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Apr 7, 2008

Getafe fly the flag

Last week's Bayern Munich v Getafe match in the UEFA quarter-finals was an absolute cracker - a fantastic game that seemingly had half of Spain on the edge of their seats. I must confess to jumping from my sofa and punching the air in almost as much delight as the Antenna 3 commentator, the normally placid Matías Prats - who let out a whoop of such unconcealed delight that it registered 8.5 on the Richter Scale.

'Eurogeta', as the Getafe fans' forum has decided to call the side this season, had just equalised in the 91st minute in Munich with a wondrous goal from the Romanian full-back Cosmin Contra, last seen zipping down the line for Alavés in that amazing UEFA Cup final back in the sepia days of 2001. Alavés are now threatened with relegation to Spain's Segunda 'B', whilst Contra is back in the news big-time, in his 33rd year. Now he's in his third season with Getafe - Getafe who? Ah - there's the rub. Franz Beckenbauer, that paragon of international diplomacy, announced last week that he had never even heard of them, nor of their manager, Michael Laudrup. If the first part of the statement was just plain rude the second was simply ridiculous - a fact obviously pointed out to Becks the next day which saw a climb down and a public apology, but not before the dung had hit the fan over Getafe way.

You see, you can criticise a Spaniard, you can insult him, you can even take the piss out of him, but you must never belittle him. Hell hath no fury like a Spaniard scorned, and Getafe's president Angel Torres was none too pleased at this little snub, although once the Kaiser had apologised Torres agreed to attend the pre-match lunch in Munich after originally saying that he'd rather order a take-away pizza. But he was smiling at the end, after his team played the second half as if it were their avowed intent to make sure that Bayern know who Getafe are now.

Seven million Spaniards watched the game last Thursday, precisely double the amount that watched Getafe beat Tottenham in an earlier round, and almost two million more than watched Spain beat Italy in a friendly a fortnight ago. Barcelona's win at Schalke two nights before had been celebrated in the country but only in certain parts, as is the nature of the game here.

Real Madrid and Barcelona nerds will argue for hours over what the statistics tell us of the two teams' relative popularity in Spain, but the best way to end the discussion is always to settle for the 50-50 resolution. Here in the north, in the Basque Country, I have never seen - in almost eighteen years, a person on the street wearing either a Real Madrid shirt or the red shirt of the national team. But lots of people wear Barça shirts. Politically, culturally and historically it makes sense, as does the fact that in other regions of Spain, wearing a Barça shirt would also result in an uncomfortable experience for the poor person innocent enough to have slipped it on in the morning. But at the moment, no kid in Spain would have any problem at all if they were to turn up to school in a Getafe shirt.

The only people who dislike Getafe are the supporters of local rivals Leganés, down in the southern suburbs of Madrid, but that's fairly normal in any country. At the moment, everyone else here is talking about Getafe, and all the kids this afternoon at half-time in my son's league match ran onto the empty pitch and tried to emulate Contra's goal - with the run and the delicate chip, floated so perfectly over Kahn and the two defenders on the line that it seemed for a moment that the ball hadn't gone in at all.

What was so wonderful about the game was that the Spanish traditionally fear German sides even more than they fear the Italians. They fear their physical prowess and their fierce concentration, their apparent will to win and their methodical application to the art of stifling opponents' play. But in the only two European games that the Spanish could really enjoy in midweek, the remaining sides in both competitions made a convincing case for reaching the semi-finals despite having been drawn away to two Bundesliga teams. Barça started well, scored and looked a much more accomplished side, technically speaking, but could still have blown the game, as is their wont these days. They'll have to do rather better if they are to meet Manchester United in the semis. But the win was not without its merit, especially considering the circumstances, and the fact that most of the Spanish press were convinced that Rijkaard would go if Barça lost.

But the week has belonged to Getafe, and Cosmin Contra. The full-back had only been on the field for twelve minutes, but it was a period in which Getafe's dominance was total, and their commitment to seeking an equaliser (when a 1-0 defeat wouldn't have been too tragic) most noble. They hit the post, they skewed shots wide, they forced Kahn into two great saves, but they finally cracked it, to the champagne-popping delight of the TV audience.

