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Campeones everywhere!

It's been a good(ish) week for Spanish football, the 'ish' part referring to the Villarreal blip and Riquelme's famous penalty miss - destined to go down in footballing legend here along with similarly historic misses by Raúl and Djukic which are now part of the collective folk memory.

The residents of Vila-Real, however, showed that they bore the Argentine no grudges by hanging a large poster across the road from his house the next day with the words 'Ánimo Román' (Cheer up Román) written on it, in touching recognition of the fact that they'd probably never have reached the semi-finals without him anyway.

Apart from this, Barça of course reached the Champions final, albeit in a rather unconvincing fashion, aided and abetted by the quirky Marcus Merk.

A couple of nights later Sevilla made it to the UEFA Cup final, which they'll play in Eindhoven against Middlesbrough. The trouble with this is that no Spanish commentator knows how to pronounce 'Middlesbrough' - the word tending to come out as 'Meedles-burrow'. You shouldn't laugh though.

It took the BBC a full ten years to pronounce the golfer 'Ballesteros' correctly, and just when they finally managed it...along came Olazabal to renew the phonetic torture.

Whatever, it's tempting to see these two Anglo-Hispanic finals as evidence that the two leagues are currently Europe's best, and it has to be said that the Italian and German challenges this year have been a shade wimpish.

The most extraordinary thing about the Barça v Milan game was the sporting atmosphere in which it was played.

Even Costacurta decided it wasn't worth getting nasty, and after his yellow card he also decided to join in the party atmosphere.

When Merk disallowed Shevchenko's goal - presumably because Puyol had slipped (it's a new rule: if a centre-half slips, the opposing forward must not head the ball into the goal) the remarkable thing was that none of the Milan players protested. This was commented upon ceaselessly by the Spanish for days afterwards, as if it were new evidence that the Italians had gone soft. Maybe they have.

Certainly, if it had happened the other way around, we would still be reading indignant press reviews, accusations of pay-offs and all manner of conspiracy theories. Milan's acquiescence smacked of resignation, all the stranger for the fact that with a little more self-belief they could have won on the night and pooped the Catalan party, cutting off the growing legend of Dream Team Two in its prime.

Down in Seville, the Andaluz outfit qualified for a European final for the first ever time in their hundred-year history, a curious statistic given their more than decent pedigree, lying 8th in La Liga's all-time ranking, with a league title and three domestic cup wins to their credit.

As a further aside, they became the tenth different Spanish side to reach a European final since official competitions began back in 1956 (European Cup, Fairs Cup, Cup Winners' Cup etc).

They played the game against Schalke on the Thursday night, and since it coincided with the city 'Feria' the squad partied late into the night - until five in the morning, to be precise. They showed up for a brief training session on Saturday before flying up to San Sebastián for the Sunday game against Real Sociedad.

The Basque press had been commenting since Thursday how the events in the UEFA semis would benefit the home side's chances of getting the three points and ensuring mathematical safety from relegation, and when news filtered up north of the partying, the city visibly relaxed. So did the players, apparently, since Sevilla won the game 1-2, and did their chances of another UEFA appearance next season (win or lose in Eindhoven) no harm at all by consolidating sixth place.

Perhaps it was poetic justice after all, since Sociedad benefited last week from Villarreal's half-hearted approach to their league game, sandwiched between their two higher-priority games against Arsenal.

But it's been a good week. Even Chelsea's title win had a Spanish flavour to it. Several newspapers mentioned the fact - with rather embarrassing pride - that the Chelsea players had sung 'Campeones, campeones!' in Cervantes' tongue, as they danced up and down on the Stamford Bridge turf on Saturday.

Rather like last season, when Liverpool's Champions League win was regarded as a vicarious Spanish triumph, Chelsea's use of Spanish in their moment of triumph has led the press here to suggest that the plural noun 'campeones' has become associated with the country's football - a nation of winners.

The more mundane explanation, mentioned in smaller letters by Marca,, was that quite a few players in the Chelsea side either speak Spanish or have had La Liga experience - and that with Portuguese hanging around too, the lingua franca has often been something other than Shakespeare's tongue.

Asier Del Horno has also become the first Spanish player to win the Premier League title - at least having played for a whole season (Reyes managed it in 2004, but he joined Arsenal half-way through), and Jordi Cruyff (Man Utd) doesn't count. He's half-Dutch, and anyway, he was brought up in Catalonia, and they've just declared themselves a nation.

Come to think of it, Andalucia did the same last week too, so that counts Reyes out as well. And Del Horno's a Basque...erm, perhaps we'd better stop there.

The other good news for Spain, or what's left of it, is that Xavi came on for the last ten minutes of Barcelona's game at home to Cádiz on Saturday night. He's missed thirty-one games since he was injured back in December, and it's a great credit to Rijkaard that the team has hardly missed him. Indeed, Iniesta has grown enormously in his absence, and we appear to be on the verge of seeing another great player emerge from the ranks. How many more do the club need?

And to mention Stamford Bridge again, whilst England were mourning the potential loss of Wayne Rooney from their World Cup squad, the return of Xavi only goes to confirm the luxuries that Luis Aragones possesses for June, at least in the middle of the park.

Xabi Alonso, Cesc, Reyes and Xavi, a foursome which has permitted the manager to exclude Real Madrid's Guti from the squad. Guti has his detractors, but the criticisms are usually aimed at the player's personality and his unfortunate tendency to say daft things to the press at least once a month.

In footballing terms, it would be difficult to think of many managers around the globe who wouldn't jump at the chance of having him in their squad. But he's not going to Germany.

Indeed, in Guti's club, at the centre of the beating heart of the Spanish nation, all has not been well this week.

Antonio Banderas, long-time supporter of the club, accused them of being the 'Titanic' this week, sailing over the waves in the guise of a luxury liner, but fatally holed beneath the water-line.

Not a bad metaphor, as it turned out, especially given the week's events when Florentino Pérez' lackey, Fernando Martín, was given the shove after failing to garner even a minimum of confidence votes in an extraordinary meeting in midweek. It seems that several people were unamused by Martín's over-confident manner, and his various empty declarations, one of which was to promise the naming of a new manager in ten days...about 25 days ago.

Not only was this seen as risible, it was also seen as a mark of disrespect to poor López Caro, at least trying his best to do a decent job from the bench since Luxemburgo's departure.

Martín had also been dropping names in an increasingly desperate attempt to convince the board that if he were to stay on, all manner of personages would be attracted to the Bernabéu, amongst them Thierry Henry. But now the luxury liner is without a captain (although a caretaker president has stepped in - do you really want to know his name?).

Then, to set fire to the engine rooms, Zidane announced that he intended to hang up his boots at the end of the season, and that he would not be taking out the option of another year at the Bernabéu. Seems he's tired of the circus, although he didn't quite put it like that. He just said that he didn't want to suffer another year of 'failed objectives'.

At least Madrid won at Osasuna, in a game that had been building up nicely all week due to various arguments that the home players wanted to sort out with Roberto Carlos, after his tackle on Valdo earlier in the season.

Valencia stayed in second place after thrashing Alavés 3-0, but Barcelona only need one more point to make the title theirs. They visit Celta in midweek, there being a whole programme on Wednesday night to get the league finished by May 14 - FIFA's maximum date for domestic competition this season.

But the way Celta are playing at the moment, in with an outside chance of Champions qualification themselves, we may have to wait a little longer yet.

  • 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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