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Sep 28, 2009

The view from the press box

At some point early in the second half, Cristiano Ronaldo sets off from just over the half-way line and shoots a quick glance left and right to see if there is anyone worth sending a pass to. Deciding, as he often does, that a solo gallop into enemy territory might be the better option, he accelerates alarmingly into a pack of blue-shirted Tenerife defenders, who are vaguely assembled around the centre of their own half of the pitch. The pack, logically expecting the Portuguese chap to drop either side of them to where the spaces lie, begins to disperse slightly, but Ronaldo simply continues to gallop at them with that oddly high-kneed action that he has, like a dressage horse that has tired of strutting and has just bolted for the hell of it. Spotting a diagonal breach that has opened up in the direction of the goal, Ronaldo simply whizzes through it, converting the five defenders into telegraph poles. As he hurtles into the area and hits the ball goalwards for the strike of the season, goalie Sergio Aragoneses decides to spoil the party by somehow diverting the ball over the bar.

About fifteen feet below me in the press area, the crowd rises as one and hollers its appreciation. Standing boxed in by the huddle is an old man, well into his seventies. The look on his face is worth the entrance money, even though I haven't paid it. What Ronaldo has just done - love him or loathe him, is awaken in this old Madrileño something of what he must have seen years ago and which he probably thought he wouldn't see again.

The simple street-wise ebullience of Ronaldo's play might not always convince the purists, but it gets people out of their seats. One assumes that this was the case when Di Stéfano was around, or Gento, or Puskas. Ronaldo's run was a golden moment, particularly after the tedium of a first half which must have been the worst in the Bernabéu this millennium. As César Menotti once said, 'It was great in those days to wake up in the morning and think, "Ah - Maradona's playing in the afternoon".

I'm beginning to think - and I'm not the only one - that the two-horse race hardly matters if every week we can see Ronaldo doing this and then Messi doing the other over at Barcelona. And then there's Kaká, for heaven's sake. Madrid's torpor in the first half was partly due to his absence, but more due to the fact that Tenerife had come with an intelligent game plan, which consisted of stopping Xabi Alonso from getting the ball. Granero and Lass are not in the same distributive class, and Madrid's midfield foundered. Kaká was on the bench, much to the ire of the press pack, who frothed and foamed about Pelligrini's rotational policy in the half-time bar, and how Florentino Pérez would eventually sack him because he wouldn't tolerate the best players not being constantly on show.

Kaká and Guti obliged by appearing for the second half, and the sudden simplicity of the game of football re-asserted itself. Guti may be inconsistency incarnate, but the instinctive elegance of his movements and the weird, architectural precision of his passing have to be appreciated live. He ain't the same on the telly somehow. Tenerife suddenly looked ordinary after looking the better side in the first half, and within two minutes Madrid were ahead, Benzema scoring his first home goal with a header from Alonso's precision cross.

Kaká is also great to watch. Hanging around behind the main focus of the attack, he drifts across the line and is difficult to mark. It's not that he's particularly fast, but he is fast with the ball at his feet - a performance car built for its 0-60 as opposed to its top speed. His change of pace is impossible to annul, particularly if there is space behind the player he is gliding beyond. He also goes for the empty spaces, avoiding contact wherever possible with the pack. His vertical style of play immediately unsettled Tenerife, and all the journalists around me began to tap 'I told you so' into their lap-top reports. He scored a great goal too, whipping in a shot from the inside of his foot with hardly a pull-back of the leg. Aragoneses had no chance with that one.

I was down in Madrid to do some publicity for my book, "White Storm", which has been translated into Spanish (Tormenta Blanca). So there's a bit more cheeky publicity, but anyway, you'll have to understand Spanish to read the new bits added to take in the present circus that's been going on since Pérez returned. I'm no fan of Real Madrid, despite the frequent accusations to the contrary, but what is always great about going to a game at the Bernabéu is that the whole city seems to be focused on the event - as if there were no difference between the city and its most famous team. Atlético fans may wince at that statement, but it fails to detract from its truth. The same is true of places like Bilbao, Newcastle, Seville - you could add to the list - but when you're outside the game with the folks scurrying around, the horses barging, the camera crews trailing their cables, you feel that you're at the centre of things, and how on earth could some other strange people be possibly living their lives without football. Daft but true.

One of the sports tabloids that interviewed me asked if I was a Real Madrid fan. I repeated to him the journalist Santiago Segurola's famous phrase when once asked the same question. Segurola is Real Madrid's main writer and observer, and yet he is originally from Bilbao and of course supports them. Asked if he supported them both, after his long association with Madrid, he replied 'No - it's biologically impossible'. Good phrase. I support Real Sociedad, and the same is true. They are still mildly appalled in San Sebastián that I've written a book about Real Madrid, but as I tried to explain, it doesn't kiss ass. Indeed, as this becomes apparent over the next few weeks, I may be chased out of the country, in which case ESPN will have to find itself a new writer again.

