Barcelona go off for their Christmas break ten points ahead of their nearest rivals, Sevilla, after coming back from one-down in an awkward game at Villarreal. In this final column for the season, I would expect to be able to say for certain that the Catalans will take the title when summer comes, but you never know. There seem to be no really consistent rivals, no-one capable of a real challenge, but it's a funny old game. A couple of injuries to key players, a couple of bad results, but no. As Schuster said, it's surely Barcelona's year.
The first piece I wrote for Soccernet was an article entitled 'Of Cabbages and Kings' back in November 2001, on the occasion of Spain's friendly against Mexico which inaugurated Recreativo de Huelva's new ground. It was two months after 9/11 and that event seems grimly fresh in the memory, as if it were yesterday. It's hard to fathom that there have been almost 300 articles since then, which seem to span a vast amount of football-related time. Maybe one's sense of time is confused by the clutter of events that football represents, one layer of incident imposing itself on another, and another, until it becomes something of a blur.
Nice then, to have an archive to look back on, to relate to specific games and memories, and to serve as a reminder of how quickly things move on, how quickly the players significant to an era are supplanted by a new set - and how old this can begin to make you feel. Jordi Cruyff - who?
Valencia won the title back in that season, a succulent campaign whose icing on the top was the most superhuman left-footed volley by Zidane in Glagow, for Real Madrid against Leverkusen. Deportivo came second in the league, having won it two seasons earlier for the first time in their history, and Real Madrid and Barcelona were kept down in 3rd and 4th places. Deportivo were to finish 3rd for the next two seasons, prompting a belief in some circles that at the dawn of a new millennium, the old Barcelona-Madrid one-two was finally on the way out, and that a new hierarchy was in the making.
I remember thinking it myself too, and in the updated edition of the book I had written in 2001 on the history of Spanish footballl, 'Morbo', I threw in two new chapters, each one dealing exclusively with Valencia and Deportivo, as if their new puppy dominance were here to stay. It was an innocent if well-intentioned piece of fantasy, perhaps more predictable as a fallacy than the fact that the Spanish dominance of the European scene was soon to give way to the English Premier League, at least in terms of finance and self-publicity. Real Madrid are still without their fabled 'decimo' (tenth) whereas Barcelona have a second to add to the one that the Dream Team secured them.
Seven of the sides who occupied a place on the top shelf that season are no longer there, and two of the bottom three for that campaign, Las Palmas, and Tenerife, have never returned. Teams such as Celta de Vigo, Rayo Vallecano, Real Sociedad and Alaves have suffered similar falls from grace and with the tightening of belts with which the current period has been characterised you wonder if they will return for a long time.
Only those for whom a fairy godfather millionaire has opened his wallet can now buck the trend. La Liga remains as edgy and as spicy a competition as it was back then, but it depends on its old politico-cultural rivalries and a bit of instinctive style to see it through. The scent of democracy that was wafted in by Deportivo and Valencia has proved to be unsustainable, with the occasional exception in the form of Villarreal - back then a newcomer to the big time and finishing that season in 15th pace, only 3 points clear of the relegation positions. Few would have predicted them as a future force, but few are making any clear statements about how long they can stay up there, Alaves-like, with the big boys.
It's been a roller-coaster ride, and as I contemplate hanging up the keyboard for six months or so, it seems odd to be anticipating Sunday nights without this column to write. It's a strange netherworld you inhabit, half-way between the real thing and your own perception of it. But the Spanish league has never failed to throw up enough interesting games, enough extra-mural titbits in any given week over the last eight years to keep the job relatively straightforward. There has hardly been a Sunday night when I have sat down and thought 'What is there to talk about this week?' From the growth of the galactico concept and its permanent circus trimmings, to the ups and downs of the Gaspart-Laporta eras, there's never been a dull moment. To have been handed the considerable privilege of writing this column, week in week out during such a turbulent yet fascinating period, has been an exhausting but rewarding journey.
The period has also spanned two World Cups and two European Championships, and the special nature of that kind of reporting, when you're more aware of the fact that you are writing about what everyone else has also just seen, is in a sense tougher. You come face-to-face with the uncomfortable fact that what you claim to have witnessed was in fact a completely different game from the one that thousands of others saw. Your whole week, or perhaps your whole life, is conditioned by the column. If you're going on holiday or travelling, you have to be sure that you can get to a TV and a computer by Sunday night.
