The honest lawyer
Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona last Saturday night was always going to be an interesting starting dish for the weekend, followed on the Sunday by the main meal, the Madrid 'derbi'. In the end, we got two meals in one, such were the circumstances surrounding both games.
It had been a turbulent week in Bilbao, traditionally a club that prefers to wash its dirty linen at home, behind closed doors. In the house of Bilbao there are many mansions, but over the years its presidents have always managed to make it look like a fairly cosy bungalow in whose garden weeds never grow.
Last season changed all that, with the club suffering a financial crisis, flirting with relegation (they've never been out of the top flight since La Liga turned professional), unable to agree on the thorny twin issues of whether to allow shirt sponsorship and move to a new stadium, and then sacking their manager and calling in the old guard, Javier Clemente, to save the day. That he did, but in the process the outspoken bull-of-the-walk fell out big-time with President Fernando Lamikiz, predicting that the supremo would resign before Christmas and 'leave the club in peace'.
Clemente is now in exile, banished to the lands of Serbia to manage the national team, but no doubt smiling last Friday when Lamikiz finally walked.
Lamikiz is neither the first nor the last president to suffer a breakdown in his relationship with the club manager, but the storm clouds had been gathering for some time, even before Clemente came back and began to bite the hand that was temporarily feeding him. What is it about club presidents these days, in that they all seem to be lawyers?
Lamikiz has just passed on the buck to his deputy, Ana Urkijo - the club's first 'presidenta' and also a lawyer. Has this profession so much time on its hands that it always ends up running football clubs? Joan Laporta, in the San Mamés Director's Box on Saturday night is of the same ilk, as is Real Madrid's new supremo.
The problem with Lamikiz is that he wasn't a very good lawyer. Whether he was honest or not is for others to judge. But he has presided over the decline of a once great institution, and his resignation was of course nothing but a safety measure, removing his own unpopular face and replacing it with a member of his komintern, rather as Florentino Pérez did last season.
Elections are not due until 2008, but Urkijo's only chance of staying the course is for the team's results to improve. She has muttered something to the effect that elections will take place in July (2007) but the popular wisdom says that she is hanging on with a reduced quorum (despite the resignation of five of the board on Friday) because of the obvious interest Lamikiz' board has in the further development of the plans to build a new stadium.
It's hardly inviting writs from those involved to state the obvious here and conclude that such a multi-million pound scheme is bound to involve all sorts of local lobbying, all manner of enchufes (the loaded Spanish word, meaning literally 'plug', that is the acknowledged model of business strategy here) which underlines the sorry truth that it ain't what you know in Spain but who you know. For Lamikiz' board to give up the ghost en masse and hand all this treasure over to a new set of lawyers on the block was simply unthinkable on Friday night, and now Urkijo has the job of calming the seas and presumably those in the construction community who thought they'd been promised the job.
Meanwhile, Athletic lie next to bottom of the table with two points, only saved from the bottom spot by their neighbours, Real Sociedad. Lamikiz proved his utter incompetence at the beginning of last season when he was foolish enough to have himself photographed next to his new 'signing', defender Iban Zubiaurre, a promising full-back who had come through the ranks at Sociedad but who was secretly planning to defect to the club he had always supported. Unfortunately for Lamikiz, Zubiaurre and the lending banks who are fast running out of patience with Athletic, Zubiaurre had a year left on his contract with Sociedad, and had no written permission to rescind it - a contract with a whopping €33million buy-out clause tacked on, such was the defender's promise in his first full season with Sociedad.
Lamikiz actually arranged for the photo-shoot on the same day that Sociedad's new president, Miguel Fuentes, was taking office. For two teams supposedly united by Basque brotherhood, the event was both insulting and farcical. If Lamikiz is a qualified lawyer, then someone needs to check his old exam results.
Fourteen months on, and Sociedad have rejected Zubiaurre's desperate offer of €1.5 million to settle the dispute, and also turned down the legal judgement which found in their favour but which required Athletic to pay €5 million for the full-back's services. Athletic don't have €5, no matter €5million, and were further horrified to learn that their friendly neighbour's new president (also a trained lawyer) had no intention of accepting the judgement, slapping in a new affidavit and insisting on the whole €33million.
