Of football and hunger
'You have to be hungry'. That's what Alfredo Di Stéfano said to a Spanish journalist when asked, on his return to Real Madrid to manage the team, which factor separated the great players from the merely good ones.
But Di Stéfano, who this last weekend was honoured by Michel Platini with the UEFA President's Prize, did not mean 'hungry' in the figurative sense that a manager would mean it today. He meant 'literally hungry'.
Di Stéfano is an important figure in football, not simply because he marked the passing of the old into the modern era of the game, but also because he was the template for the great ones to follow, Pelé, Maradona, Cruyff, Zidane - added to which he created the concept of the superstar, in a purely footballing sense.
He enabled the modern era to begin, and in an ironic sense, he enabled footballers to be hungry no more. The four players cited above all came from humble backgrounds, but none was steeped in absolute poverty. But you could say that they were fairly hungry.
At the weekend, the 81-year-old Di Stéfano was interviewed by various people, even though he hates having a recorder whirring below his chin. When Eduardo Inda asked Di Stéfano what he thought of the galactic era, the bad-tempered old Argentine spat back 'Don't talk to me about bloody galácticos! What galácticos? They were human. Don't use that word again in my earshot. It was almost the ruin of this club!'
Bobby Charlton described Di Stéfano as 'inhuman' after Real Madrid had beaten Manchester United in 1957, to negate the Argentine's own word from the previous paragraph - but Charlton was praising not burying. He simply meant that Di Stéfano's talent was supernatural, on a different level from anything he'd seen before. Helenio Herrera, talking to the writer Simon Kuper, claimed that Pelé was the first violinist, but that Di Stéfano was the whole orchestra. Praise indeed.
We may not see his like again, mainly because the more rigid tactics of the modern game do not permit a player to be a total footballer any longer. Di Stéfano defended, created and scored, in bucketfuls. Looking at him this weekend, a frail man supported by a walking stick, it's hard to imagine just how good he was, and how hungry he was - despite the fact that he'd been brought up partly on a farm.
And the fuss about him all weekend brought into sharper focus the relative failings of the present bunch of Real Madrid players, beaten 2-1 by Betis despite having over 60% of the possession and despite opening the scoring within ten minutes.
Over in Zaragoza, Barcelona were gifted a win by a referee who thought he saw a handball where none existed, but Zaragoza, who missed a penalty, can hardly complain. But nobody looked very hungry.
Betis identified and then exploited a weakness in the Madrid rearguard where no-one attacks an aerial ball whipped in from the flanks. Madrid's full-backs, Salgado and Marcelo, were so poor in their closing down of space that Betis had all the time in the world to chip away at this crack in the armoury, both their goals coming from identical crosses and identical headers into the same corner. Apart from that, Madrid played as though another goal would come, just as long as they kept the ball and passed it around with no particular plan in mind.
Both they and Barcelona seemed preoccupied by the events to come this week, but Sevilla, also playing in the Champions League this week (in Turkey), seemed less distracted if their 2-4 defeat of declining Espanyol was anything to go by.
So now only five points separate the big two, with Real Madrid facing a potentially awkward game next weekend at home to Getafe, whereas Barcelona host bottom club Levante. Despite the latter club's improvement of late (they beat Osasuna on Sunday), another slip-up by Madrid could therefore see the league looking rather more competitive again. The Levante players still haven't taken the 'action' they threatened to take last week, but are still owed money. Now there's a hungry squad, rooted to the bottom of the table. So much for Di Stéfano's theory.
In the end, it's a question of desire. I'm not sure how you instil this in modern players, but this season in La Liga continues to illustrate the fact that talent isn't quite enough. I had lunch with a professional footballer a fortnight ago, a player who shall remain unnamed (on his request) but who at least paid for the meal. Then again, he does earn rather more than me. But pleasant though the encounter was, I couldn't help reflecting, as we tucked into our steaks and supped on the rather nice bottle of Spanish Reserve that he ordered, that things have become a little too comfortable for some of today's practitioners of the beautiful game.
I was kind of surprised at his expertise when checking out the wine list, and at the way he stuck his nose expertly into the glass proffered by the waitress, as if a knowledge of fine wines were the reason for his existence, as opposed to playing football. I'd been expecting him to order a bottle of water and a plate of pasta - not that I was complaining. But it gave me pause for thought.
At the weekend, the best performances were once again from sides with players who do not require any motivation to get them going, and who lack the luxurious distractions of Champions League involvement. Humble Almería moved into seventh place after beating their fellow-promotion partners Murcia 1-0, and now stand a mere point from the UEFA Cup places. This continues to make the Spanish league the attractive competition it is, despite the inevitable presence of Madrid and Barça in the top two places. Almeria's goalkeeper Diego Alves, rapidly turning into this year's unsung hero, has now surpassed Iker Casillas' record of minutes without conceding a goal, although the press mentioned this almost as an aside. When Casillas was doing the same, it was never out of the papers.
Atlético Madrid, a side always allegedly hungry because they live in the shadow of their illustrious and better-fed neighbours, ended a dismal week by losing to two sides who both showed more appetite than they did, for contrasting reasons. Beaten by Bolton in midweek in the UEFA, they fell foul of the pretension that they were technically the superior side and that they would therefore win. They were simply not expecting to be hustled and bustled out of the game, although they should have been, had they done their homework.
The same thing happened on Sunday, when they lost at home to Athletic Bilbao, a team with none of Atlético's quality, but one which can always dig deep to find reserves of passion and commitment. That's the reason why Racing de Santander are having such a good season too. They all work for each other, close teams down and hit them on the break with a solid sense of collective purpose - a bit like Valencia used to do, before they lost their way. Granted, Villarreal missed a penalty against Racing and had what looked like a decent goal disallowed in the dying minutes of the game, but the theory holds.
Finally, spare a thought for Victor Casadesús, loaned out by Mallorca to 2nd Division Real Sociedad in the January window. Despite the fact that Sociedad are fairly broke, their new president, who owns the own company to which he is signing the new loan players, thence to contract out their services to Sociedad, has promised Victor that for every goal he scores, he'll receive the not inconsiderable sum of 10,000 euros. Victor made his debut this weekend and scored twice against Las Palmas. One only hopes that he's intelligent enough to share his spoils amongst his new team-mates, or that he invites then all out to dinner, at the very least. It might keep him a little hungrier, and will guarantee that when Sociedad get their next penalty, nobody will complain when Victor races up to the spot shouting 'I'll take it!'