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Battles in Bilbao

It was a strange sensation, almost akin to nostalgia, when the Athletic Bilbao and Anderlecht fans fought a pitched battle on the hallowed San Mames turf last Thursday, after the Europa League first-leg tie.

I don't mean by nostalgia that I miss that sort of thing, but that it was a nod to a bygone age, one that I remember as a youth and as a young(er) man, and one that seemed as much a part of football as the games themselves.

The clip of the Bilbao fan emptying his bladder on the poor unfortunates below has of course been the YouTube pass-on of the week (it was announced on Sunday that he had been banned for 'the foreseeable future') but it paints an unfortunate picture of a collective of fans who can be the friendliest and most accommodating in Europe, just as long as the visitors haven't come with the intention of causing mayhem.

I'm no expert on Belgian football or on its fans, but the Spanish view is that the blame rests on the visitors' shoulders, given the reports of pre-match trouble throughout the day in Bilbao. But few arrests were made before the game (suggesting that urban riots were fewer and further between than reported), and Bilbao's president Fernando Garcia Macua seemed reluctant, as is his wont, to take any blame for the incidents.

Anderlecht's president claimed that the away fans were pelted and provoked throughout the game and in the end had no choice but to escape onto the pitch. Hmmm... right. The government also wheeled out its usual 'What's this about us being responsible for anything?' line, when the Basque Socialist Party's Rodolfo Ares claimed that the Basque police had acted 'efficiently'. Other political parties saw a chance to wade in, and claimed that the tiny amount of Ertzainas (as they're called in Basque) was ill preparation for a game branded earlier as high-risk. In short, somebody messed up.

It's a pity because I recall going to the 1994 UEFA Cup match between Athletic and Newcastle United which was one of the most wonderful games I've ever been to - not because of the match itself but because of the fraternising outside, before the game, between the rival sets of supporters. I wrote a piece on the game for an English newspaper, and quoted the astonishment of various Newcastle fans at the treatment they received.

'They keep buying us drinks man! This is paradise!' was one swaying fan's comment that I remember, as was another Geordie's tale of driving down through France in an old van with his mates, only for the vehicle's exhaust pipe to drop off when they reached Bilbao. Apparently, a group of home supporters had led them to a garage, where the owner fixed on a new pipe for free and then took them for a late lunch. 'He wouldn't accept any money man! We thought it was a plot to rob us or something, but they were just top blokes.' In fact, various Newcastle fans told me that night that they were quite happy to lose, because winning would have seemed a rude way to treat your hosts. After my article was published, various Newcastle fans wrote in confirming that what I had said was true, weird though it seemed.

It's sad that this kind of thing happens so rarely. Bilbao's Europa campaign has been sullied with other problems, as when the Austria Vienna supporters decided that the best way to provoke their Basque visitors was by unfurling Spanish flags and raising banners adorned with portraits of Franco. It was quite an imaginative act of inter-fan hostility, but its effects were predictably unfortunate.

This week's return leg to Brussels had seen 1,200 offered tickets to Bilbao, and far from the events discouraging a travelling presence this Thursday the tickets were snapped up in less than an hour. The travellers are either masochists, goons or both. The chances of the game in Brussels being played in peace and harmony are sub-zero. And of course, just off the beautiful Grand Place in Brussels the most famous symbol of the city, the Manneken Pis (little man urinating), can be found. Whether the now banned Bilbao supporter was aware of the symbolism of his urinary act is an open question, but if I were in on the Brussels Municipal Council meeting this week before the game, I would post a few local bobbies around the statuette, or else they might find that their most prized urban possession is missing a member in the morning, or worse still, has found its way onto one of the Iberian flights back to Bilbao.

