little Roberto should have thought twice before leaving his colleagues with a mountain to climb.
Nevertheless, they did so most impressively, equalising with an excellent goal from the temporarily revived Ronaldo, and then holding out against Europe's most feared attack. Barça won't be unduly panic-stricken by the result, but it is some time now since they went three games without scoring a goal (Málaga, Benfica, Real Madrid). They haven't conceded one in that time either, but on Wednesday they entertain Benfica with Marquez and Motta both missing, and Edmilson and Puyol doubtful.
It would be a shame to blow it now after such an excellent season, but visions of Benfica's win at Anfield are beginning to dance across the eyes of the Camp Nou faithful. And the crushed almonds were the wrong ones.
And then on the Sunday, another dessert in the shape of the Basque derby in Vitoria between Alavés and Athletic, with both sides desperate for points, all washed down with a nice bottle of wine during the Seville derby at Betis, televised by Canal Plus at nine in the evening. Get a life? Who wants one? Indeed, it was worth watching this final game simply to see if Sevilla could get through the 90 minutes without too much controversy - an unlikely circumstance given the history of these games.
Last week Sevilla were forced from the pitch at Atlético Madrid after several objects (among them a large bottle of whisky) were hurled at goalkeeper Palop, forcing the referee to temporarily suspend the game. Controversially, he started it up again half an hour later, to a half-filled stadium. Atlético have since had their knuckles rapped with a hefty fine and a warning vis à vis stadium closure, but at least justice was done and Sevilla won the game. The Calderón has for too long been an unremittingly hostile place for teams to visit, and indeed this very weekend Celta and referee Lizondo Cortés got the usual treatment, which fortunately failed to have any effect - Celta winning 0-3.
Betis, on the other hand, are a reasonably friendly club, but all that changes when their city neighbours come to visit. The local police dread the game (and the one in the Sánchez Pizjuan, of course), and almost every year the surrounding neighbourhoods look as though they've just been subjected to a nuclear strike. You could be forgiven for thinking that you were witnessing scenes from the Civil War as street battles rage all day, to be replaced by similarly pugilistic scenes inside the stadium at night.
The football? Ah yes - Betis scraped it 2-1, but only after Sevilla were denied what looked like a clear penalty on Saviola in injury time. Iturralde Gonzáles, one of the better referees in La Liga, decided it just wasn't worth a lynching, and invented the on-the-spot theory that the little Argentine had strangled himself whilst otherwise attempting to score in front of a gaping goal. The fact that a Betis defender was suspiciously in the vicinity seemed not to register. Never mind - the ref had had a tense old night.
Now Betis are breathing more easily, and Sevilla have limited their chances of catching Osasuna, whose Champions League berth should have wobbled more nervously after losing 0-4 at home to Getafe.
Manager Bernd Schuster could still be in the reckoning for the Bernabéu job, awkward chap though he undoubtedly can be. Traditionally a good-start manager, he's sustained things heroically well at Getafe this season, and has moulded a side of anonymous also-rans into a team extremely difficult to beat. His name has been whispered around the Castellana, and you never know. He'd probably come cheaper than Ancelotti.
Anyway, seven measly weeks left, and then the salvation of the World Cup. That should manage to sustain enough interest to keep the bar conversations going through the two worst months of the year, July and August. And if nobody manages to make Barça stutter just a little more for what remains of this season, there's always an interesting scene coming to the boil in the Second Division, which we'll take a look at next week. What an exhausting weekend. Good job there's the working week in which to recover.