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Christmas Musings

Do you want to hear about Brent Cross Shopping Centre in London, on a snowy Monday afternoon? Didn't think you did. But it's part the reason for the late delivery of this week's La Liga piece. It never fails to amaze me in England, but the appearance of a few snowflakes seems to convert the county into a collective hissy-fit, as if it had never seen the stuff before. Whilst in Scandinavia all functions smoothly at 20 below, and in any other European country with a vaguely organized infrastructure life goes on without a shrug, in England the whole thing comes to a neurotic halt. Bizarre. It makes Spain look like a pillar of organization.

On Sunday night, the evening when I normally attempt to put something together for this column as the results come in, I was sitting in Bilbao airport counting down the hours before the delayed plane from London (due to a few snowflakes) finally made a showing. Accompanying my family in the airport bar were two footballers I'd just seen playing some ten hours earlier, both members of 2nd Division leaders Real Sociedad and obviously off to London for a quick break with their Goofs (Girlfriends of Obscure Footballers) - playing cards to while away the time. I won't name them, just in case, although I'm sure their trip was perfectly legitimate. My son, keen to show that he recognized them, shouted 'Aupa Real!' (as you do) as one passed on his way to the bar - to which the player responded with a curt nod.

It's interesting how players, even in Spain, are reluctant to be seen drinking, and even on the eve of their well-deserved break. Because I appear from time to time on the local telly, both of them would have been aware of my potentially problematic keyboard fingers, a nervousness I find kind of unfortunate. I'd much sooner have bought them a beer for the excellence of their pre-Christmas results and the fact that one of them (the one buying the booze) has been instrumental in taking the side to the top of the table where they sit quite prettily, eight points clear of Rayo Vallecano in fourth place.

As a chap who needs to be seeing as much football as possible, for both professional and obsessive reasons, the sooner the local side gets back into the top flight the better. I hesitate to say, as some do in Spain, that Real Sociedad, one of the country's historically important clubs, 'belong' in the top flight, because that does a disservice to the philosophy of sport. This says that all tiny acorns are potential mighty oaks, and that all mighty oaks can potentially wither. Being a child of the 1960s, I still find it hard to wake up of a morning and be told that Leeds United are in the old English 3rd Division, but they are, and that's how it should be. It keeps sport alive, but Sociedad's third term in the Second Division is now beginning to irk me. The novelty's over. I'd love to see the big teams back at Anoeta again, and this season's excellent start is promising just that.

Forgive me this local-flavour start, but since I knew that I'd be flying Sunday night I took advantage of the Sunday 12 noon kick-off to wander along to the game with promotion rivals Betis. The time of the game was due to Canal Plus' cameras, who elect a Second Division game every Sunday and show it live at mid-day. Perhaps in some countries this would not represent a problem, but the Spanish, more than any other people in Europe, are creatures of habit. They have made a whole culture out of their varied and wondrous fiestas, and fiestas are simply a seasonal ritual, connected to the church and the earth. Spaniards carefully develop a ritual of social behavior during their younger years, then act them out relentlessly until death do them part.

One of them is the lunchtime drink, particularly on a weekend. The aperitivo can be taken quite early, but around noon on a Sunday people are stocking up for a huge lunch and a bit of horizontal siesta time before the football starts in earnest around five in the afternoon. To bring back football to the hour of the aperitivo is thus problematic, and in terms of getting down to the stadium for the game, tricky indeed. I've heard several complaints this year from hard-bitten fans, but at the same time they're pleased that Canal Plus are coming so often - a sign that the team is worth televising. And Real Sociedad haven't blinked, winning their seventh home game on the trot and setting a club record.

Betis, who came down on the last day of last season and have retained their squad for a quick return, looked top-flight material but not in defence. They'll have to tighten up if they want to get back to where they also think they belong. Sociedad won 2-0, the excellent Xabi Prieto scoring the second. Right-midfielder Prieto is by a long shot the most exciting player in the Division de Plata (Silver Division). Despite some tempting offers last season (one from Ajax) and some interest from England, Prieto decided to stay put, despite his ungalactic earnings and a stark lack of prospects for a club in administration. Now he's terrorizing every defence he comes up against, and his general play is sublime. I hope he doesn't go, but it can't be long before a big side start to show interest. Even Del Bosque is said to be keeping an eye on him.

But the whole atmosphere in the city was delicious - a sort of anticipation in the air, a relaxed feel due to coming holidays, cold but sunny weather, and football to come. People scurrying to the game, a simple sense of collective action. There's nothing better. Makes me feel sorry for those outside the church of football.

Changing topic, I remember when the magazine 4-4-2 interviewed Ronaldinho three years ago, at the height of his goofy fame. What was it like, the magazine asked, to be the best player in the world? Ronaldinho grinned his grin and answered, 'Best in the world? I'm not even the best at Barça!'. He was referring, of course, to the emerging talent of Leo Messi, back then seen in glimpses, but none so substantial as to draw even a single journalist to predict what the Brazilian was hinting at back then. What a season for Messi and what a year for Barcelona, now that they have finally put the Club World Cup demon to rest. It was a close shave again, and the last-minute equalizer against Estudiantes put one in mind of Iniesta's famous shot at Stamford Bridge. Barça never give up. Not because they are any more determined than previous Barça sides but because they simply believe that they can always win, no matter the circumstances. This belief keeps them efficient when others would throw in the towel, but it also intimidates opponents, who feel that they can never rest.

The fact that they have won all six trophies waved under their nose is a testament to many things, but it has to be a major indication of Pep Guardiola's instinctive feel for management. Perhaps intelligence does not need to be a quality that a footballer needs, but a manager needs it in abundance. That is because the business of man-management begins with convincing thirty overpaid and potentially cocky men that you can organize them, guide them and make them function in a way that would not be possible in your absence. Footballers are like schoolkids. They see a manager's weaknesses almost instantly, and as in the classroom, will exploit them to the full. It's the protection of the pack, the power of the crowd. But an emotionally intelligent manager will never let this happen. It's not easy - either to teach or to manage, but some make it look easy.

Guardiola was a great player, and now he looks like being a great manager, unless it all turns out to have been some sport of massive fluke. There haven't been too many of these combinations in the history of football, and the jury is still out on Guardiola's mentor, the innovative but control-freakish Johan Cruyff. Of the rest of the Famous Five, Maradona, Pele and Di Stéfano, none have convinced in management, and if you throw George Best in as the fifth, he never even gave it a try. He actually claimed he was too intelligent to be one. Interesting point - but Guardiola has written a chapter into the club's history that is unlikely to be repeated, and has nurtured Messi with care so that he has become the player that everyone suspected he would become - but in different hands you never know. Frank Rijkaard takes a lot of credit, of course - but who knows? Would Messi have won this season's amazing double without the present guiding hand?

And so this is Christmas. La Liga takes a break until the New Year with the two-horse race beginning to unfold. Sevilla just can't seem to get consistent, losing 1-2 at home to Getafe, a stumble too far one feels. It leaves them third but seven points adrift of Real Madrid, whose 6-0 slaughter of the innocent and fragile Zaragoza could have been worse for the visitors. Ronaldo's goal was wonderful, the Madrid pieces are beginning to fall into shape, and despite a tricky draw with Lyons in the Champions League, it's suddenly all smiles at the Bernabow. Those calling for Pelligrini's head after Alcorcon are strangely silent now.

Have a nice Christmas, from a snowy London. I'll be at Chelsea v Fulham on the 28th, and at the much more significant Grimsby v Bury on January 2nd. Contrast, as they say, is the spice of life.


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