Yes - it's that time again. Every season around this period, with three or four games remaining, the talk in Spain turns to 'maletines', a mythical word which translates as 'suitcases' but which carries with it a cultural baggage that has extended the meaning of the word into a concept unique to La Liga. The suitcases, as explained in previous years in this column, are of course stuffed full with wads of notes, or wads of metaphorical ones - it doesn't matter.
In Spain, one team can apparently pay another team to play well, a perfectly legal practice, assuming that it actually does go on. You cannot pay a team to lose, of course, but there's no problem in a team with something to play for promising a few euros to a side lounging in mid-table comfort, dreaming of the poolside and the piña coladas. But it's complicated, enormously complicated.
A fortnight ago in the Levante v Nastic match (2-0) the visiting goalkeeper, Albano Bizzarri, was mysteriously and unexpectedly replaced before the kick-off by reserve keeper Rubén Pérez. Manager Paco Flores spent the rest of the week attempting (vainly) to justify the eleventh-hour decision to drop his first-choice goalkeeper, whilst the rest of the country was speculating on the rumours of 'llamaditas' (little phone-calls) from down Levante way. The suggestions were that Levante, on the edge of the relegation zone as opposed to being buried up to their neck in it (like Nastic), had been making little calls to certain players promising them unspecified favours - and that one of these players was Bizzarri.
If this were true, then it would be a much more serious case of 'maletines', since it would have been a direct invitation to throw the game. The truth of the matter seemed to be that Levante (according to Nastic's captain Antonio Pinilla) are well-known for this behaviour, and that all it required was a tip-off to a local journalist to begin the rumour. From local level the tip-off moves smoothly to national, and the player(s) cited come under suspicion. Whether Bizzarri was offered anything or not then becomes irrelevant. His name came up, and so it would appear that his manager had little choice but to relegate him to the bench. Bizzarri is a better keeper than Rubén Pérez, which was the whole point as far as Levante were concerned.
It's also around this time of the season that some old granny from deepest rural Spain is dragged into the spotlight after winning millions on the pools with a single, simple, one euro bet. Said granny was of course the only person in the country to dream up results such as Atlético Madrid 0 Barcelona 6, or Espanyol 1 Getafe 5. The rest of the serious pools' punters, after spending time and thought on the likely outcomes of the weekend's games, just shrugged their shoulders and tossed their pieces of paper into the bin.
As Atlético Madrid's still baby-faced star forward Fernando 'The Child' Torres admitted in midweek, 'No suitcases have arrived yet, as far as I know', in ironic reference to the rumours that their illustrious neighbours from the Bernabéu would have been expected to send a few suitcases their way, just to make sure that they gave Barça a game. 'Why would we let Barça win?' asked Torres, rhetorically, before adding 'We still have to secure our UEFA place'. During the same press conference, with unfortunate timing, team-mate Peter Luccin claimed that he nevertheless wanted Barça to win the league. No Atlético player worth his salt would admit to wanting Real Madrid to win it, but Luccin's words may come to haunt him next week when the post-mortems begin.
Barcelona, of course, may also have sent a few cases-worth down to deepest Huelva, where Recreativo were playing Real Madrid in an awkward looking encounter for the new leaders. The suitcase would have been of mutual benefit to Recre and Barça, helping the Catalans to clamber back onto their throne whilst in defeating Atlético Madrid, Barça would help seventh-placed Recre realise their faint but still-alive hopes of catching Atlético and pinching their UEFA place from them. Confused? Not surprising.
In the end, Real Madrid won 2-3 with a last-gasp goal from the old warhorse Roberto Carlos, and as mentioned Barcelona stuffed Atlético 0-6 at the Calderón, an extraordinary result which changes yet again the colour and tone of the ending to this weirdest of seasons. Atlético's previous worst home result was a 0-4 defeat at home to Betis in 1980, which shows the enormity of this defeat, especially given the home side's tepid improvement of late and Barça's wretched form. But it was just as well that the champions won, since both Sevilla and Valencia scraped home (1-2 at Deportivo and 0-1 at Mallorca respectively) to keep the pressure cooker on full-steam ahead.