There are various interpretations as to the historical roots of this curious statue, but one of them is fairly resonant. Apparently, in the 14th century the city was under siege and the attackers decided to blow down the walls with some explosive charges. As they were going about this heinous deed, a little boy named Juliaanske happened to see them light the fuses and high-tailed it, exit stage left. In a similar vein to the Dutch boy who popped his finger in the sandbags, this little chap popped his finger in a different direction and peed on the fuses, thus saving the city. His spirit may be required again this Thursday, as the siege of Athletic is unlikely to pass without incident.

Then, on Sunday night, Barcelona played Real Madrid in the King's Cup basketball final in the Bizkaia Arena, in Bilbao. Now that the Basque Country has a non-nationalist autonomous government for the first time in decades, a final such as this is a warmer for a possible visit of the Spanish national football team to play one of its World Cup warmers in San Mames, up to this year an unthinkable act. But of course, Bilbao kept itself in the news by booing the national anthem (the King was there) and generally making the Madrid-based travellers (amongst them his Majesty Florentino Perez) feel a little uncomfortable. Then again, some of them had also unfurled Spanish flags - not a very clever thing to do. To make them feel even worse, Barcelona won.

It's been that sort of week - with an edgy European flavour. Real Madrid's inept performance in Lyon on Tuesday night, in which they were let off the hook by an excellent home side, raised the rafters in Madrid and led to new rumblings about Manuel Pellegrini being unfit for office in the White House. Impeach! Screamed the ever-more hysterical Marca and its various copy-cats.

Pellegrini hit back, claiming that this was the best Real Madrid of the last 15 years, prompting Marca, who seem to have a strange loathing for the Chilean, to conduct a vox-pop survey which found that 70% of respondents 'disagreed' with Pellegrini. Well they probably did, but if you'd asked them the same question on the Monday night before the game, probably only 30% would have disagreed. But anyway - let's not try to plant any rational ideas into the madhouse.

The present Real Madrid side is potentially the best in the last 15 years, which is probably what the manager was trying to say. He would be better off keeping such statements to a minimum, of course, but in the end his team went out - with Xabi Alonso restored as the single pivot (Mahamadou Diarra kept getting in his way on Tuesday night), and everything went swimmingly, with the team registering its tenth home win in a row against the manager's old side Villarreal, and by a thumping 6-2.

Barcelona also won by four goals, stuffing Racing Santander 4-0 without breaking sweat, thereby certifying Pep Guardiola as the best-ever manager after 100 matches with the Catalans. The win over Santander was his 71st in his first 100, with 19 draws and ten defeats (none of the latter by more than one goal). This beats the (in)famous Helenio Herrera, who managed 70% with Barcelona in his first spell with them, but Pep's beaten even him now. What else is there to win? He could always try Gran Hermano (Big Brother) or something.

Whatever, during the game against Racing in the Camp Nou, the faithful whistled Sergio Canales' every touch (he'll have to get used to that, now he's a proto-Merengue) and witnessed a 'calling card' from Rafael Marquez who tackled the youngster rather in the style of Camacho's famous slide tackle on Johan Cruyff in 1974, the one that almost put him in the first row of seats in the Bernabeu. It showed a certain amount of respect and attention for the new star, but the yellow card should really have been a different colour altogether.

Stuttgart, Barca's hosts on Tuesday night, warmed up with a 5-1 win away to Cologne, and will be in a decent mood for the game. Zlatan Ibrahimovic looks unlikely to play, and Xavi and Dani Alves are doubtful starters. The third man, Sevilla, became the first side to beat Mallorca in San Moix this season, and will also be going off to CSKA in a more confident mood.

It looks like a busy week in general, because Monday football has returned to La Liga (it last happened in the mid 1990s), with a single game being reserved for the post-weekend fixtures. It's kind of annoying for the quiniela followers, but it's a popular move among the clubs, guaranteeing further TV revenue.

Talking of the quiniela, I'm to make my debut later this week, with the challenge of beating Ed Alvarez's personal best of 8/10, but it's going to be tough. Ed's kindly offered to do the column next weekend in a straight swap, since I'm taking my partner away to an exotic destination for her birthday and won't be back until Monday night. And no, it's not Brussels...


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