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Rewind to Boxing Day 1963

Barclays Premier League
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Death in the afternoon

It's interesting how at the end of the season the relegation issues down below seem to attract more media and public attention than the events going on up in the higher peaks. Relegation cliff-hangers have always existed as a concept, of course, but maybe because these days there's so much hanging on their outcome (financially speaking), everyone gets just a tad over-excited.

Still - the fact that Barcelona strolled to the league title is fine if you support them. But the excitement factor has been minimal this season. I don't mean that it hasn't been interesting and pretty to watch, but a one-horse race has its limitations. On the other hand, the passion aroused by two of this Saturday's games in the nether regions (of the league I mean) was quite astonishing.

Espanyol and Alavés were slugging it out to the finish, each of them trying to avoid the third relegation spot, with Cádiz and Málaga (curiously enough playing each other on the same day) already down.

Espanyol had the easier job, two points ahead of Alavés, no dodgy megalomaniac as president, and Real Sociedad as opponents - a team already saved and with 'nothing to play for'. Regular readers of this column over the seasons will know that I reserve a particular loathing for that phrase, but hey, when in Rome. There's nothing to be done about it. You might as well ask a Spaniard to stop smoking.

Dmitri Piterman, the president hitherto mentioned, was staring relegation more firmly in the face since a win at home to Deportivo would only guarantee safety in the event of Real Sociedad at least managing a draw at Espanyol.

Interviewed thus about the possibility of 'maletines' (mysterious suitcases full of money which allegedly fly around Spanish airspace on the league's final day) our hero replied: 'Football's an expensive business, and there's a lot of money hanging on the outcomes of games. It seems perfectly natural to me' - in other words admitting that he had sent some suitcases flying San Sebastian way.

Of course, strong denials emitted from the Sociedad camp all week (even though the club is stony-broke and Dmitri's got lots of lovely lolly - or so he reckons), and it was left to Liverpool loanee Mark Gonzáles to act as spokesman for the Basque club, the Chilean claiming that he needed no external source of motivation to go out and play to win in the Montjuic stadium. However, he didn't actually say that he hadn't received any 'external motivation'.

In the end, in a quite amazing evening of tears and souvenirs, Alavés were escaping from an immediate return to the Second Division for 90 minutes. Winning 1-0 with a goal from Bodipo, their supporters were partying as the 0-0 score from Espanyol refused to budge.

Then, in the 91st minute, a punted ball down the middle of the enormous Montjuic pitch evaded Real Sociedad's central defenders and fell invitingly for Coro, just on the edge of the area. He advanced and poked the ball under Alberto's despairing dive - the last act of the goalkeeper's 15-year career at Sociedad.

The split-screen offerings from Spanish TV were then witness to extraordinary scenes. Had you been beamed in from some parallel universe you might just have been forgiven for thinking that the other club from Barcelona had just won the league for the first time in their history.

The normally thinly-populated terraces of Espanyol's Olympic Stadium exploded in collective orgasm, vibrations from which were heard on Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to Catalonia. Conversely, up in Vitoria, a funereal silence descended upon the tightly-packed terraces. As Karl Marx wrote, 'The joy of one is almost always the suffering of another'.

The normally thinly-populated terraces of Espanyol's Olympic Stadium exploded in collective orgasm.

At least Espanyol had kept up the record, since Spanish football statistics began, of winning the cup and not being relegated in the same season. Recreativo de Huelva nearly managed it in 2003 when they went down to Segunda A as losing finalists in the King's Cup, but Espanyol were one minute away from entering their signature into the wrong kind of record books.

The emotional traumas of the Alavés game were witnessed live from the terraces by an Australian friend of mine who featured on this column a couple of years ago. He takes two-yearly holidays and travels to Europe to pack in as much live football as possible.

Australians who enjoy European football tend to walk around in the light of the Antipodean day with pale faces and sunken eye sockets, the result of staying up until 4am to watch TV games, or walking home late from a mate's house who has it all on video.

Since Paul craves the live experience, he's back over in a frenzy of football-gawping, having begun at Man City, flown over for Bilbao v Zaragoza, then taken in Alavés v Deportivo, Eibar v Valladolid - then Osasuna v Valencia on Tuesday night, Barça v Arsenal at my place Wednesday night and then a rest until Germany, where he will attend the World Cup... all done on public transport.