There are three games to go now, but next week presents another angle to the suitcases saga. Down at the bottom of the league the situation is hotting up too, but in situations that several teams would have hoped never to have encountered. Osasuna, less-than-fresh after losing to Sevilla in the UEFA Cup semi-final, have been wobbling in the league ever since, and before this weekend's 1-4 win at the aforementioned Levante, had been falling steadily into the mire. But they now have 40 points, seven clear of Real Sociedad who occupy the third relegation spot.
As a cruel caprice of the gods, next week they face Basque cousins Real Sociedad at home, in what is a crucial game for the visitors. They have to win it to continue to aspire to their great escape, after looking doomed in January when they were ten points off the survival spot. They're now only one point behind their Basque neighbours Athletic Bilbao, Sociedad on 33 and Athletic on 34.
In short, it's a tough one. Even putting aside for a moment the political and cultural ties between these three teams, the dog-eat-dog scenario that is bubbling up has got everyone in Navarre and the Basque Country on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is because at the end of season 2000-2001, Real Sociedad faced Osasuna in the last game of the season. Real were mathematically safe on 43 points, but Osasuna needed to win to avoid relegation. All that week the talk was of allowing Osasuna to win, because the cultural ties were close and the two clubs had always been good mates, etc.
It was a 'secreto a voces' as they say here (an open secret), and in a dodgy show of unprofessionalism on the part of Sociedad (I was at the 'game') Osasuna - who, in the immortal words of Dave Bassett could not have 'hit a cow's arse with a banjo' back then, won 0-1 and stayed up, relegating Oviedo in the process and subsequently sending them to the wilderness to which they have been subsequently condemned, a once proud side now lurking in the depths of the Spanish 3rd Division - partly due to that day back in 2001 and partly due to their own financial incompetence/irregularities. But you knew back then that no good would come of it. This type of game is a dangerous liaison, and will inevitably come back to haunt you. Now, after Sociedad's excellent comeback against Celta (3-1) this weekend, the win sees them still clinging with hope to the wreckage. The talk around town is that Osasuna 'nos debe uno' (owe us one). Osasuna know this, of course, although their current president took over a year after that fateful June day in 2001. But it makes no difference. He is being made very aware of the situation, as you can imagine.
The trouble is, Osasuna need two more points to be mathematically safe, and to return the favour from six years ago is to play with fire. If Levante and Betis were to win next weekend, then the final two games - one of which features Betis v Osasuna, could get very hot indeed. So apart from the fact that they cannot really risk returning the favour, they cannot be seen to do it for an even more important reason, namely Athletic Bilbao.
It says much for Basque football that since 1928, there has never been a situation like this, in which the survival of one of the big two (Athletic and Real) depended on the possible relegation of the other. The two sides have had their spats over the years, and recently broke off relations over the Zubiarre affair (previously profiled in the column), but for one to condemn the other to relegation is unthinkable. Basque sporting brotherhood may break up on the surface of things, but deep down it remains intact. It's an extraordinary thing, and is well worth the preserving.
But Osasuna, for their part, cannot be seen as some kind of arbiter, some kind of executioner either, and possibly condemn themselves in the process! It's an agonising situation, and one that the rest of the league understands only too well. Certain teams (Betis, Levante and possibly Celta) will be hoping that it plays into their hands, but all eyes will be on the result from Pamplona next week. And who will be sending the suitcases? That's a good question, but it'll be interesting to see if there are any 'little phone calls' emanating from the Levant area this week.
However, the column cannot end without some mention of Espanyol, whose sublime failure in Glasgow on Wednesday night in an excellent all-Spanish showpiece was sadly cancelled out by a 1-5 thrashing at home to Getafe on Sunday. Talk about hangovers. Sevilla looked to be suffering too at one point in their visit to Deportivo, but after falling behind they rallied and kept up the possibility of the treble.
But what a great game it was in Glasgow, played in an excellent spirit. No trouble on the pitch, no trouble on the terraces or in the city, and a bold and moving initiative from Platini to get the winning side to applaud the losers through, on their way up for their medals. Anything to cut out the tiresome triumphalism of teams on these occasions, caught up in their own testosterone-fuelled egos and incapable of showing sympathy or even recognition of the losers. The sincere gestures from both sides as Espanyol were funnelled through was a sight worth repeating, a humanising touch in a sport that seemed to be forgetting how to celebrate victory in a half-decent manner.