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Trending: Crowd incident mars Everton game


The Soweto Derby: A rich history and a tragic past


The Grim Reaper

Relegation is a bit like death. You never think it's going to happen to you. You never think it (death) is going to happen to your nearest and dearest either. But of course it does. The writer (and goalie) Albert Camus thought that football mirrored accurately the human condition, and in this sense he was certainly right.

Your first awareness of the fact that it might be interesting to follow your local football team tends to occur at a developmental stage of childhood that eventually merges the two things into one. The football team becomes you, your past, your history, your present and your future. No matter how ridiculous this can seem, it's impossible to throw off this emotional attachment, this basic umbilical cord.

Those outside of the church of football just don't get it, but those on the inside understand it only too well. I've never thought of football as tribal - as so many sociologists have tried to say. I've always seen it as intensely personal, as something to keep to myself. I like talking and writing about football, but in the end it's a subjective emotion. You can be standing in a crowd of 60,000 people, all cheering the same goal - but the dialogue's internal, in the end. No-one's seeing it in quite the same way as you.

The football team becomes you, your past, your history, your present and your future. No matter how ridiculous this can seem, it's impossible to throw off this emotional attachment, this basic umbilical cord.

That seems a rather pretentious way of describing Sunday January 28, but anyway, there it is. Real Sociedad lost 0-2 at home to Athletic Bilbao in the Basque 'derbi' and thereby condemned themselves to imminent relegation - or at least coming to terms with it. As one supporter put it as he spoke to the roaming vox-pop cameras outside after the game; 'That's the last derbi you'll see in the top flight'.

Perhaps that's getting a bit drastic, but the young supporter had appeared to assimilate what looks increasingly like the inevitable. As Camus said - it's a part of the human condition. Bilbao's supporters danced out of the stadium, drunk on the glee of another three points, more secure in the feeling that they are pulling away from the trapdoor, where lurks the Grim Reaper. By contrast, Sociedad supporters looked as if they were in mourning, reluctantly accepting their mortality. It happens to you when you're about 40 years old, and you look in the mirror one morning and, as Martin Amis put it, 'you realise you're going to die'.

Up to this weekend, there was talk in the town of the team winning the derbi and pulling up and away, galloping into the fresh new fields of the second half of the season. But reality has hit hard. Sociedad, penultimate in the table, now need to garner 27 points (at least) from their remaining 18 games to have a hope in hell - or heaven, as the case may be. Forty points is usually the cut-off, give or take a draw or two. To achieve that little lot, they would need to win nine (half) of their remaining games, with maybe a draw or two thrown in.

Nine wins, when they've only managed thirteen points in twenty games so far. Stranger things have happened, but people in the city have looked in the mirror this evening, and seen their mortality, preserved since the early 1960's when the club last came up from the Second Division. Athletic have never played in the Second Division, much to their credit, and look once again to be capable of preserving their status. What's the difference between the two conditions - of relegation fodder and survival resources?

I was thinking about this matter on Sunday morning. The Real Sociedad players always gather in a hotel near to my house on match-days, and they were going for their morning constitutional, splendid in their navy-blue track-suits, as I staggered out for the morning paper.

It never fails to amaze me, but when you see them wandering down the road in little bunches, little cliques, laughing and joking in that slightly self-conscious way that professional footballers have, you can't help but be stunned by how absurdly young they look. Removed from their grass theatres they look strangely vulnerable, like little kids on a school outing.

That morning I couldn't help but think that they were hiding from the inevitable, that they were looking sideways at relegation, and just how it is affecting the whole mood of the city. Maybe the manager had told them to go out for a walk and to look upbeat, like wearing something bright at a funeral.

I nodded to a couple of them as they passed me, and murmured 'good luck' in Spanish. They returned those nervous little glances that footballers specialise in, as if they can't quite understand what it's like anymore to be a normal person, and to be going down to the bakery in the morning for the papers and a loaf of bread.

The weirdest thing of all was that an hour later, I had to drive my eleven year-old son to Sociedad's training ground, where he was to undergo the second of a series of trials he's been called to. Proud dad missed last week, because he was away, but this weekend was a must. First my kid's trial, then the derbi. A big day. A big day all connected to football, as ever.

They returned those nervous little glances that footballers specialise in, as if they can't quite understand what it's like anymore to be a normal person, and to be going down to the bakery in the morning for the papers and a loaf of bread.

It was freezing - three below zero - and the training ground (Zubieta) on the rural outskirts of the city, was glinting in the weak morning sun. It was wonderful for me to see my kid emerge from the players' dressing-room, dressed in the colours, walk past the stand and walk out onto the pitch where the full-time pros strut their stuff week in week out.

