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Arsenal have questions to address


Milan must keep Donnarumma

AC Milan

Bread and circuses

Week after week, three varieties of news keep making the headlines in Spain: the coldest winter ever, the growing economic crisis, and the highly entertaining football league. Now more than ever, the country needs a way out of its cold weather and gloomy economic future, and football consistently provides us with that.

These are perfect times to apply Juvenal's classic formula, "Panem et circenses". In its original meaning the Government should provide food and leisure for the People to forget inefficient politicians or to escape from a tough reality. During the nineteenth century, the Spanish version of the maxim became "Pan y Toros" ("Bread and Bullfights"), and now we've taken it one step further: "Fútbol y Toros" ("Football and Bullfights").

This newer version has deep implications: apparently, we Spaniards no longer need food. Nowadays we can live off watching 22 gents running after a ball in shorts or contemplating a bunch of bizarrely dressed men trying to kill a bull.

But nutritional needs aside, this football week offered us plenty to stop us thinking about about the cold weather or the rising unemployment rates. For starters, Juande Ramos has gone George Graham on us, and vehemently stated that an ugly one-nil win, such as Saturday's against a great Racing de Santander side, is way more than enough for the madridistas.

One cannot dispute that it's now hard to score against Real Madrid, or that their seven wins in a row are impressive numbers, but the team looks rather flat and in this case needed a hand from the referee to beat Racing. At least their hiring policy has changed, maybe as a result of the economic crisis: Real Madrid stopped signing average players for top money, and now get complete unknowns on loan instead, such as former West Ham player Julien Faubert.

Meanwhile, the city of Sevilla had the perfect chance to overlook the crisis and indulge in football: Saturday's second match was the "derby sevillano" between Sevilla and Betis. It is probably one of the toughest rivalries around, given that supporters are split 50-50 between both sides and animosity had gone too far in recent years, with plenty of fights and violence. Fortunately this was a quiet derby by all means. Sevilla has had to play twice a week all January, due to Copa del Rey midweek ties, and that is starting to take its toll in the form of injuries and tiredness. Their huge midweek effort to beat Athletic de Bilbao in their first semi-final match showed on Saturday. Betis, by all means a more limited side, fought and waited for their chance, and ended up punishing Sevilla in the last ten minutes of the match. It was the biggest upset of the weekend.

Athletic also looked tired and lost to Valladolid on Sunday. While the Basques were defeated, and in a curious reversal of last week's turn of events, Atlético Madrid resurrected and got their first win of 2009 at Huelva. Los colchoneros were already leading 0-3 at the half, and looked a completely different team on the pitch, even though new gaffer Abel Resino used pretty much the same starting eleven Aguirre did. One has to wonder what goes through players' minds and what can possibly change in less than a week for a team to perform so differently.

Another two teams gave their supporters good reason to disconnect from their daily worries: Málaga beat Almería 3-2 in another Andalusia derby, coming back from 0-2 down at halftime and getting really close to the European football spots. Up North, Osasuna left the relegation zone for the first time of the season after beating Valencia.

But assuming that the "Panem et circenses" trick really works, Barcelona supporters must now be immune to cold weather, economic crises and other tribulations of the sort. Two more victories for their team this week: a midweek win in the first leg of their semi-final tie against Mallorca, and another convincing display against Sporting on Sunday. The domestic double is within reach, and Barça will certainly break several records in the process.

Barcelona v Sporting also provided the most moving moment of the weekend. On Sunday, Enrique Castro "Quini", Sporting's assistant coach, came back to Barcelona as a head coach, replacing Manuel Preciado who had been sent off last week against Sevilla.

Quini was the most prolific Spanish scorer of the late seventies and early eighties, and coincidentally played for both Sporting Gijón and FC Barcelona. He won five "Pichichi" (top scorer) trophies in Primera and two in Segunda División, which is still an all-time record in Spain. Quini also scored Barça's goal number 3,000, and won various titles, including a Cup Winners' Cup in 1982. On top of that, he managed to increase his huge reputation as a player with his sensational off-the-pitch behaviour. Always the perfect gentleman, his most impressive public moment happened after he was kidnapped in March 1981.

Two criminals jammed him into a car as he left the Nou Camp Stadium after a 6-0 win. They then drove him to Zaragoza - just over 200 km away - hid him in a small repair shop and asked Quini's family for a one-million-dollar ransom. Quini spent 24 days captive, a period of time during which his team, the La Liga leaders up to that point, completely fell apart (just one point in six matches). Schuster, his best friend on that Barça side, publicly stated that "I just can't play football now".

Quini was eventually freed by the police, his team recovering to win that season's Copa del Rey. He forgave the criminals, dropped all charges against them and went on with his life. However, Barcelona sued them, and as a result of the legal process the striker won the right to be compensated with $400k, which he immediately donated to charity. If that was not an eventful enough life, last year Quini was diagnosed with cancer. He spent the whole of 2008 fighting the disease, and fortunately now seems almost totally recovered.

With all this background, one has to enjoy the humongous standing ovation he got as he stepped onto the Nou Camp's grass. It was a beautiful sight indeed, powerful as Quini's history deserves. A great ending for another alienating football week.

But luckily for us the circenses don't stop here: on top of our usual La Liga fix next weekend, Spain will play England this coming Wednesday in Sevilla. At least for a day both countries will be able to leave bad weather and worse economies aside, and enjoy 90 minutes of top-class entertainment.


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