Andalucía rises to prominence
"Andalucía... even though never intended to become a separate state, is, among all Spanish regions, the one with the most radically own culture." José Ortega y Gasset.
In the year 711, Tariq crossed the Straits of Gibraltar leading an army of Muslim troops. Less than a decade later, the Muslims had conquered most of Iberia, starting one of the most culturally prosperous periods in the history of the region.
The Muslims' influx was most powerful in Al-Andalus, today's Andalusia, where people from three different religions co-existed peacefully for almost eight centuries under their rule. The Catholic Kings ended up defeating the Muslims and expelling the Jewish to unify the country under a single religion, but that long spell had already created a new identity in the South.
The results are still felt today. Andalusia is the preferred destination for tourists who visit Spain (over 30 million visitors in 2008), as it offers the essence of what is expected from the country: sun, flamenco dancing, warm people, bullfights, history in every corner and great fun any time of the year. They've also given us "Macarena", but well, nobody's perfect...
Andalusia is also the largest Comunidad Autónoma in terms of population, and the cradle of football in Spain. However, its footballing relevance had been traditionally restricted to the odd good season of the larger clubs from Sevilla, the token comment about Recreativo de Huelva being the oldest Spanish club or the memories of the amazing Mágico González playing for Cádiz (the original "yellow submarine").
But this La Liga season started like the Second Coming of Tariq. After Málaga's controversial promotion last June, five clubs from Andalusia (Almería, Sevilla, Betis, Recreativo and Málaga themselves) were in La Liga, a number with no precedent that shows the growing power of football in the south. This is always good news because Andalusians take their football very seriously, and manage to bring the same colourful approach they have in their lives to the stadium.
Actually, this golden age of Andalusian football started in 2005, when Betis won the Copa del Rey and managed a top-four La Liga finish that earned them a Champions League spot. Neighbours Sevilla were not going to swallow that one quietly, and assembled a fantastic side that won two UEFA cups, one Copa del Rey, one European Super Cup and consecutive Club World Ranking IFFHS titles in 2006 and 2007.
The sevillistas are the kings of a three-step formula that Andalusian clubs have tried to apply to become competitive in recent years: leverage their loyal group of supporters; get dependable signings based on a comprehensive knowledge of foreign football markets; and work with low-profile, domestic coaches (Hugo Sánchez being a rare exception in Almería) completely aligned with the management of the club.
It's easy to explain why Sevilla have mastered this approach: first, they have the third largest season-ticket holders base in the country, only after Barcelona and Real Madrid. Second, they always had a knack for bringing unknown but eventually excellent foreign players to Spain, even if their hairdos were of questionable taste, such as Toni Polster and his mullet, Iván Zamorano and his helmet-like perm or Davor Suker and his gravity-defying toupee.
Ramón Rodríguez, "Monchi", their executive manager, has taken this recruiting skill to new heights. During his tenure, Sevilla have signed Daniel Alves, Julio Batista, Freddy Kanoute, Seydou Keita and many others who either still play for the club with excellent results, or were sold at an amazing profit. The cherry on the cake was Sevilla's youth teams, which produced a handful of great players, such as Jesús Navas, Diego Capel or the late Antonio Puerta.
Finally, the coaches and Sevilla started this successful phase with Joaquín Caparrós (current Athletic de Bilbao coach, a man down-to-earth as they come) in charge. Together with Monchi they defined a "Hombres, no nombres" (real men, not big names) hiring policy that was key to build the team. Mr. Caparrós was later on replaced by Juande Ramos, at that point another low profile manager, and when he left for Tottenham, Manolo Jiménez, the youth team coach, took the reins. No big names on the bench either.
This year's side is probably not as fun to watch as the Juande Ramos high tempo teams, but even when your signings are great, it is difficult to completely make up for the losses of Daniel Alves, Keita, Poulsen, etc. In any case, Sevilla have been as consistent as ever this season. Their 4-1 victory over Valladolid on Saturday leaves them in a comfortable third position, six points clear of Villarreal and with a Champions League spot almost theirs.
The recently promoted Málaga are also contending for European football in a very successful return to La Liga. Even though their promotion was stained by match-fixing accusations from Real Sociedad, they have played hard and are making their city proud, leaving aside their 6-0 rout at the hands of Barcelona at the weekend.
Fernando Sanz, the former Real Madrid and Málaga player and son of a former Real Madrid president, has proven to be much better executive than he was a centre back. Sanz spent zero euros on summer signings, but managed to put together a very competitive side and recovered some declining careers in the process, such as that of Albert Luque (on loan from Ajax), Duda (on loan from Sevilla) and Salva Ballesta.
However, not everything is good news on the Andalusian front. The remaining three teams have fallen into the wrong part of the table. As of this week, only four points separate the eighteenth (relegation) and tenth spots, and Almería, Betis and Recreativo are all in the middle of that worrying pack.
Almería started the season on the wrong foot, but then Hugo replaced Gonzalo Arconada and got some results. Despite their great attacking duo (Negredo and Uche) they've had issues with scoring goals in the last few matches, and their defeat at the Bernabeú on Sunday leaves them only two points away from relegation.
They're tied with Betis, who can't seem to take advantage of their excellent range of offensive options with Emaná, Sergio García and the re-signed Ricardo Oliveira. The growing rumours about the sale of the club to an Arab Sheik would be a suitable return to the Muslim rule, but are not helping a side which must focus for the final weeks of the season.
Recreativo are also in danger. They haven't been able to recreate their great performances from 2006/07, and now need gaffer Lucas Alcaraz (former Almería manager) to perform another miracle with a very limited side. But even assuming that an Andalusian team could be relegated, their golden age is not over yet. Xerez lead the Second Division and in pole position to make the leap into La Liga. We will indeed have another full season of Andalusian flavour, colour, chants and jokes in La Liga, and that is hardly bad news. I, for one, am not complaining.