Money and Motivation
It's been a strange week and a stranger weekend. Even Osasuna won a game. Watching Spain play Chile in a friendly in midweek was like watching some kind of confirmation of potential greatness, odd though that might seem after so long in the shadows.
Chile looked a good side - a no-nonsense outfit with a game plan and the skill to ruffle anyone, but Spain took it all in their stride. The riches on offer suddenly look ridiculous, with at least half a dozen absent players who could have fitted into the scheme and you would never have noticed. Iniesta and Silva weren't there, but Riera and Cazorla were, and they both looked world-class. Where has Riera appeared from, after his failed attempt at Manchester City and his decent but unspectacular career at Espanyol? As with Torres, the Liverpool air seems to have given him a new lease of life.
Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas - it reads like some sort of luxurious dream. Perhaps these things only happen from time to time, every thirty years or so. A whole batch of extraordinary players are born under some kind of providential sign. Vicente Del Bosque is a decent manager, but to be honest, I reckon my mum would get results out of this lot.
David Villa overtook Di Stéfano to become the fifth highest scorer of all time in the national side, the team played out their 28th game without defeat, and ended a second year without losing a single game. Even people where I live up in the Basque Country are admitting to watching them. Almost every weekday morning I have my sacred café con leche and tortilla at about 11 in the morning, at the Iturritxo (The Little Fountain) in San Sebastían, and if I'm lucky, at about 1130, I'm joined by an ex-Real Sociedad player from the late 1950's, who played for them until 1970.
Unlike some ex-players, he still likes to talk about football - in fact he's difficult to stop once he gets going. A fountain of information, this week he was enthusing about Spain - a rare event up here. 'What a side!' he kept intoning. 'I love that Xavi [Hernandez]. Never loses the bloody ball! Never. Three guys all around him, pushing and shoving him - he's got nowhere to go… and he twirls around like a ballet dancer, leaves them all on their arses and passes it perfectly to Villa. He's the best midfielder in Europe. No wonder Manchester United are after him. Have you ever seen him lose it? Ha! Never' - and he takes a swig of his routine white wine, happy that there is still good football to talk about.
The game was played at Villarreal, which was nice of the Spanish Federation, who are spreading the games around the country this year quite effectively. You never know, they might even come up to the Basque Country one day. But the Villarreal connection was interesting, since their manager, Manuel Pelligrini, is Chilean himself. The national side have wanted him for some time now, but so far he's resisted. This week, of course, he gets another big side to play on his turf, in the shape of Manchester United, and it rather seems that his players had this on their minds when they surprisingly lost 0-3 at home to Valladolid, after not having lost at home for sixteen games.
Villarreal are strange, to quote the adjective at the head of the article. In one breath they are mentioned as serious contenders for the league title, and in the next they are losing 5-0 to a team from Segunda 'B'. They seem to go through long phases of brilliance, defeating all that cross their path, only then to lose in spectacular fashion. There doesn't seem to be a middle way for them, and it certainly makes for entertaining stuff. Apart from their occasionally aberrant days, they are, along with Barcelona, playing the best football in La Liga - a version of almost clockwork-efficient pass and move, pass and move - and if doesn't come off, pass it back to the centre-back and start all over again.
Like Barça, they try to kill teams by starving them of the ball, although at Old Trafford they reverted to a strangely negative game which nevertheless paid off. This week they will try to pummel United - not something that the English side is used to. It should make interesting viewing. And the scout who was at the game to hand a report to Alex Ferguson on Monday morning should take note of the fact that Villarreal only lost because Valladolid's all-puce colours are enough to put anyone off their game.
Barcelona, after winning nine games on the trot were similarly put off by Getafe's fetching bumble-bee black and yellow kit. Bernd Schuster's ex-team did him a favour and took a point from the Camp Nou, in whose stands Leo Messi was sitting, rested for the midweek Champions League game. Then again, Getafe's favours are unlikely to extend a further week, since they receive Real Madrid in their stadium down the motorway from the Bernabéu on Saturday. Schuster, in the eye of the cameras and in the midst of the headlines of most sports dailies this week, was also seen having lunch with his ex-boss at Getafe last Monday, leading to further speculation that he is soon to be on his bike, or that he simply doesn't care and was making sure that he would be re-employed down the road in the event of receiving his cards from Calderón. Madrid, once again on the back-foot and panicking, are allegedly sounding out Carlo Ancelotti in Milan, whilst consolidating their forward-looking policy of signing young players by also enquiring as to whether Andrei Shevchenko and Hernán Crespo might fancy a run-out at the Bernabéu before taking retirement.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid stuttered to a 1-0 win over bottom team Recreativo, to take them back to within three points of Barça. But no-one's exactly excited about this new but false proximity. Madrid also lost Gonzalo Higuaín and Wesley Sneijder to injury, and are now seriously stretched for their Champions League game in midweek at Bate Borisov. If they blow it, the consequences could be serious. Well - if they don't win then the players will have to suffer the cruel fate of not receiving the 120,000 Euros their president offered them at an after-dinner speech last Monday, as a motive to win their next seven games. One down, six to go - but Recreativo was probably the easiest of the seven.
Nevertheless, Calderon's offer of money to the players goes down as one of the most absurd actions by a president in La Liga history, equalled only by the late Jesus Gil when he labelled his own political party 'Liberal' and by Atlético Madrid's current president, Enrique Cerezo, when he said on Friday that there were no racists at the club and that he knew of none in Spain. Hmm - interesting. Perhaps all those neo-Nazis who used to gather behind the goal at Atlético's ground and unfurl their swastikas for seasons on end (before they were finally asked to leave them at their mums' houses) have just gone away and joined the local Hare Krishna society. Stranger things have happened, such as an intelligent sentence emanating from Ramón Calderon's mouth.
The idea of offering a group of millionaires 120 grand to motivate them to do what they're supposed to be doing anyway, whilst Spain also begins to reel from the economic crisis, people are losing their jobs and other professional teams in Spain cannot even affords to pay their players, is enough to make you want to give up the ghost and write about tiddlywinks tournaments. It's also an insult to players like Raúl, who whatever you think of him, would probably play for Madrid for nothing. He's a rich man, but he's motivated too. You could see him cringing in the photo of the lunch. You could see him thinking 'What we actually need is some sort of rational organisation at the club, dunghead. We need a decent youth structure, a decent signing policy, less talk of Cristiano Ronaldo and a vision of where we're going. The offer of money is an insult'.
Well - as one chap on the Madrid blog put it - 'Take away their salaries every time they lose - that'll wake them up!' but unfortunately that's probably not permitted in the contract. Joking aside, the players are in a no-win situation. If they do win a series of games now, they'll be accused of only doing it for the money, and if they don't win, they'll be accused of indolence in the face of a good deal.
Calderón, perhaps sensing (or being told) that he'd made a public gaffe, got the PR machine to claim the following day that the money was in fact only being paid in lieu of a working Christmas, since the players would be giving up part of their break to play a lucrative friendly in the Middle East. Tell us another one! And anyway, lots of folks work over Christmas, and most of them aren't millionaires. Perhaps Schuster actually wants to go back to Getafe. You could hardly blame him.