A taxing week
The fact that Sporting Gijón lie seventh in the league, with a quarter of the games now played, is probably the fairest thing to highlight at the start of this week's column. After beating Espanyol 1-0, they have garnered sixteen precious points from the ten games so far played, and as averages go would be very happy to end the season on something around 60 points, their present haul multiplied by four. They managed 43 last season, when Betis went down with 42, but 62 points saw Valencia into Europe. Ah - lies, damned lies and averages! Best to wait until Christmas before making any rash predictions.
But it's been that kind of week. All eyes on progress. Further up the ladder, Real Madrid continued their spiritual recuperation process with a disciplined performance in Milan, earning them a draw in a game that could have gone either way. Barcelona also managed a draw against their bogey men from Russia, Rubin Kazan, at five below zero. In a sense, it was a worthy draw, but their further progress in the competition whose cup this year gleams on their home shelf is now beginning to look a trifle complicated. It would certainly be a shock to their system to bow out at this stage, and would be a mortal blow to their morale. Madrid should go through, but may not lead the group in the final reckoning - a factor that has dogged them for the last few seasons. Sevilla turned out to be the first side to pass though and Atlético the first to bow out, though both outcomes were entirely predictable.
Meanwhile, over in a sleepy stadium in deepest Extremadura, the Estadio Principe Felipe to be precise (the 'Prince Philip Stadium' - isn't he supposed to be an Atlético Madrid fan?), Club Polideportivo Cacereño were aiming to climb out of the bottom four of Group 2 of Segunda 'B'. This worthy ambition was to be carried out against an illustrious visitor - Alcarcón no less. The game had been subject to some media attention during the week for the obvious reason that it was to be Alcarcón's last game before the extraordinary event that awaits their modest players, some of them part-timers, on Tuesday night in the Bernabéu. The club's directors had desperately attempted to bring the game, scheduled for Sunday at 17.00, back to Saturday to give them time to prepare for the biggest day in their history so far. But Cacereño were having none of it, citing administrative reasons, and the league was powerless to act.
On top of potentially messing up Alcorcón's chances by obliging them to travel back from Extremadura Sunday evening - meaning a late night and a dozy final training session on Monday, Cacereño pulled off a 1-1 draw, which did them little good but which also served to keep their visitors in 6th place, a result which leaves them eight points adrift of the leaders, Guadalajara. Ah - try pronouncing that one John Motson! Funnily enough, Real Madrid 'B' play in this very same league, and beat Nastic 'B' 4-2, but still lie well below Alcorcón in 14th place.
Alcorcón's away record is none too impressive with only one win recorded so far this season, but although Real Madrid are unlikely to be interested in these statistics, their visitors for Tuesday night have not conceded any more than one goal for any of the away games played so far this season. Ronaldo will not figure on the team sheet on Tuesday night, but other big guns may well be brought in to resolve matters. The game is taking on quite extraordinary dimensions here. Real Madrid have cut the entrance prices drastically, and every ticket for sale has been taken up. Allowing for those ticket-carrying members who stay at home, the club is expecting a near-capacity crowd. It's all a bit weird, a sudden about-turn at the Bernabéu in a desperate attempt to seal the recovery process after the monumental embarrassment in the aftermath of the first leg defeat. In historical terms, it is akin to the great European nights in the capital, where the side would play a home leg already in arrears from the away game, and stage an epic 'remontada' (comeback) under the floodlights. From this tradition, well understood in Madridista circles, the phrase 'miedo escénico' was born, supposedly from the lips of Jorge Valdano, then a player who figured in several of these legendary nights. It translates roughly as 'stage fright', but refers to the visitors who had somehow to resist the baying vertical walls of the Bernabéu and the impossibly partial atmosphere that was generated. They rarely did, of course - giving rise to Valdano's phrase.
It's a long time since Real Madrid have figured in this normally epic context, and so it is with some irony that they should be setting up such a circus for Tuesday night. A lot is at stake - more than the cup itself. Madrid have not won it since 1993 and it remains the only major trophy not won by Raúl, who first appeared a year later. But the players are aware that they need to slaughter their humble visitors, to re-set the world's configuration which was put out of kilter by the upstarts from the suburbs. They have to do it by 5-0 at least, for any goal by Alcarcón will set the winning margin very high indeed. Anything is possible, but the game has been cooked up by the media here to boiling point, especially coming in a week where there will be no further competition due to international games at the weekend.