I recall a terrifying drive one Easter in a bulky rented Motorhome through the mountains of northern Spain, trying to find a campsite with a car-park big enough to take the brute and a bar with a television showing Man Utd v Real Madrid. It was the game in which Beckham was kept on the bench by Ferguson as an advertisement to the rest of Europe to come and buy him. The subsequent piece, 'A Traveller's tale' back in April 2003, earned me my first real flood of feedback from the anonymous readers in virtual space and connected me to Beckham in a strange way that would lead to me writing a book about him.
It's easy to forget, now that his sun is setting, that Beckham at that time was the biggest thing to walk the planet, an inescapable presence that was as mystifying as it was compelling. A man who seemed to have nothing to say, and yet you listened to him. It was an odd thing, as it indeed continues to be. He'll be a politician in the not-too-distant future. Stranger things have happened (Reagan, Terminator, Seb Coe...). You read it here first.
ESPN set me up to interview him, at his height in Real Madrid. As the fateful hour approached, he called off, having flown out his tattooist from England to burn that effigy into the back of his neck, the one that caused so much controversy. Who was I to get in his way? Flying back that afternoon from Madrid, I felt at the centre of things, for the one and only time in my life. Should I have gone into a strop and insisted, and saved his neck from that dodgy winged cross? Ah...the things the public never gets to know!
The season I enjoyed most was 2002/03, largely because I lived in San Sebastian. Their team, Real Sociedad, rose to unexpected heights and almost took the league title - in a campaign that went right down to the wire. The final weekend was almost unbearable, with Sociedad needing to beat Atletico Madrid at home (they did) and hope that their Basque cousins, Athletic Bilbao, could win in the Bernabeu (they didn't) - but it was a mightily close thing. I was down in Andalucia, on a boiling hot day, feeling that strange gulf that exists here between the regions - the gulf that gives La Liga its unique spice. I remember my son, then seven, glued to the TV - understanding for the first time the power and emotion of football.
Living where you do in Spain conditions absolutely your perception of the country, and in some ways it has been an advantage to be writing from up here in the Basque Country. The distinct geographical and cultural view afforded from this particular watchtower has always provided an extra set of glasses - I like to think objective ones. But I may be wrong. Several readers over the years have objected to some political pieces but my only defence is to reply that Spanish football is Spanish politics, and vice-versa. There is no way that you could separate the two, even if you wanted to. The Spanish understand this perfectly well, even if some of them prefer not to be reminded of it.
The most difficult piece to write by some distance was the weekend after the Madrid massacre in March 2004 (Football at half-mast), but it was impossible to simply pretend that nothing had happened. The awkward mix of sport, death and politics made for an uncomfortable column. The easiest have always been those based on matches witnessed live and at first-hand, for the wealth of sensations that they give you. Lots of people seemed to like 'Homage to Bilbao' last season (November 2007), judging by the feedback. Feedback is a curious old thing. I suppose all journalists have to put up with the rough and the smooth, and to treat them both as impostors, to a large extent.
Joaquin Caparros said last week, after Athletic Bilbao had won and he'd taken the plaudits that: 'En este juego, un dia eres una puta, y el siguiente una monja' (in football, one day you're a whore and the next you're a nun'). The same could be said of a column, where the advent of the comment blog has changed the web scribe's life for ever. You can choose to ignore the ranters, or bask in the praise of your Monday-morning regulars, but the demands of readers who can now post their instant reactions to your piece has been the biggest change and challenge of anything experienced during these eight years. Whereas before you had the chance to reply personally to an e-mail either burying or praising you, now you have no comeback, and have to suffer the slings and arrows in silence.
But it's also a positive development. There is no way that football should be immune from web-based democracy, and so if you are handed the privilege of a weekly opinion column it is only right that you accept the consequences of your words. Whore or nun? Erm....I'll settle for something in the middle.
I won't go on. It's late, I'm in London, struggling on an alien Mac, and the rest of the house is asleep, as has always been the case on my Spanish Sunday nights. Can I just take this opportunity to say an enormous thank you to all those who wrote in to the column's forum last week, and express my amazement at the geographical sweep of the contributions.
In the end, what a wonderful thing the internet is. If anyone would like me to really reply to them, please post up your e-mails or send them through the system. I'll send the occasional piece from the desert, and fully intend to investigate how they view La Liga out there. You haven't got rid of me just yet. But as far as the weekly column goes, I'll sign off now. Hasta luego.