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Nov 2, 2009

A tale of two cities

One of the most intriguing aspects of Spanish football is the way in which the different sets of supporters around the country react to defeat.

It's becoming better known nowadays that Spain is really a loose collective of chalks and cheeses, where you can cross a regional border and suddenly feel as though you are on a different planet - so it comes as no surprise that each football club in the country is un mundo (its own world). The Spanish themselves accept these differences as part of their own cultural mix, and have a fixed set of perspectives on everyone else.

The Galicians are an ambiguous lot, they reckon. You can't tell if they're going up or down in a lift, as the saying goes. The Catalans are tight-fisted (the Catalans themselves rarely deny this). The folks from Navarra are quick-tempered, and so on and so forth. Whether these things are true or not, and whether we should be a party to spreading stereotypes I leave for you to judge, but the topic feeds nicely into this week's column.

I was in San Mamés on Saturday night to see Athletic Bilbao defeat Atlético Madrid 1-0, and once again, the behaviour and loyalty of the home supporters were astonishing. How on earth any visiting side ever wins there is a mystery, and teams (and referees) have to be very strong-minded to resist the temptation to just concede to it all.

The truth was that Atlético were the better side, and in the second half dominated the game to an embarrassing extent, with only the woodwork saving the home side on three occasions. Under new manager Quique Sánchez Flores, it may be premature to say, but the defence had tightened up and the work-rate of the two stars, Forlán and Agüero, was admirable. But this hardly seemed to register with the home supporters. Whatever Athletic managed to come up with, say a throw-in or a goal-kick, the crowd greeted it as if they had just won the Champions League or equivalent. The slightest effort on the part of a home player was applauded wildly, and the one shot on target that they managed in the second half was greeted with religious ecstasy.

This is the Bilbao mindset, wondrous to behold. For the Bilbaíno, reality is always some distance away, and is of no particular relevance. After all, the team has never been out of the top flight so why should anything as mundane as circumstance ever come along and change things? The rest of the world can go to hell. This is Bilbao and we're loving it. Who could possibly want to be anywhere else? This is the sense you always get in the sweating streets before the game, that Bilbao is at the centre of its own peculiar universe, and is perfectly happy to have it that way. As I pushed and shoved my way up the street to the club shop, I glanced to my right into a packed bar where on the TV Real Madrid had just scored their second goal against Getafe. Nobody seemed to be watching. Madrid? What's all that about then?

Ten minutes later, as I stood with Bill and Bill, my once-a-year Scottish friends who visit San Mamés on their annual football pilgrimage, the local television thrust a mike under one of their noses. The opening question was the inevitable 'So what do you think of Athletic?' followed by 'Where do you think they will finish this season in the table?' - all of which I happily translated for my beer-swilling friend, but the absence of a question such as 'What's your view of Atlético Madrid' was the significant bit.

The Bilbao set know that they hate Atlético, that they represent a political and cultural opposite to their own club, and that they must boo their every move during the game. Fair cop. But the one problem with San Mamés is that the football that visitors serve up is unappreciated, as if it were somehow an affront. The other team do not really exist. Indeed, when Agüero launched a fantastic shot from nowhere in the second half, and the ball cannoned off the bar before the Athletic keeper had even registered the event, there wasn't even a murmur of tension in the ground. It was as though it had never happened. The journalist from Madrid to my right in the press box, clearly an Atlético fan judging by his involuntary twitches and sighs, seemed bemused by the whole scene. Sensing that I was also from afar, he ventured a question in the second half. Estos estan en el mismo partido? (Are this lot in the same game as me?). It was a good question.

On the rare occasions when the home crowd did acknowledge reality, and gave the visitors hell for being from Madrid, the irony of Atlético's foundation was probably lost on them. The club was founded in 1903 by three homesick Basque students studying in Madrid, and began playing in blue and white, Bilbao's original colours. When they changed to red and white in 1911 it was Bilbao who followed them and not vice-versa, as claimed in various histories of Spanish football. Atlético were wearing black for the evening anyway, more appropriate for Halloween and their own recent run of results. But if the game were anything to go by, Bilbao will struggle this season and Atlético should improve - not that such a judgement was apparent in the celebrations outside the stadium at midnight. My son, up to this season a stranger to San Mamés, was amazed at the contrast with the atmosphere on match days in San Sebastián down the road. There perhaps, there is too much gloom and realism. We could all do with a dose of being Bilbao, from time to time. You can't help but be sucked in by it all.

My son and I bade farewell for another year to the Alloa branch of the Athletic supporters club, and wandered off down the dark emptying streets to my car. As we paused to cross at a traffic light, someone came up beside my son. Craning my neck to see who it was, the man did the same to me. It was the Athletic midfielder Carlos Gurpegui, suspended for the game but on his way home in civvies. "Only just won it tonight eh?" I ventured in Spanish. I put my hand to my throat, in a gesture of near drowning. A car slowed down as it passed and two girls leaned out and whooped 'Aupa Carlos guapo!' (Hey handsome!) at which point my son began to suspect he was in the presence of someone well-known. I whispered that it was Gurpegui.

