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Tales from the frozen north

Reporting from an extremely cold north of England, where the final result of La Liga (Getafe 2-3 Real Madrid) has just popped into the website I'm using, to end two days of renewed action after the Christmas break. It's slightly difficult to re-focus after almost a couple of weeks in England and the remorseless day-to-day of the leagues here, the leagues that never stop, come hell or high water.

I had been invited to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea v Bolton, but matters of transport became a little over-complicated meaning John Terry & Co just had to play without me. I could actually see the two empty seats that we would have occupied behind the goal on 'Match of the Day', but it looked a bit cold to justify sitting out a mere 1-0 result, on a London winter's night. Much better from my cosy cottage in Kent.

It got even better on New Year's Day, when in the frozen north I attended Grimsby v Mansfield in the Blue Square Premier, which for those uninitiated in such arcane matters is basically Division 5 in England. The first four belong to the official football league, the fifth has a mixture of full and part-timers, but there are plenty of ex-league teams down there, living on bread and water.

Grimsby are newcomers, having fallen out of the league last season, and this was my debut as a spectator in this league. Astonishingly, my team won 7-2, and revived my son's interest in 'real' football, and had him jumping around in ecstasy as the seventh went in. The game was watched by 3,600 spectators and was the first time I'd seen Grimsby score so many since as a wee boy I saw them put seven past Japan in a 7-0 pre-season friendly circa 1968. Yes, it really did happen, but I rather think they'd struggle to hit seven against them nowadays.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to reflect on how healthy the lower leagues continue to appear in England, compared to the Spanish scene. It's not easy to draw direct comparisons, mainly due to the rather more diffuse structure of the Spanish League, because once you're down in Tercera ('Third') you have to remember that you're really in the fourth tier, technically speaking, because the Spanish Second Division has an 'A' and a 'B' version, with the 'B' league consisting of 80 teams divided into four regional sections. That's practically the size of the English Football League again (92 clubs), and so logic suggests that the quality in Spain is more thinly spread. Tercera, one rung below, has a staggering 361 clubs at present, split into 18 regional divisions, and these are murky waters indeed. Teams have been known to wade in, and never be seen again.

I've watched football at those levels in Spain, and in my younger days in the 1990s rubbed five-a-side shoulders with several people who claimed to have played at that level. They weren't so impressive, and I suspect that the Blue Square Premier's better clubs would prove too strong for them. If England stands accused of investing its heart, spirit and energy into the Premier League only, at the expense of roots football, this was not evident on New Year's Day. Or I just got lucky.

Still, there are very few Spanish sides, apart from ex-elite clubs like Oviedo, who could expect to see 3,600 turn up for a home game. This is partly because of the socio-economic structure of England, with many more towns around the 100,000 mark in population than in Spain, a consequence of the differing nature of the two countries' industrial revolutions. But it is also due to the heart, spirit and energy of Spanish football perhaps being more attracted to its elite, with a slightly scornful attitude reserved for the lower reaches, as if they were somehow a world apart.

English, and British football in general still recognises - or at least pays lip-service to, the idea that the whale-shark feeds on the plankton, and that if the plankton disappear, so does the whale-shark. In Spain, there has always been more of a culture of importation. If you can't grow it at home, put out the feelers overseas. It took the Brits much longer to come around to that way of thinking.

Another major difference that really stood out at Grimsby was the interpretation of what constitutes a foul in England. I think this is more or less the same throughout its leagues, but my son seemed amazed by the physical contact permitted in the game that we saw, where almost half as many free kicks were awarded by the (admittedly poor) referee as would have been given in Spain. But it made for an entertaining, if at times brutish affair. The game ended with 22 players, but in Spain at least three would have been sent off, and many more booked. What I did like, however, was the fact that players could tackle hard and fairly, and the game would continue. In Spain, if a player falls over due to any sort of physical contact, the crowd rises as if in a Roman amphitheatre, and howls for justice. The referees are generally too weak to resist, and the definition of what constitutes a foul is becoming more and more reminiscent of basketball. Physical contact equals a free kick.

But enough of these English shores, apart from mentioning that the half-time Bovril at Grimsby tasted very watered-down. A sign of the times, I suspect. Recession is hitting hard. Back in Spain, rather little of note took place in the comeback games, although Barcelona continued to look a little more mortal, struggling to get around the bus parked by Levante and only winning 2-1. They also failed to beat Athletic Bilbao in the cup just before Christmas, drawing 0-0 in the Camp Nou. Bilbao - the inventors of the concept when Javier Clemente was at their helm, had also parked the bus, and it proved too wide and too high.

Real Madrid, you may recall, put eight past Levante in the cup, just to send themselves off for Christmas with that warm feeling of a slaughter well done. They had a few more problems at neighbours Getafe on Monday night however, and finished up with ten men and a tight 2-3 scoreline. The game was chiefly interesting for the presence of Kaka who came on with 15 minutes to go and who really should have scored.

Of further interest was the fact that he substituted Karim Benzema, and assumed the position of striker with Ronaldo moved out to the left and Ezequiel Garay, normally a centre back, playing in the hole. The deployment of the Brazilian, normally a media punta, as a striker, if only for 15 minutes, may simply have been a further signal from Mourinho to his employers that he is unhappy about the loss of Gonzalo Higuain (probably for the rest of the season) and the lack of any pro-active efforts on the part of the club to replace him.

The relationship between Mourinho and Jorge Valdano is now at rock-bottom, and may cause further problems with regard to the manager's longevity at the club unless it is resolved. Madrid must regret now that they failed to fish in Man City's choppy waters over the Carlos Tevez affair, and now look more likely to end up with the less interesting Emmanuel Adebayor. Tevez would fit in nicely at the Bernabeu. He's their kind of player. I'm surprised there was no approach.

Racing de Santander will be pleased at the draw they obtained at Atletico Madrid, and Zaragoza got their new year off to a brighter start by beating Real Socieded 2-1 at home with a goal in the last minute by Braulio, their first league win since November 7 when they beat Mallorca. Mallorca themselves kept things healthy-looking with a 3-0 stroll at home to Hercules, and are now inching up towards the Europa League spots. Sevilla won at home (1-0 against Osasuna) and closed a forgettable cycle of three consecutive home league defeats. Their new year's resolution was an obvious one, and it seems to have paid off.

I'll be back in Spain later this week and will go along to see if Sevilla can perhaps now begin a wretched away run, starting at Real Sociedad next weekend. Normal La Liga service to be resumed.

Oh, and Grimsby won 6-1 at Histon on Monday afternoon, making it thirteen goals in two games. Lucky for some! Happy New Year.

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