Hope you had a good summer, and can enjoy what's left of it - or depending on your hemisphere, I hope the early spring´s all green and gambolling. The World Cup seems strangely distant, and I've just got back from California where I took the family on holiday and where football (I mean soccer) was never far away. I missed Real Madrid by a day in Los Angeles and then by a day again in San Francisco, but never mind because I'll be seeing them again very soon in Anoeta. Real Sociedad´s stadium is once again host to the top flight, but I've just missed out on their 1-0 win over an allegedly poor Villarreal because I'm still in England, where it's predictably blowing a gale as I write.
I'll be back in Spain by next weekend, but meanwhile am having to rely on media sources for my opening-day La Liga experience. No problemo. In fact I was defending the whole thing to the hilt last Friday in an English pub (somewhere in the north) when a friend of a friend approached me at the beer-strewn table and asked me; "You still doing that La Liga stuff?" I replied that I was. "Crap innit?" he continued, as if I was likely to agree. I assumed he was referring to La Liga and not to this column, and so I asked him what his problem was. As you can imagine, this young man, brought up on the empty hype of the Premier League, presumed that because La Liga was to be a two-horse race, it must be 'boring'. Never fear. I put him right. I told him that even if it was (a two-horse race), nobody cared. That was a large part of the attraction. Just to be playing in the same league as Barcelona and Real Madrid, to be guaranteed a couple of games with them, was almost sufficient in itself. Besides, it has often been a duopoly in the past, and no-one ever thought it boring.
And then there were the two stallions themselves. In Spain, you could be fanatical and committed to your own team, simultaneously hating the two big ones, yet still be fascinated by the twisting weekly pathways of their rivalry. This is my tenth season reporting on the rivalry, but the filter-down effect has always sustained Spanish football, and it always will. The chap in the pub sniffed a little at my explanation, but he had no real counter-arguments. The Premier League is interesting for other reasons, but even the usual hype that accompanies its autumn inception has seemed strangely subdued this time, as if the World Cup farce had dampened even the marketing folks' creative enthusiasm. And Chelsea won their first two games 6-0. Is that the sign of a more competitive league?
Let us see. It's early doors yet, of course. But neither is La Liga immune to silliness. At the end of Real Madrid's 0-0 opener at Mallorca, the online journalist at Marca described this result as a pinchazo (literally a flat-tyre), and that the white ones were 'already' two points behind Barcelona - as if we hadn't noticed. But the trouble with the word pinchazo is that it tends to be employed to mean 'A game they should have won', and when that mentality begins to creep in to even the season's opening exchanges, then yes, I might be stepping onto the road that eventually leads to agreement with the man in the pub. Mallorca may have lost Aritz Aduriz, but they still had an excellent season last campaign, despite financial woes and institutional uncertainty. They are certainly no pushovers. Spanish journalists must beware of assuming the two-horse race before it´s hardly begun, and even then, they should pay their respects to the opposition (the other eighteen sides).
Although I've spent the summer away from Spain's fair shores, I was there for the World Cup and its aftermath, and I understand the warm glow it has engendered in the football scene in general. Everybody is just happy to be a part of it. How on Earth can this be 'crap', to quote my friend of a friend. I only cite him because he seemed to me to be a football enthusiast, and could therefore have been expressing a general sentiment, a collective perspective from outside of the Iberian Peninsula.
The 'Mourinho factor' is also a big reason why international eyes will continue to focus on Spain this season. Manuel Pellegrini may have been poorly treated by Real Madrid and its fourth-estate Rottweilers last season, but that fails to negate the fact that the Chilean had the charisma of a dead tortoise. The 'Special One' is of course made of different stuff, and love him or loathe him, he never disappoints at the microphone.
He had already provoked Barcelona more than once in pre-season, and this weekend implied ('they often play against ten') that the referees have been in their favour in the past. Let's not go down that path today, but Mourinho is only warming up. His future influence on the historic dog-eat-dog loathing between the two horses should be a joy to witness, and will hand the hacks their opening paragraphs for most of the season to come.
