Fergie v Madrid
A couple of weeks ago I was driving home through the pouring rain here in San Sebastian. It was rush hour, the light was fading, and I just wanted to get home. As a queue of cars loomed up in front of me, I decided to nip to the right into the taxi/motorbike lane, just to make up a few yards. Mistake. A moped passing to my right clipped my wing mirror and wobbled away to the right, but managed to stay upright.
The rider pulled the moped over and I stopped behind, suitably contrite. As I emerged into the downpour, the moped rider opened his palms into the air, in that Spanish gesture of 'What the f***?' This signals the first move in a potential trade of insults, with the loudest voice normally emerging the winner.
'I'm sorry', I began as the cars swished past in the rain. 'I just didn't see you. Blind spot.' The moped rider looked at me for under his visor with a quizzical expression. 'You mean you're saying it was your fault?' he asked, incredulously. 'Yeah' I nodded. 'Of course it was. Come and sit on the back seat of my car and we can swap insurance details.'
To cut a longish story short, the motorcyclist was so taken aback by my lack of fight that he waved the whole thing away, saying that I'd hardly scratched his moped anyway. It's a tactic I've used for some time here now, because it takes the wind completely out of people's sails. It never fails to work. This is because the Spanish reaction to any kind of dispute is one of self-defence, as opposed to self-reflection.
Here you never admit to being wrong, just in case. Not only is it a sign of weakness, it's also a tactical error. You might just get away with it if you argue your case with enough phoney conviction. Why admit you're wrong and miss out on a good session of verbal mud-slinging? Here it's a practiced art, and is one of the less attractive traits of the Spanish. I used to try and play the game their way, but now I've decided that I can't. And when you admit that you're wrong - from the outset - you completely flummox them. They have no move prepared. They don't know what to do.
Those who have been following the Ferguson v Real Madrid saga this week will see the point of the introduction. Several radio stations rang me from England this week to ask me my views on the subject - particularly after the tabloid 'Marca' had run a series of pictures of Ferguson morphing into the face of General Franco, and each time I think I said the wrong thing.
I got the impression that I was expected to toe the English line and wade into Ferguson, but I waded into Real Madrid instead. I don't mean that the English are fonder of Real Madrid than they are of Ferguson and Manchester United, but I think I was expected to say something like 'Ha! Sir Alex accuses Real Madrid of being a bit above themselves, and of abusing their power! Pot calling the kettle black eh?' And, of course, that would have been a reasonable thing to say.
But I actually agree with Sir Alex. He's absolutely right to quote Franco and all the old ghosts, because Real Madrid do still think that they are in a privileged position in Spanish society, and that all the best players want to come to them, like the little children to Jesus Christ. Suffer the little players to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of the galácticos.
The worst side of Real Madrid comes out screaming when they are accused by anyone of getting a bit above themselves. Instead of saying 'Fair cop - we did play a bit dirty over the Ronaldo thing' (as in admitting you're wrong to the moped rider) they have mounted a self-defence (through the pages of Marca, of course) of quite absurd proportions, in a smear campaign towards Ferguson whose gutter journalism makes The Sun look like a beacon of intellectual propriety.
This has come in a turbulent week for Real Madrid, one in which they were laughably defeated by Real Union from Segunda 'B' in midweek in the King's Cup, held to a draw by Almería on Sunday and then accused by certain more neutral organs of the Spanish media of making a PR mess of the Sergio Ramos problem, which continues to drone on.
Just in case we were in any doubt, Marca's headline on Sunday morning (apart from suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson should seek psychiatric help) was that the referee for the Almería game that evening was to be González Vásquez, the same chap who sent off both Ronaldo (the tubby Brazilian one) and Zidane, and who presided over a 1-0 defeat at Getafe, the last time he reffed a Real Madrid game.
The implication of all this being, of course, that this Galician referee (actually born in Frankfurt) is anti-Madrid. This is because all the referees in La Liga, according to Sporting Director Pedrag Mijatovic, are anti-Madrid. Not only this, but they all favour Barcelona.
Mijatovioc trots out his arguments, and Marca publish them happily, but no-one ever offers an opinion on why this should be the case. Because the Prime Minister of the country is a Barça fan? (he is). Because the head of the Spanish Federation supports Athletic Bilbao? (he does). These seem unlikely, as conspiracy theories go.
