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Offside in Spain

Every Monday night I turn up at Berio training ground in San Sebastian around 7pm, ostensibly to watch the last half hour of my son's training session. Of all the three training sessions during the week, and I watch them all, Monday is my favourite. It's easy enough to work out why. There is a hardcore group of fathers who turn up around the same time, and we huddle in the warmer protective area of the outside bar, from where you can still watch the training, sipping a wine or beer and talking about the weekend's action. It often starts with the boys' game itself, but then turns to La Liga in general. As I've mentioned before, these male huddle-sessions are crucial for my understanding of Spanish football, but not for my understanding of the offside rule. You know where this is going.

You'll notice that I said that these Monday post-mortems consisted of 'fathers'. Mothers come along to pick up their sons, of course, but the feminine hardcore arrive slightly later, say hello and banter for a while, then gradually form their own grouping to our left, at a sufficient distance to allow their topic of discourse to be different from ours. The women don't talk about football. I've tried it with them, and after a fleeting mention of the most recent boys' game, the conversation turns to work, holidays, family, and how you're feeling - perfectly normal human topics. I've never discussed the offside law with any of these women, because I know they're not interested. I'm a married man, but I prefer them not to think of me as dull. I can't ever recall wooing a woman on the basis of my knowledge of the offside law.

On the contrary, it's almost inevitable that with the fathers we'll get onto the controversial points of La Liga's weekend just gone. This can happen in midweek too, and at last Friday's session the big discussion was over whether the ball had crossed the line during the Sevilla v Real Madrid King's Cup semi-final tie. This was of world-shattering importance, as you know. I said it had crossed. They said it hadn't. Someone's threatened to bring in a photo this week.

Spanish women, like women the world over, I imagine, find this quite bizarre. And whether Raul Tamudo was offside for Real Sociedad's first goal against Almeria (he was) is of no importance to them. To men, it seems crucial to talk these things over, and if this column were dedicated to the subject of anthropological linguistics, I would probably continue to fascinate you, but let's just say that, like animals who prefer not to fight, men will use football and its minutiae to bond - in any given social situation. A woman in Spain cannot walk into a bar, sit next to a complete stranger and say, "Great game at the weekend, eh? Great goal by Messi against Hercules". Men can, and men do. It's great. Like peeing, life's easier for us.

Spain is often portrayed by its own citizens as machista (male dominated, sexist), but the reaction to the happenings in England last week over the sacked commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys was very interesting. I dropped the topic into the banter last Friday, and the responses were visceral. "Anyone who thinks that about women is just a dick," one said (in Spanish). The rest nodded vigorously, not from any sense of phoney political correctness but from real conviction. I'm not sure that this would have happened in England. Several journalists in England (men and women) have expressed their horror at Gray and Keys' Jurassic banter about the lineswoman at the Wolves v Liverpool fixture, but in the quality press there was also concern about freedom of speech, of the need to protect people from being afraid to open their mouths and make a joke. Making a joke, they wrote, does not necessarily mean that the joker believes in what he says.

This grey area was conspicuous by its absence in the Spanish media. For them, Gray and Keys deserved to be shot at dawn. This was also the reaction of the second trainer of Real Sociedad's women's team, with whom I coincidentally share an open-plan office during the week. "Castrate them," he suggested, and went back to his computer screen. And when he said this, a terrible thought popped into my head. After more than 350 articles on Soccernet spanning almost a decade, I have never written about women's football here in Spain. Do I deserve castration for this, or is it just a sign of the times, of supply and demand? Just in case it's the former, I decided to go along today (Sunday) to watch Real Sociedad v Athletic Bilbao, the big derby in Group A of the Superliga Feminina Española.

The structure of the league is a little complicated but there are basically three groups, and this is the 2nd Phase, the 1st Phase having finished before Christmas. Group A (as logic suggests) contains the best eight teams, and Athletic were visiting Zubieta (in San Sebastian) as leaders of the group. The home side lay fifth, licking their wounds from a 7-0 defeat last week at Espanyol, but are still doing well in their first season at this level. Like the men's version, Real Sociedad have lurked in the shadow of their more famous sisters from Bilbao for several years now, with Athletic having dominated the women's game with four league titles since the inauguration of the Superliga in 2001. Although the new power in the women's game is Rayo Vallecano from Madrid (with Espanyol coming up on the outside), Athletic are trying to win back their crown. It seemed like a good opportunity to go along and see what it was all about.

The game was played up on the top pitch, where the icy Basque winds blow. The three officials were men, which struck me as slightly odd. The main stand was packed to the rafters, and at a quick glance, it looked 50-50 on the gender balance. There were lots of kids, and a preponderance of youngish, adolescent girls. It was like stumbling into a stranger's garden-party, then hanging around and stealing some drinks when you realised that nobody was going to ask after you. Why I'd not discovered this parallel universe before was a good question, and so I took my bucket-seat and settled down to watch the action.

The first thing you do, of course, is compare the football to the one that you know best. The players were good, and most of them were technically proficient. Athletic's right-winger, a slip of a girl, immediately stood out in a Jesus Navas sort of way, and skinned the home full-back after about 20 minutes, whipping in a cross that the visiting centre-forward nodded home, from a position almost on her knees. It looked as though Athletic would sit on the lead, which is exactly what they did, effectively killing the game in the second half, and occasionally scaring the hosts with accurate high balls played into their lightning-quick forward, Elixabet Ibarra.

I can't say that the game enthused me in the same way as the previous night's fare in Anoeta against Almeria, but that's because I'm used to the one and not to the other. When something happened in the women's match that I recognised as a male-like movement or combination, my attention levels rose. But this was inevitable, after so many years of men-watching (as it were). I imagine that if you watch plenty of women's football, it takes on its own aesthetic, and you begin to distinguish between the players so that you can better differentiate their abilities from their disabilities, just as in the men's game. I watched the women's World Cup Final on TV in 2007 and thought it was a fantastic game, better than several male World Cup finals played over the years.

To really promote a greater national interest in the game here, the women will need to improve considerably and get themselves into a World Cup. They will be absent from Germany 2011 and have still failed to qualify for the competition since its inception in 1991. But nobody takes the mickey, as far as I can see. Spain will preserve its sexism for other quarters, but nobody would make jokes about a female official's alleged inability to understand the offside rule. They are far more concerned with the fact that 95% of the men paid to officiate Spanish football don't understand the offside rule, or what constitutes a foul. Now that really is a problem.

So is the fact that Real Madrid (men) lost 1-0 at Osasuna, thus threatening to turn the two-horse race into a one-horse canter. Thank goodness for the King's Cup and a possible extra clasico to stimulate some interest. Barcelona got the measure of Hercules this time, beating them 3-0 away, and Villarreal's excellent win at Espanyol (1-0) means that they are only six points behind Madrid now, certainly within striking distance given a wobble or two more. I'll be looking for one of those next week, when I hope to tread the hallowed 'Bernabow' terraces for the first time this season, when they take on Real Sociedad (men) next Sunday. Watch this space.


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