Paul likes football and drinking, which seems fine to me. No wonder Australia is seen by many as the apex of modern civilisation. I do hope they win the World Cup.

Heading back from Vitoria on Sunday morning, he decided to take in Eibar v Valladolid. I drove over and accompanied him to said fixture. Attending matches at places like Eibar is a necessary cultural experience, for those who only understand football in terms of Champions Leagues and top-flight football. I take in a game every season, just to remind myself of what it's all about, in truth. But it was dire. Death in the afternoon, or early evening I suppose.

Poor Eibar, who as the conspiracy theorists have it were cheated of promotion to the First Division last season because of a plan to exclude them at the highest level, are this season in the slough of despond.

Their amazing feats last year, in which they were denied promotion on the last day after a series of extremely questionable refereeing decisions, resulted in the usual annual exodus of all their best players. Indeed, their top scorer from last season, Llorente, should have been playing for Valladolid, but was injured for the game.

With a bunch of youngsters loaned out from the bigger Basque clubs, mixed in with some journeymen old-timers and some other blokes who said they could kick a ball, it all proved easy meat for Valladolid, who won the game 0-1 without so much as breaking sweat.

Eibar are still mathematically alive, but with only five games left are surely destined for the 'pozo' (deep dark well) of Segunda B, where monsters lurk and teams are rumoured to disappear for ever. It was possibly the worst game I have witnessed since Grimsby v Rochdale, 1973. And that was bad. Very bad. Paul himself was grateful for the Eibar experience, but admitted that it might be some time before he visits the place again.

Osasuna should be something else. Tuesday night is simply nuclear, but at the brighter end of the table. Osasuna play Valencia whilst Sevilla, the team of the moment, play Real Madrid at home. All four sides need to win, since the results will decide the remaining three Champions League places and the second-placed automatic qualifier.

It seems incredible that the fixture list has thrown up this finish - all due to the rained-off game in Seville several weeks ago, but for those who still despise the pomp and circumstance of the Champions League, it has to be said that it keeps things going down to the wire, particularly in a season where the league title was all too easily won by the rank favourites.

It's been quite a week in Seville. First Betis saved their own bacon last week, and then Sevilla fried Middlesborough's, with toast, eggs and mushrooms thrown in. The score was a little tough on the English side, but in the end was a fair reflection of the two side's positions in their respective leagues.

Talking live to a radio station in Teeside on the Monday before the game, the interviewer seemed to view Sevilla as 'relatively unknown'. I reminded him that the Spanish outfit were playing out their centenary season, and were still in with a chance of Champions League qualification. Middlesborough who? And you know, I could deal with Steve McClaren, but why does he insist on hiding those bald bits behind the front quiff? A bit dodgy, if you ask me.

Funny old season, all said and done. The biggest heroes have been Osasuna, Getafe, Villareal and Sevilla, and the villains Atlético Madrid, Racing Santander, Zaragoza and Real Madrid. Of the former list, the team from Pamplona have defied all odds (and so-called expert predictions) and have stayed in the top four the whole season. They've done it in some style, and on a shoestring budget.

Getafe have defied everyone and gravity again, finishing a more than respectable ninth. The managers of both these sides may move on as a reward for their labours - Aguirre to Atlético and Schuster to...Real Madrid? The rumours refuse to go away. Villarreal almost made it to Paris, backed by a population of 40,000, and Sevilla we've already heard about.

Of the villains' list, Atlético once again flattered to deceive. Now they've signed 'the next Messi' in the form of Agüero, they might truly prosper next season, especially if Van Nistlerooy and Torres are really in for a swap. Rest assured, dear British readers, that Atlético would be getting by far the better player. Someone should tell Sir Alex now. Torres is really not very good. Atlético have also been bullies all season, intimidating referees and visitors alike with a poisonous atmosphere that has contributed in large part to the destruction of the ozone layer over the Calderón.

Santander have been their mates in arms this season, earning themselves the highest cards tally and generally kicking lumps out of all and sundry. Had they gone down, few would have shed a tear. Zaragoza's appalling inability to react to the racist problems on their terraces earns them their place in the baddies' list this season, whilst Real Madrid stand condemned for crimes against humanity by playing so uselessly as to persuade Zinedine Zidane to pack it all in, at least two years before he needed to. His absence from the game next season diminishes us all.

Oh - and Barcelona will get added to the (heroes) list if they win on Wednesday. But only if...


  • 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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