Others who have departed the scene, such as the charmless Zlatan Ibrahimovic, have tossed a few darts into the wake left behind them, but that says more about them than it does about their targets. The Swede's infantile dismissal of Guardiola as a 'philosopher' was both sour and pathetic . What's wrong with philosophy if it brings in the trophies? Barcelona's opening-day stroll at weakened Racing Santander was symptomatic of the directions the two clubs will take this year and of the gulf between them.
But most headlines will focus on the fact that David Villa, surprise surprise, got off the mark with his new side's third goal, and the man who ended last season with the final goal in the World Cup (Andres Iniesta) scored the second in the 33rd minute. Adriano also made his first appearance, coming on for Iniesta late in the second half, and Javier Mascherano will be presented as a Braca player on Monday evening. The club may be spiralling into debt, but they prefer to lose financial face on tossing out the bad apples (Ibra) and to re-invest in guarantees than tighten their belts altogether. Besides, their squad represents considerable collateral, should push ever come to shove.
Real Madrid would employ the same argument. But whereas several young promises have been prominent in the Camp Nou pre-season (Oriol Romeu, Dos Santos, Sergi Gomez), over at the Bernabeu it's been literally business as usual, within whose framework the cantera (the youth team) can wait. That said, Mourinho has been careful to be seen working with the reserve and youth squads in pre-season (maybe because all his stars were on holiday), possibly to offset the accusations of the press last season that Pellegrini didn't care.
Interesting to note that against Mallorca, two of the newest signings were on the bench (Ozil and Khedira), which is their manager's way of saying that there are no guaranteed places, apart from that of his trusted lieutenant Ricardo Carvalho of course, who can play the Mourinho system blindfolded and who is too old for psychological tricks. He remains a good signing, nevertheless. The Germans got a game eventually, as did the troubled Karim Benzema, but they were unable to get the ball past the excellent Dudu Aouate, who had a gilded first game and kept the smile on the face of Michael Laudrup, the Islanders' new manager.
Writing this opening column last season, I did speculate on which side might be the one to keep the two horses looking over their shoulders, but neither Sevilla nor Valencia really fulfilled the contract. This season they seem even less likely to do so, although Mestalla-watchers thought they were doomed last campaign even with the two departed Davids still in their ranks. But the opening day win at a better-stocked (and richer) Malaga was a good one, with Aduriz getting off the mark for his new club after a mere nine minutes and the oldish warhorse Joaquin (remember him?) scoring the other two in their 3-1 win.
Valencia have a habit of confounding people, and despite the mass exodus of some admittedly old but classy players this summer (and the two Davids) they can still be a force to be reckoned with. Juan Mata is still there, and Roberto Soldado and Mehmet Topal are good signings, within the financial limitations imposed. And they've been drawn in Manchester United's group in the Champions League. Interesting, as they say.
The other possible from last season, Sevilla, have experienced a traumatic pre-season and have seen their financial plans dashed before they started - condemned as they have been to the less lucrative waters of the Europa League by losing to Braga. They lost the Supercopa to Barcelona too, after blowing the 3-1 advantage from the opening leg. They bounced back with a 4-1 away win to promoted Levante, but that might not be too significant yet. The heroes of the hour, Atletico Madrid, fresh from their surprising but welcome win over Inter, may really be the 'third man' this season, given that they have retained Diego Forlan and Kun Aguero yet again - suprising after Forlan's wonderful World Cup - and signed three interesting players in the solid Diego Godin, the excellent Filipe Luis, and the potentially brilliant Fran Merida. I agree with my colleague Eduardo, who has written in his opening quiniela that Atletico might really be a league force this season, as opposed to the usual farce.
More to come next week - more detail plus the very spring of the turf. Here in sleepy Norwich it isn't quite the same.