"We played okay in the first half I thought," he answered, as we walked across towards a park in the midnight silence. "Second half - yeah, they played well." I suggested that they'd missed his bite in the middle of the park, and to our surprise, far from trying to escape from us, he seemed keen to chat, as though he had no home to go to. "Maybe in a couple of weeks I'll play. I haven't felt very fit lately. Are you English?" he asked, and continued to wander along with us, as if this were the most normal thing in the world, in the early hours of Sunday morning under the dull street lamps of Bilbao, with two complete strangers. I didn't have the heart to tell him that we supported Real Sociedad. After some more pleasantries, he disappeared into the shadows of the park. As he did, my son asked, rather too loudly "Isn't he the one that got done for drugs?"

I hoped he didn't speak English, but it was an interesting counterpoint to the evening - and probably because he isn't actually from Bilbao, but Gurpegui seemed a whole lot more realistic than the people who idolise him. And what a nice chap! Almost unprecedented behaviour from a top-flight footballer.

Anyway - that's avoided Real Madrid for at least five minutes. What is it about their mindset that has caused their 4-0 defeat at the hands of the mighty Alcorcón to become a matter of world significance? Well first of all, it's not a question of Real Madrid itself, but rather the trickier concept of Madridismo that takes precedence here. Unlike Bilbao, where the behaviour of the supporters reflects the general configuration of the city's population, this is not quite the case with the Bernabéu. Madrid is a capital city, and as such is more plural, and it has other teams, as the perceptive reader will have gathered from this column so far.

Madridismo has various features, but its driving principle is its allergy to defeat. This is okay, if you want to strut through life as the winner - or as the person who wishes to be associated with constant success. But the drawback is that when humiliation arrives, it arrives in doses that can never be objectively measured. Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war, and while you're at it - sack the manager! Marca's headline the day after the 4-0 defeat to Alcorcón was the ritualised phrase Vete ya! (Go now!), a piece of tabloid imbecility which is all part of the game here, but which nevertheless adds knowingly to the damage and the debris.

Real Madrid were awful, Alcorcón were admirably good, but sacking Pellegrini was never going to happen, nor would it be a good idea. Jorge Valdano et al cannot allow their project to be stripped naked at the first sign of adversity, and odd though Madrid's lethargic performance was - given the unthinkable fall-out of defeat, all is never lost. A week is a long time in football, as Harold Wilson never said. The presence of Getafe in the Bernabéu on Saturday was the best possible antidote, since one suspected that the visiting manager, Michel - the arch Madridista - sitting on the opposing bench for the first time since leaving the club in 1995 as a player, was never going to chivvy his troops to rub further salt into the wound - interested though he might be in the job if Pellegrini does go at the end of the season. Even then, the true factor in the balm that has descended temporarily onto the Bernabéu was that Raúl Albiol was sent off for nothing, causing the crowd to turn their ire onto the ref and to forget about their annoyance with their own players. As ever, in adversity, Madrid came up trumps, Gonzalo Higuaín scoring twice in the absence of both Guti and Raúl, both dropped after the midweek debacle.

Why did Madrid lose to Alcorcón? Well it's a dumb question. They lost because any team can lose to any other - a logic that makes football a sport worth watching. It was more the scale of the defeat than the loss itself which was so remarkable. Pellegrini, fine manager though he obviously was at Villarreal, where the mindset generated a wholly different set of expectations from those of Madridismo, has to be questioned with regard to his ability to motivate, if what we saw in Alcorcón was not simply an accident.

Everybody in the game knows that if you play a smaller team, the best way to beat them is to expose their limitations by harrying them in the same way as they have planned to harry you. But neither of these things happened on Tuesday night. Madrid didn't want to break sweat, and the motley collection of ne'er-do-wells, starved of a Ronaldo, Kaká or an Alonso to steady them, simply capitulated. But it was hardly a reserve team. Alcorcón, accustomed to physical battle and cruder no-time-on-the-ball stuff in Segunda B, were suddenly given time by Real Madrid, and they consequently looked like top-flight players. Their temporary self-belief overwhelmed Real Madrid, and the aristocrats were forced to eat mud. Guti had a hissy fit at half-time, just for a change, and everything went to hell.

Despite all the howls and gnashing of teeth, the defeat may prove a turning point. It is more likely to galvanise the club than destroy it, but I might be wrong. The game in Milan will have a lot to say about that theory. But when all is said and done, Barcelona only lead the table by one point, and everything's to play for - even the second round of a cup match that will focus the world's attention in ways unthinkable before last week's historic event. Oh - and next week Real Madrid visit Atlético. Once again, in Bilbao or Madrid, La Liga's the place to be.

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