And yet as the kids' game went on, I couldn't help but reflect on the sadness of it all - that these kids, offered a trial, might eventually come to think that there are better things to do, especially when the team they're desperate to sign for now may become Second Division has-beens in the future, by the time they come through - assuming they do. There's nothing wrong with the Second Division, of course. But when you're accustomed to greater heights, it seems like death, it really does.

Both of Athletic's goals were scored by Andoni Iraola, a young player who had been through the very same process as described above, playing in and around the San Sebastian scene before being whisked away to Athletic in his late teens. Someone from that bunch of lads this morning will be doing the same thing, in five or six years' time - but they'll want it to be in the top flight. Bilbao seem to have what it takes to stay afloat, whereas both of my teams, Grimsby and Real Sociedad, do not. To get back to the point, what's the difference?

I reckon it's all about the composition of the group, not the 'quality' of the squad. I noticed that word floating around the BBC studio last week when Mark Lawrenson was asked why he thought Watford wouldn't stay up, despite their fighting qualities. They talk about it a lot here too, 'calidad' being the word. Well, maybe without it you can't really aspire to winning trophies, but it's questionable whether you really need much of it to survive in the top flight. Wimbledon stayed long enough in the old English First Division to prove that particular paradigm.

Athletic have, to begin with, a very young squad. They have little choice but to blood players from their youth set-up, since they cannot rely on the transfer market due to their stubborn, but noble, insistence on only fielding Basque players. This column has questioned the so-called purity of this before, and the interpretation of 'Basque' has become somewhat flexible through the years, but it's undeniable that the policy creates a fierce group identity at the club, a sort of reason-to-be.

The Spanish call this 'una piña' (a pineapple) and it refers to the close bunching of the fruit and the close parallel bonding of the players, under one cultural roof, as you might say.

Real Sociedad no longer have this. They still have a high percentage of local players in the squad, for which they should be commended, but as far back as the late 1980's they ceded to the policy of buying foreigners (John Aldridge was the first) and then, more recently, to signing 'Spanish' (non-Basque) players from the Spanish league. It was an unspoken policy, as if nothing had happened, but it was widely commented on at street level.

Nobody wants to sound xenophobic, but it's undoubtedly true that it's not the same any more at the club. The pineapple has lost its juice. The players form cliques, whether they admit it or not, and there is not the same esprit de corps in a club from a provincial city that suddenly opens its doors to all and sundry. This is because it is difficult (though not impossible) for those 'outsiders' to really understand the culture they are playing for.

This is especially true of players who arrive on loan - something quite common to struggling clubs. Someone should do a study - but the necessity the struggling club feels for bringing in new flesh is almost always counter-productive, if it's over-done. Established players feel threatened, and tend to resent too many new faces. And besides, it's much more difficult to play with strangers than to play with a group who you've known for a long period of time.

If you're Barcelona or Real Madrid (or Arsenal), it's not a problem because those clubs are embedded in large urban contexts that have a strong local flavour but which have also been unashamedly cosmopolitan in their outlook, particularly in the case of the two famous Spanish sides. Foreign players have always been sought as recruits to glorify the local cause - a happy mix that has almost always worked in those sides. It's a part of the clubs' cultures.

Real Sociedad will not be deemed relegated until the mathematics finally prove it. Hope springs eternal in the breast, even of those who know they're now mortal.

But at a more provincial level, it's not the case at all. Even at my other club, Grimsby Town, in the north of England, there's a 'Grimsby thing' that incoming players need to buy into. It's a strange place, out on a limb geographically, and a hard place, not too kind on softies.

But the club is staring the Conference in the face, and it's probably due to the same problem - to an excess of loan players who know nothing of the local culture, are probably not that interested in it, and who cannot feel the same about the club as someone who has grown up in the town or who has played for the club for a number of years. Watching them play is like watching eleven strangers. And pineapples don't grow easily in places like Grimsby.

It doesn't stop you dreaming though. Real Sociedad will not be deemed relegated until the mathematics finally prove it. Hope springs eternal in the breast, even of those who know they're now mortal. I know the Grim Reaper will visit one day, but I still can't quite accept it, at the bottom of me.

All this, even though the bottom club, Nastic, won 4-0 against Espanyol and Betis beat Valencia, which leaves Sociedad eight points from safety. That's nine points from safety for Nastic, but they look better than their position suggests, and may well be on the up.

It's a hard life being a football supporter. Wouldn't have it any other way...

  • 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.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk