Back in the big time
Usually, when you have been through a period of suffering, the return to normality enables you to see life in a different way. Everything seems interesting again, the birdsong seems sweeter and even the in-laws seem wonderful somehow. In footballing terms, a decent spell in the Second Division means that when you return to the top flight, the sensations are giddy ones, and the visit of teams like Real Madrid lends the weekend a sort of intangible richness, like that tingly feeling you had as a kid, just before Christmas Day.
Forgive me for this weekend's offering, but living in San Sebastian and supporting Real Sociedad seems worthwhile again, now that the previous three seasons in the Second Division have been wrapped up in a box and put in the cupboard. Not that living in Europe's most beautiful city is ever particularly painful, especially if you've been brought up in Grimsby, but the sudden deprivation that the city suffered on relegation three years ago was like a huge cultural clout on the head. You're suddenly living in a Second Division city. It changes the atmosphere at the weekends, it changes the way people talk about football to you. When you visit other top-flight cities, you feel embarrassed somehow, as if the team's relegation reflects on you as a person. Other journalists patronise you, and you begin to fear that life may always be like this. Then suddenly you wake up from the nightmare - interesting though certain parts of it may have been - and you're back in the big time. You worry that you might not be ready for it, despite picking up four points out of the first six, and then along come Real Madrid.
San Sebastian has a lot going on at the moment. The Film Festival has just started, and Javier Bardem and Julia Roberts have just turned up. Next weekend those Irish pensioners U2 are in town for a sold-out gig, and on Saturday night Mourinho and his men came to town. Interestingly, they had to stay in the decaying old hotel on the top of Monte Igueldo, whose lights I can see twinkling on the cliff top from the vantage point of this very keyboard, because the usual five-star posh place where they stay in town was full of film stars and sundry hangers-on. Oh well, Florentino will have saved a few Euros at least. But the whole of last week seemed conditioned by their visit. There was loads of telly and radio to do, the phone never stopped ringing - kind of annoying but nice - and I even managed to have a drink with John Toshack. What more could a man want from life?
The other interesting thing about such a game, after a period in the doldrums, is that you get to see a bunch of young local players measure up to the world's best and most notorious, and it's an interesting sight. The local players are kids that you have seen playing from around the age of 15, when they first began to shape up as potential professionals in the junior ranks, and you can't quite believe that they'll cope against Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Cope? They more than coped. In fact the 2-1 win in Real Madrid's favour was the greatest injustice since Galileo received a red card for suggesting that the Earth went round the sun.
Thankfully Valencia managed to win again and stay top of La Liga, ensuring that Real Madrid don't get too carried away with themselves this week. Barcelona also did their bit for the re-adjustment of the natural order of the cosmos, by unnaturally beating Atletico Madrid 2-1 in the Calderon, and thus ending a consecutive three-year run of defeats at that stadium. By 'unnaturally' I mean 'unusual', of course. Barcelona normally struggle there, but were very good, and the excellent Atletico keeper David de Gea kept the score down in the second half with a series of jaw-dropping saves.
Atletico also look like a team transformed, and played like a side who should stay in the league's upper zone this season. Some of the tackling from their back-line was a little robust (Messi will be out for a fortnight), but compared to last season's fainting fatales, this squad looks much more likely to keep the mattress-makers near the top of the pile, despite the Salonica wobble in midweek in the Europa League. And while we're on the topic of Atletico, their oft-accused supporters applauded the sublime Andres Iniesta from the field when he was substituted, which is rare behaviour for Spanish fans. Nice to see, nevertheless.
But back to Anoeta, Real Sociedad's pretty but normally anodyne stadium. One of the last stadia to make the mistake of building an athletics track around the pitch perimeter (it has only been used twice for track events since 1993), the idea has been to restore the old Basque 'up-and-at-'em' atmosphere by taking up the track and re-shaping the stadium around the pitch, at a cost of some €17 million. The stadium is municipal, and the Mayor says he won't pay, so the latest idea is to snaffle a wad of money from FIFA when (and if) Spain get the nod for the 2018 World Cup, and re-model the stadium as one of the venues, increasing the capacity from the present 33,000 to the requisite 40,000 plus.
