It hasn't been a great week for Barcelona. Deprived of a win over Chelsea in injury-time, in a game during which the normally calm and affable Rijkaard appeared to be losing it, they landed in Coruña on Friday afternoon to prepare for the game against Deportivo on Saturday - only to learn as they left the plane that the father of Carles Puyol had been killed in an industrial accident. Puyol took the call on the tarmac, then returned straight away to Barcelona.
It's not difficult to understand how tricky this must be for everyone concerned, and of course I don't mean to minimise in any sense the pain experienced by the player himself. That goes without saying. But for those unfortunate enough to have to play a public football match the next day, there is always a crippling sense of irrelevance to the event itself, something that professional footballers find it very hard to cope with.
They'll re-form the group in the player's absence (in this case the captain's absence) and make perfectly sincere noises about doing their best for their mate - indeed, Ronaldinho kissed the armband he had been given for the day in Puyol's place, after he had converted a penalty in the Riazor. It was a kind gesture of solidarity, and typical of the good-natured Brazilian. But it was clear from Barça's off-colour performance that the combination of the mid-week Mourinho trauma and the news about Puyol had simply done for them.
Marca, who wrote some admiring and sympathetic stuff about Puyol over the weekend, were not so generous in their view of the game on Saturday night, attributing Barça's draw (as if a draw were really something tragic) to the fact that teams were 'losing respect' for the Catalans and were no longer so afraid of them. Having seen Chelsea intimidate and ruffle them, the theory went, now anyone can do it.
Well, Depor have been turned into a much more physical side by manager Joaquin Caparrós, but the draw was more down to the referee's curious decision to give the home side a penalty, maybe because they'd moaned so much earlier about the one given to Barça.
But whereas Saviola was caught in a definite sandwich between two home defenders, I failed to see any sort of foul whatsoever for Depor's. But it happens every week here now. The referees in Spain are in a completely distinct space-time continuum. Doctor Who is onto the case, but meanwhile it's just a case of shrugging shoulders and accepting the weirdness.
The point is, however, that Marca were being less than generous in their view of the game, wholly omitting to mention that Barça were obviously a side playing under the debilitating effects of the Chelsea game and their captain's bereavement.
More generous were the players of Espanyol, who took to the field for their game against Valencia wearing t-shirts proclaiming 'Animo Puyi! (Cheer up Puyol). It might not be apparent to readers outside of Spain, but there is little love lost between the two sides from Barcelona, and although the poorer neighbours have ex-Barça players in their ranks (De la Peña. Moha, Rufete) it was still a touching gesture.
As if this wasn't enough, on the Saturday afternoon Sergi López, ex-Barça player from the 1980's and elder brother of the more recent culé Gerard, was knocked down by a train and killed in Granollers. I couldn't establish whether the players had also been told of this on the Saturday, but they were probably spared the news until the Sunday morning.
To finally rub salt into the wound, Sevilla did as expected the next evening, beating Osasuna 2-0 to go top of the league. It's not that Barça have been permanently ensconced at the top of the league for the last two years, but that's the impression most people have. Certainly, by this stage last season they were running away with things.
A glance at the league table at the end of this weekend however makes interesting reading, with Zaragoza of all teams moving up threateningly into 3rd place, a mere point behind Barça.
There were plenty of pundits who'd predicted that Sevilla might challenge this season, but no-one had the imagination to go for Zaragoza too. It seems, however, that the arrival of Victor Fernández to the bench has had a galvanising effect on a squad that does boast some decent players. Pablo Aimar comes immediately to mind, but he's hardly played this season. Rather it's the Milito brothers (with Diego currently the league's joint 'Pichichi'), with Movilla and Zapater forming a tough midfield tandem, that seems to be the secret, plus the ever-willing Ewerthon up front - a player who never seems to get the recognition he deserves.
|“||The reason behind Madrid's recent improvement had been bandied about in the press as the result of a new 'piña' (pineapple) formed among the group. ”|
Who would have thought at the start of the season that the fixture Zaragoza v Getafe would have had as its background music for both sides a place in the Champions League positions? Well, if Osasuna could do it last year, there's little reason to write off either of these two.
But back to the human side of things. Barcelona's wretched week has not been the only news to remind us that footballers are, after all, just like anyone else.
Over at Real Madrid a juicy story broke in midweek of a bust-up between Antonio Cassano and Fabio Capello, in which the Italian player, recently out of favour, apparently shouted 'You shameless so-and-so. I stood up for you at Roma, and now this is how you replay me'.
Nobody has managed to report in the press as to whether this was said in Italian or in Spanish, but it was definitely said. Cassano was referring to the fact that he (and Ronaldo) had spent almost the entire game the week before warming up on the touchline, only to be ignored by their manager who had asked them to go out there and do it in the first place.
They both took it as some kind of public humiliation by Capello, and Ronaldo also had a few quieter grumbles during the week. He, however, was restored to the side against Celta, despite Capello telling the press that the Brazilian was still too fat.
Celta won 2-1 in the Bernabéu and deflated the team's recent run of decent results, but Cassano was well and truly cast out into the wilderness, especially after he claimed on Thursday to have regretted signing for the Spanish club and that if asked, he would crawl back to Roma on his knees to beg for forgiveness.
Raúl and the other players appeared to close ranks, with spokesman Raúl claiming that 'the rules of the club have to be respected', which was his way of saying 'Good riddance to the moody little sod', and which was, of course, the kiss of death for Cassano. Ronaldo has never quite recovered from his ticking-off he received from Raúl last season, and the bets are still on for him to be flying in an Italian direction come January.
The reason behind Madrid's recent improvement had been bandied about in the press as the result of a new 'piña' (pineapple) formed among the group. This refers to a situation in which team-mates in any sport form a huddle or a ruck of mutual solidarity, one which carries them to the eventual triumphs that talent alone cannot guarantee.
It could be true. Certainly, those who have played sport at a decent level will know the power of togetherness. It's no cliché, and it can bond the most ordinary of collectives into something much more potent. The word 'piña' is quite common in Spanish sports-speak, and last week was no exception.
Funnily enough, Raúl claimed that it had come about partly as a result of the team's new Friday afternoon routine, after training finishes. 'We get together at the training ground, have a drink together and eat some tapas. That's how you make a pineapple.' Funny that. I always thought they grew on trees.
And last but not least, as we conclude this week's theme on the affective nature of players' lives, consider the squad of Real Sociedad whose members still find themselves rock-bottom of the league with just two points from the nine games played so far. Their defeat at Levante means that they have just completed the club's worst start to a campaign in their 97-year history.
Must be because the climate's too cold up in the Basque Country to grow pineapples. Or something like that.