It's difficult to dislike Getafe, partly because of their potty, unglamorous name, and partly because they represent this season's Liga last stand, a defiant finger raised in the direction of all those observers who maintain that the Spanish league is poor on quality this season. And then three days later, the same team travels to the Camp Nou, coincidentally enough, and grinds out a more than creditable 0-0 draw - knocking another nail into the coffin of Barça's vain and perpetual attempts to claw their way back into the title race. And that after Real Madrid had been held to a draw at in-form Mallorca on Saturday night, and Villarreal had been beaten 2-0 at Sevilla just an hour ealier. Real Madrid are now seven points clear of their two pursuers, with seven games to play.

The present manifestation of Getafe was founded in 1983, although the original side was born back in 1946. After a less than distinguished history the side folded in 1981, to reappear in their present form and work their way though the lower leagues until they finally reached the top flight in the 2004-05 season. The previous Getafe had never scaled such heights.

The town is a part of the greater Madrid metropolitan conurbation, but nevertheless boasts a separate identity and a population of 160,000, many of whom commute to Madrid every day to work. You can see the stadium, the Coliseum, to your right as you drive down the motorway to the south. It can hold around 20,000 at full stretch, but the average crowd last season was only 9,500. Nonetheless, the hard-core Getafe fans would never be seen dead at the Bernabéu, and there does seem to be a genuine civic identity, very much forged (at least the recent version) around Getafe's successes.

Last season, in the final phase of Bernd Schuster's big-club managerial apprenticeship, the club reached the Copa Del Rey final for the first time in their history, and although they succumbed to Sevilla they've gone and reached the final again this season - and stand a much greater chance of winning second time around, given that their opponents are the stuttering Valencia.

Their second big-name manager, also doing an apprenticeship at Getafe in order to put himself in the shop window (rumours are that Chelsea will move Grant upstairs and hand Laudrup the job in the summer) has overcome a rocky start and now seems to have settled on a system and a first-choice side. Added to that, there seems to be no self-respecting woman alive in Spain who does not go all funny when viewing the Danish sex-god. Even my own partner, little given to swooning and cooing over men, used a secret cut-out of Laudrup for some time as a book mark, until I discovered her in flagrante one night, staring at the page as if in some kind of trance.

President Angel Torres, a straight-talking chap whose curious sense of humour leaves few indifferent, has a fairly resigned view of all this (of losing Laudrup, not of using him as a bookmark), but knows that even if Laudrup goes, the club is becoming an ever more attractive place where aspiring managers can cut their teeth.

Torres took over the club in 2001 when they were in the Second Division, but against most predictions the side is in its fourth consecutive top-flight season since promotion. Not only that, but the last two seasons saw top-ten finishes, and even a short spell at the top of the pile. They finished last season with the league's best defensive record (lending the lie somewhat to the idea that Schuster was the embodiment of Joga Bonito) but Torres has stuck by his formerly unglamorous investment, and has come up trumps.

The only blight on his otherwise impressive record has been his failure to deal with a small minority of cro-Magnons in the Coliseum who insist on racist chanting and who do a nice line in sales of Nazi insignia, just in case we were in any doubt as to their politics. The Comandos Azules have been targeted by Torres, to be fair, but not enough. And at the beginning of this season, a campaign to boost season-ticket sales used a bizarre advertisement depicting Abraham, Moses and Jesus himself sacrificing themselves for the team. Abraham, of course, having been blessed with the gift of innumerable progeny, was an interesting choice for the new symbol of the club, but after various protests the campaign was withdrawn.

But whatever little sins Getafe have committed, they have now been converted into the country's saviours - an easier side for neutrals to support than Barcelona, for reasons already explained. They could still do with a few more points in the league (they sit seven points clear of Zaragoza, in the third relegation spot), but meanwhile they're likely to go hammer and tongs for a double cup triumph, and ruin Bayern's ambition for the treble in the process. Watch out, Getafe are about - and Spain's still smiling.


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