And anyway, González Vázquez has refereed RM on seven occasions, four of which yielded maximum points for the meringues. That hardly looks like bias to me.
But of course, since everyone reads Marca, including the referees, the King and the Secret Service, Señor González would have had to consider this little attack on his integrity over his coffee and croissant on Sunday morning. Judging by the result in Almería (1-1), he took the safest option.
Meanwhile, Barcelona continued their turkey-shoot of the other league members, knocking four past Málaga away from home, on a pitch that resembled a swimming pool. The old cliché about those sort of conditions favouring the poorer side seems to have been buried by Barça, who continue with their rich vein of form - but only because the refs like them better, of course.
As for Ferguson's Franco jibes, Real Madrid wheeled out Alfredo Di Stéfano to join in the chorus of denials and counter-accusations. Real's president, Ramón Calderon, not the brightest of light-bulbs at the best of times, had already suggested that Ferguson was going senile (maybe he is), but the decision to bring the 82 year-old Di Stéfano into the fray smacked of the lack of self-awareness that has characterised the club over the last decade.
Di Stéfano joked that the only influential Franco that he knew at that time was a useful winger for Deportivo, who shared the dictator's surname. Apart from that, he hadn't been aware of any favours.
Sorry? Perhaps we misheard that. Because if the issue of Franco's favours towards Madrid remains generally ambiguous - and it does - the most powerful proof of specific political influence in Real Madrid's favour remains the fact that Di Stéfano himself only ended up at Madrid because of political string-pulling in the murky background - a fact nobody disputes. Had this not happened, he would have stayed at Barcelona, who had originally brought him over from South America.
With Spain attempting to pull out of its post-war poverty, excluded from the Marshall Plan and shunned by much of Europe, Franco's position was by no means secure. Had Barcelona retained Di Stéfano's services then the light would have shone on the opposition, not on the fascist regime.
As it was, Madrid's fantastic success changed Franco's fortunes and brought Spain in from the cold. Perhaps Di Stéfano's memory is failing him. It wouldn't be a surprise for a man of his age. But for Real Madrid to indulge in this sort of bunk is really not very dignified.
It is equally undignified that Alex Ferguson overlooks the way that Manchester United have abused their power over the years, with him very much at the forefront. But United's power has never derived from any political links. It has derived from a whole variety of factors peculiar to England and to the history of English football.
Real Madrid are different, and so is Spain. Football is politics in Spain, as this column has attempted to describe over the years. There's precious little point in denying it. But that's the knee-jerk reaction here, just as the Spanish authorities prefer to pretend that there is no racism on their terraces, after more incidents at Málaga over the weekend, in which Eto'o was allegedly abused.
Elsewhere, leaders Valencia came a cropper on another swimming-pool pitch, and lost 2-4 at home to their bogey team, Racing Santander. Villarreal, after being bizarrely stuffed 5-0 in midweek by Poli Ejido from Segunda 'B', bounced back with their first team intact and won 4-1 at Athletic Bilbao, with a display of attacking football in the second half that was quite sublime.
American readers might be interested to know that the fourth goal, scored by substitute Jozy Altidore, is the first goal scored by a US born player in the history of La Liga. Well, Giuseppe Rossi, who also scored in the game, was born in New Jersey, but holds Italian nationality, so don't bother writing in. Tab Ramos also scored a goal for Betis in the 1990's, but they were playing in the Second Division at the time.
Will Cristiano Ronaldo become the second Portuguese player to be transferred to Real Madrid in a torrent of controversy, in the manner of his predecessor, Luis Figo? Probably, but not in the Christmas sales. The player himself pulls the strings, and the more Ferguson rants on the more likely Ronaldo will be to bite the carrot. But when he does, Real Madrid will want him to play for them in the Champions League, and that can't happen this season.
Then again, if Real Madrid fail miserably in this season's version, as looks likely, and then lose out on the league to Barça or Villarreal, their shine will be duller than when they brought Beckham across in a blaze of 'success meets success'. They'd better be careful. Ronaldo for Villarreal? Now there's a thought.