Meanwhile, Zubiaurre, a naïve young man but a once promising footballer, has not played a professional game for 16 months, and is confined to training during the week with regional club Durango, whose petition to allow him to play for them was also turned down by Sociedad. Zubiaurre may have been a fool, but the greater blame lies with those who 'advised' him, namely his agent and Lamikiz, an ex-president who has subsequently tried to wash his hands of the incident but whose guilt is total. He can go back to the day job, whilst the youngster, an international at Under-21 level, rots away between legal sittings and judgements.
As if the whole affair (mysteriously unreported outside of Spain) were not farcical enough, Basque judge Carlos Benito-Butrón was informed in early August that he was to preside over the latest appeal by Sociedad to be given the full whack for their ex-employee. The case was scheduled to be heard on Sept 7. Butrón gave it the nod - or whatever judges do - and jetted off on holiday for the rest of August. When he came back, all tanned and relaxed, he announced to the Basque Supreme Court that he could not preside over the case because he was a paid-up member of Athletic. His petition was accepted and the case put back a further two months.
Until it is resolved, Zubiaurre cannot play, but the defender has begun to wonder, quite rightly, if he'll ever set competitive foot on green turf again. Butrón's decision was extraordinary - since he was basically admitting that he could not be objective in the case, given his sympathies towards the club. Why he couldn't have announced this before he went on holiday he has never satisfactorily explained, so presumably he must have made the decision whilst sitting around the pool sipping on his piña colada.
The point now seems to be - is it possible to find anyone in the Basque Country (which has an autonomous legal system) who is neither a fan of Athletic nor of Sociedad, and who is a judge? It's an interesting precedent, but hardly one that inspires confidence. And is supporting a football team a necessary obstacle to objective legal judgement? Answers on a postcard please.
Back to the beautiful game, and as they say in Spain, 'A perro flaco todo es pulga' (to the skinny dog come only fleas). Athletic started brightly against the champions, themselves deprived of injured top-scorer's Eto'o's services for two months, and scored a cracking opener courtesy of a volley by Fran Yeste, a player once in Barça's orbit. The clouds began to lift over San Mamés, the light shone down, and angels' trumpets were a-parping, all until 'Guddy' Gudjohnsen, went flying under an innocuous tackle by Casas, for which the Basque was mysteriously red-carded. After that there was only one result.
Messi ran riot - compensating for Ronaldinho's strangely muted start to the season, and Barça slowly overwhelmed their technically and numerically inferior opponents, so much so that even Saviola came off the bench to score - the first time he'd done so in the league for Barça since 2004. Poor Athletic felt hard done by, and are probably happy of the fortnight's rest afforded to the league due to next weekend's internationals.
That's the other main plate, although I'll try to be brief. The derby in the Bernabéu on Sunday took place in the wholly unnecessary light of the national debate about king-maker Raúl, dropped this week from the national squad for the first time since the 18th century. The parallels with the Beckham saga are interesting, but the furore that Aragonés' decision provoked has been astonishing, the sports' tabloids in particular frothing at their collective mouths and producing mysteriously rapid 'For' and 'Against' polls from the equally frothing public. It may well be that the average guy and gal in the street are actually fairly indifferent, but the papers were having a field day.
Marca led with the precious 'Aragonés didn't call [Raúl] up, not even on the telephone', as if the player, in his greatness, merited special treatment. 'Of course I didn't' replied Aragonés. 'I never call players by telephone'. Raúl, of course, had scored twice in midweek against a feeble Kiev side, his first goals since the 18th century and evidence - (for his butt-kissing lackeys in the Madrid press) - that he was back to his old self. And of course, the man himself further upset the apple-cart by equalising against Atlético on Sunday and saving a point for his team, reduced to ten men after the sending-off of Sergio Ramós.
Raúl was once a great player, and may be again, but like Steve McLaren and Beckham, it is clear that Aragonés has tired of the overbearing influence that one player can have on the set-up. By dropping him at last, he has shown courage where others have meekly failed. Now he can manage the side without having to look nervously across at Raúl, to see whether the great man approves of his every move. He can allow others to emerge from Raúl's shadow and take responsibility.
Raul's reaction on scoring against Atlético was deeply paranoid - pointing to his name on the back of his shirt in a pathetic little act of self-vindication. Some may have applauded, but others will have quietly been thinking 'good riddance'. No-one can question the man's commitment, but Raúl overstayed his welcome. Now the national side might start to function as it should, given the mass of talent that it still possesses in its ranks.