Sorry about the personal nature of the piece this weekend, but I guess that if you go along to top-flight matches every weekend and mingle in all chummy with the press pack, the whole rigmarole might start to lose some of its shine. I dunno. The fact of only doing it from time to time makes it more memorable, for me anyway. For example, after the game I wandered down to the "mixed" area, where you can wait for the players to come out and thrust a mike under their noses as they run the gauntlet behind a sort of low improvised barrier. I've never quite got over my awe of professional footballers, despite the dullards that so many of them prove to be if you're unlucky enough to have to interview them, but it's always the same when you suddenly see them in civvies, at very close quarters. They look ridiculously young and fragile somehow, as if they had no lives beyond your temporary perspective of them. Iker Casillas was first to walk out, and he looked oddly small and boyish, as if he was just off home to his mum. If he was, I hope she told him to shave off that ridiculous beard.

Next out were a couple of Tenerife players, but sadly nobody detained them. I felt kind of sorry for them, but they were probably relieved to just be able to go straight to the bus. Then Karim Benzema came out, hero of the moment with his first two goals in the "Bernabow" (why do the Brits continue to pronounce it thus? It's one of the great mysteries of our time).

A gaggle of Spanish journos, similarly blessed with linguistic prowess, fired off some tough questions at the poor lad in Spanish, at which point I decided to intervene. "Are you happy now?" I asked him in French. Spot the dumb question. He looked quizzically around for his interrogator, and failing to find him replied "Si si. Tres contento", which is the first time that such a meeting of French and Spanish has ever occurred in the history of football. The moment has been captured in a poorly focused shot, supplied for this weekend's piece by my very own cheapo camera.

There were other reasons for my trip down to Madrid. The game featured the two Alonso brothers, the famous Xabi and the not-so-famous Mikel, the latter also once of Real Sociedad, thence missing in action at Bolton Wanderers and now happily shoring up the defensive side of Tenerife's midfield duties. Curiously enough, this was the first time that the two had faced each other on opposing sides as professional footballers. Their father, Periko Alonso, who played for Real Sociedad's title-winning side of the 1980s and later for Barcelona, had flown down for the match the day before me.

The Basque press were strangely silent on the event, as if they were still reeling from the fact that Xabi has signed for Real Madrid. There was no problem with his playing for Liverpool - in fact it was largely celebrated. But the fact that he had actually signed for the enemy took some time to sink in up here. In some ways it still hasn't sunk in, and Alonso looks wrong in the all-white strip. Ronaldo does too. It doesn't suit them like it immediately suited Zidane and like it seems to suit Kaká. There's no sinister sub-text intended here. They just don't look right in the colours yet, but they're playing just fine.

Both players were brought up playing for a boys' team called Antiguoko, who may well feature later this year on the column. They've just earned 600,000 euros as part of the sell-on clause that they cleverly wrote out when they allowed Xabi to sign for Real Sociedad, at the age of sixteen. Every time Alonso gets transferred, Sociedad get a percentage cut, of which Antiguoko get 40 percent (of the 5 percent). That's a lot of money for an amateur team outside of the professional circuit, but it enables them to employ well-qualified coaches and scouts. On the day that the Alonso brothers (Everton's Mikel Arteta is also a graduate of the club) walked out to oppose each other inside the Bernabéu's giddy walls, my own son was making his debut for Antiguoko for the Under 15s, in a 1-0 win against Hondarribia. So it's been a kind of poetic weekend. Excuse the indulgence. But I'll get back to this team. Some of the goings-on there provide an interesting insight into how professional clubs find their players. Back at the hotel I watched the other team with 'Madrid' in its name, Atlético, draw 2-2 in the Mestalla. It was a fantastically messy game, end-to-end stuff, with a heart-stopping finish when Maxi deservedly equalised in extra-time for the mattress-makers. Atlético are still second to bottom, but they are playing some great football.

The problem for both Valencia and Atlético is that neither of them know how to defend. They both have midfields and forward lines of speedboat quality, but with defensive ships that leak water all over the place. The press was suggesting before the game that the losing manager would be collecting his cards at the end of the match, but any such events have been postponed for at least a week. Abel Resino, Atlético's manager, deserves to be given time to get things together, and Valencia would be unwise to sack Unai Emery, still considered to be one of Spain's great promises. But it was anarchic stuff - entertaining yet probably a nightmare for the watching presidents and investors.

Sevilla stuffed Athletic Bilbao 0-4 in San Mamés, and look to be the new candidates for the third horseman of this season's particular apocalypse, but let's wait a few more weeks yet. This coming week features the Champions League again, so next weekend's games may well be conditioned by what happens. Whatever takes place, keep an eye on Sevilla v Real Madrid next weekend. Should be a cracker.

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