But judging by the wonderful atmosphere on Saturday night, with the place packed to the rafters despite the game being featured live on La Sexta channel, they might want to think again. Sociedad outplayed Real Madrid in the first half, and really should have been two goals to the good by half-time. That must be true because Chris Coleman said so. I bumped into the ex-Sociedad manager outside the toilets at half-time, and we had a little chat, as you do outside the toilets. Ah - these things don't happen when you're in the Second Division.
Anyway, poor Marcelo wasn't quite sure what to do with the laconic yet magical Xavi Prieto (what on Earth was he doing playing in the Second Division for three seasons?), and Sergio Ramos was given a hot night's work by the precocious Antoine Griezmann, a left-sided player who will make the headlines this season and eventually earn Sociedad a few million to prop up their still creaking finances. He's probably better than Sergio Canales, but nobody knows about him yet. They will.
Stolen from the hands of various French scouts at the age of thirteen and sent to San Sebastian sans parents to play for Sociedad's cadets, he overcame homesickness and various attacks of self-doubt before being asked to fill in for an absent player from Real Sociedad B last summer, just as new manager Martin Lasarte was taking a look at his new troops. Training that day with the first team, Lasarte was astonished by his all-round ability and confidence.
Informed that he was to be farmed out to Easo FC, a small neighbourhood team for reserve-team rejects, Lasarte instead handed him his first-team debut 20 days later. Griezmann lit up last season's Second Division campaign and was a major influence on the France Under-19s' victory in the European tournament this summer. The French press was scratching its collective head, amazed that Griezmann had appeared as if from nowhere. Sergio Ramos was also scratching his head on several occasions on Saturday night as the youngster ghosted past him and should have scored, particularly when one-on-one with Iker Casillas. One to watch, as they say, as is David Zurutuza, Sociedad's new version of Cesc Fabregas.
It's always too early to say, but the locals looked as if they should be okay this season, whilst fellow promotees Levante look like struggling. The jury is still out on Hercules, who followed up their amazing win in the Camp Nou with a home defeat to leaders Valencia. Real Madrid themselves showed a rather more enigmatic version of themselves, particularly after dazzling Ajax on Wednesday night, a game that they should have won by six goals or more. Mourinho's tactic of playing a fast counter-attack in Anoeta worked for the first ten minutes, but unlike Mallorca, Osasuna and the abysmal Ajax, Real Sociedad had players capable of keeping possession, taking on defenders and making things happen. Suddenly the black-shirted meringues were being overrun, and it wasn't a pretty sight for sofa-sitting Madridistas nationwide.
Even worse, the previously wonderful Ozil went missing in combat, Xabi Alonso, uncomfortable at having to play against his mates in his home town, looked out of sorts, and Ronaldo, as he so often does when the going gets tough, took on the role of unilateral saviour, assuming that he could solve it all on his own. Poor Gonzalo Higuian spent most of the match watching forlornly at his team-mate ignoring all petitions for a pass and blasting most of his shots into the night sky. Ronaldo is unquestionably brilliant, but often allows his ego to get in the way of any tactical intelligence he might possess. Someone should give him a talking to, preferably in Portuguese.
Nevertheless, he scored a fluky winner from a free-kick that should never have been awarded, and Real Madrid live to fight another day. Despite their wobbles, they seem a more balanced side than last season. Carvalho and Pepe complement each other well, Marcelo looks a changed player going forward, Ozil is obviously a fine signing, as long as he doesn't prove to be a choker, and Angel Di Maria, who scored the first goal, also gives them a new dimension on whichever wing he chooses to roam. Sami Khedira is unspectacular, but protects Xabi Alonso well.
There's a whole midweek league programme to come (Valencia v Atletico looks the pick of the games) and if I play my cards right I'll be in San Mames for Saturday's game against Barcelona. Watch this space.