Madrid themselves prepared for the event by beating their neighbours 2-3 in the Calderón, after leading 0-3 at one stage. Once Sergio Ramos was sent off, things turned rather uncomfortable for the visitors, up to then cruising impressively and taking advantage of the usual comedy of errors that one associates so easily with Atlético this season. In the end, Iker Casillas saved them with a providential stop from the roaming Agüero, and the big two pulled away from Espanyol in 9th place, in the sense that after ten games Barcelona now have twice their neighbour's points tally. Espanyol can still believe in a Europa finish this season, but the gulf that has already opened up is significant.
This leads nicely onto the next issue. Last Tuesday a governmental amendment to the 'Beckham Law', set up in 2004 by the previous government, the Partido Popular, stated that the 24% rate tax agreed for foreign footballers earning over 600,000 euros must be almost doubled in the budget for 2010, up to 43%. The parliamentary argument, yet to be ratified, argues that this would bring Spain into line with other European countries who have 'significant' football leagues. The LFP, the Liga de Fútbol Profesional which forms a part of the umbrella institution, the RFEF (Federation), came out on Thursday and threatened strike action if this goes ahead. It softened its stance on Saturday after a meeting with delegates from all the clubs, and agreed to a timetable of negotiations with the government department responsible, but the glove has nevertheless been slapped down. In a first exchange of fire, government sources insist that the plan is 'non-negotiable', but they would say that.
One of the problems is that the government may be right. Another of the problems is that the head of the LFP is José Luis Astiazarán, the same man who took Real Sociedad to ruin, where just as the ship was sinking and the water was lapping around his ankles, leaped across the water at a passing speedboat and was whisked to safety by various friends of the same school-tie and wetsuit. He then emerged several weeks later as head of the LFP on a hefty salary, whilst the club over which he had presided fell into administration and the Second Division. It could only happen in Spain, but three years down the line the same man is taking the government to task for a fiscal reform that he says will bring La Liga to its knees and harm its privileged position. What he means is that without this whopping incentive of a piddly 24% loss of earnings, folks like Becks and Ronaldo will cease to come to these shores, the league will collapse, the sponsors will disappear, the TV rights will dry up, and death and plague will ravage the land. Football is a multi-million pound industry, thundered Astiazarán (who, incidentally, gets his hair cut in the same place as me, every six weeks or so), and will cease to be such a big tax earner for the government if this legislation is passed. This was enough to bring out the threat of a strike by the players, said José Luis, before being calmed down a little by the avuncular Florentino Pérez on Saturday in Madrid.
Strike action eh? By whom? By the rest of the players on behalf of the 43 players who declared earnings more than 600,000 euros in last year's tax fest? Come off it Joselu! There were 1,960 contributions to the tax purse last year from professional footballers, so I'll leave it to you to work out the percentage of them who earned more than 600 grand. Let's just say it's pretty small. And whilst it may be true that it only needs a Messi and a Ronaldo to sex up a league for media purposes (and maybe a smattering of the 41 big cheeses left), it hardly hints at a mass exodus from these shores. Besides, the law will not refer to monies already earned, and will only apply to future imports.
If the law is passed, clubs will simply re-adjust their cloth in order to make the package attractive enough. It's true that it may put one or two players off, but some sort of realism is surely required here. Astiazarán is not the sort of chap who would have noticed that Spain has just announced unemployment figures of 18.1%, double that of the average in the Euro zone. As a piece of moral legislation therefore the idea isn't a bad one. But moral is not a word that interests the LFP boss very much. His arguments are entirely fiscal.
Some of us, however, are more interested in football. It used to exist fairly well before all the bodies that Astiazarán quotes jumped on board and turned it into the debt-ridden monster that is is rapidly becoming. An entertaining one for all that, but it's hard to swallow a call for industrial action to protect the lifestyles of multi-millionaires. Interesting one that - a sort of silver-spoon socialism that only those pampered since birth (Astiazarán) could possibly dream up. As the arch-leftie Arthur Scargill memorably said of Tony Benn, 'He wouldn't recognise a grass root if he tripped over one'.
But let's not get too working-class hero here. It's just common sense. Why should Spain continue to be the exception? In the LFP's defence, it might be argued that the issue works both ways, and so why should the government bother changing the law if it affects so few? The answer is probably that the PSOE government, despite the awkward reality, would still like to appear to be the nominal socialists they once were, and if there is an easy way to help achieve this, football enters into the fray as one of the contributors. But that doesn't make the idea wrong. They should have consulted with the LFP - a definite gaffe that was destined to annoy, but I still can't see what the fuss is about. Cloth will have to be cut sooner or later. The game might begin to retrace its roots, and people might even be able to afford to go to football matches. Now there's a radical idea.