It's always nice to have an away day, on a sunny Spanish Sunday afternoon. Having travelled down to Madrid last month to watch Real Sociedad in the 'Bernabow', I made the shorter trip across the northern Spanish rooftop to Santander on Sunday, driving through the chilly green of a Cantabrian spring. The drive from one chic resort (San Sebastian) to another seaside city takes less than two hours now, although the annoying reduction in the speed limit, recently imposed by the Spanish government to 'save energy' (ahem), meant it was a bit of a crawl. I don't wish to seem irresponsible, but all the Spanish do is drive faster between the radars. In fact, the act of slowing down for the radars and the subsequent acceleration immediately afterwards surely uses more fuel than before, but I'm only complaining because the slow drive back meant that this column was written very late on Sunday night.
It's always struck me how quickly the Basque Country ends, west of Bilbao, and Cantabria begins. The landscape is very similar, and much of the drive takes place with rugged cliffs and winding coastline to your right, but once you're in Santander it's like another planet, despite the superficial similarities with San Sebastian - nice beaches, sea-front promenades, hotels and a buzzing maritime feel to the place. The air smells different, saltier somehow, and the waiters in the restaurants are stiff and serious, and call you 'usted'. If you took a black and white photo of the promenade at Santander, you could show it to someone and tell them that it was fifty years ago. There's still something quintessentially old Spain about the place, something slightly stubborn, right-wing and old-fashioned. And it doesn't seem like a football town.
I've been to the Sardine Can (Sardinero) several times now, and although I like its manageable size and the unpretentious humour of its fortnightly occupants, it seems like an oasis in a town preoccupied with other stuff, although I know not what. I'm probably wrong, and just like any decent-sized football institution in the world it will be mes que un club - (more than a club), to rob Barcelona of its annoying cultural patent. And Racing were one of the ten original members of the first professional league, in 1928. But the fish is good! I had a nice slab of merluza (hake) on the terrace of the Hotel Chiqui, overlooking the bay, with an English mate of mine whose British contingent of friends in Santander have, over the years, formed a sort of home-from-home allegiance to Racing, and are now fiercely committed to the cause. My son openly wore his Real Sociedad shirt throughout the lunch, as an act of friendly provocation.
This expat thing is an interesting phenomenon around Spain, and traces of it can be found in most of the major cities, Bilbao, Seville, Malaga, Valencia. Foreigners come to work, and end up staying longer than they planned. As football exiles, they need to re-establish the emotional fortnightly hit that their brains and bodies have grown accustomed to, and anyway, football serves as a useful bonding agent for small groups of expats. They become fiercely loyal, but remain at a distance from the local supporters, as if their allegiance is something slightly weird, something that cannot quite be shared with the indigenous fans. It doesn't quite work in Madrid and Barcelona, because the cities are too big and the expatriate communities more diffuse, and anyway, supporting the big two is no big deal, identity-wise. On the other hand, it's much more interesting to come across a crowd of Brits who support Racing de Santander.
Sitting in the East Stand with the noisy contingent of Real Sociedad supporters, the sun was in my face for most of the game, so I was unable to see whether Ali Syed was up in the palco, or if he was at home preparing his legal defence against the international charges accumulating against him. According to the Basque press on Sunday he was intending to sit with the Sociedad president during the game, but would not attend the traditional friendly pre-match lunch because he (Ali) allegedly only eats hamburgers, and isn't at all keen on all that Santander fishy stuff.
And talking of food, a wonderful thing has happened in Santander recently. They have a new sponsor, a sausage company from the nearby La Rioja region. The slogan that they have adopted for the team shirts is now Palacios, lider en chorizo (Palacios, leader in sausages) which is bad enough. But of course, as any Spanish speaker will know, chorizo is slang for 'thief', and is used much more commonly in discourse than is the official 'sausage' meaning. I recall being mildly confused years ago when I was warned by a neighbour about walking down Las Ramblas at night in Barcelona, as I had told him I intended to do. Cuidado - alli hay muchos chorizos (watch it - there are lots of thieves down there) he had advised. I wasn't sure exactly what danger was posed by gangs of sausages, my Spanish being more basic back then.
So with wonderful timing, at the very moment that Racing's owner is being accused of various things by various (ex)-clients, the team's shirts announce the slogan 'Leader in thieves' - or whichever way you prefer to translate 'chorizo'. Obviously Racing's marketing department has a problem with the concept of irony, but when the laughter dies away one can only hope that Ali Syed does manage to convince his accusers that he is the genuine article, if only for the sake of the long-suffering Racing supporters.
As for the game, Racing won 2-1 and took a further step towards toward top-flight survival, although with Malaga suddenly waking up and Osasuna winning a second away game on the trot (after not managing it for 21 games previously) nobody can really relax. Not Real Sociedad either, who are on the crest of an alarming slump, with only one point garnered from five games. They didn't really deserve to lose in an entertaining but rather scruffy game, where neither side really achieved much flow. Kennedy did net a cracker to open the scoring, although from where I was sitting, he didn't seem to know much about it. He just whacked it in the direction of the sea before a posse of visiting defenders reached the ball, and the sphere looped and dropped viciously into Claudio Bravo's net before the Chilean could even swear. And the game contained an incident that should be played several times over in this week's post-partum football programmes. A Real Sociedad free-kick in injury-time hit the post, and then bounced back into the middle of the goal at waist height, where Racing's keeper Tono Martinez appeared to clutch it back from behind the line. There were fairly vociferous appeals for a goal, but I was in line with it, and it didn't look over to me. However, watching the clips on Sunday evening I must say that it looks like a goal. Oh well, must be those lucky sausages working their mojo for the home team.
Elsewhere, Real Madrid kept up their near perfect record against neighbours Atletico in the derby in the Calderon, and remain undefeated in the fixture so far this century. Cristiano Ronaldo limped off injured and although he will miss three games, he should be fit to face Tottenham in an interesting-looking Champions League fixture, publicly drawn last Friday by no less a figure than ex-Barcelona and Tottenham player Gary Lineker. Valencia stumbled again and lost at home to Sevilla, further endangering the job of their manager Unai Emery and handing third place back to Villarreal, who won a tricky-looking fixture 1-0 in Bilbao. Barcelona almost complicated matters for themselves at home to Getafe (2-1), but have been more occupied this week with the accusations from the radio station Cadena Cope that they have been associated with dodgy doctors (unnamed) and that they may have been 'doping' their players in recent years. Because of the radio station's traditional pro-Madrid bias and its own implication that they had scooped the news from a source at Real Madrid, Florentino Perez found himself obliged to ring Sandro Rosell on the hot-line to disclaim any responsibility for the charges.
The whole incident smacked of lazy journalism and a possibly feeble attempt to destabilise the league leaders, but the wider picture is of more interest. Real Madrid had indeed called on the RFEF to implement a more serious drug-testing policy in La Liga, where the actual amount of tests carried out is minimal compared to other European leagues. It is almost as if the Spanish authorities would prefer not to know the truth, but Barcelona and Valencia (also implicated) reacted with justifiable fury - since there is no concrete proof that they have been up to dirty practices, and the Cope were forced into a humiliating climb-down. Legal proceedings my yet take place, but La Liga does nevertheless need to get its act together. Juan Antonio Alcala, the journalist who started the controversy, claimed that he was told by a Real Madrid employee that Barcelona and Valencia should be investigated, but now Barcelona have demanded to know the identity of this source. If the source comes to light (unlikely) things may well get very interesting. If not, and the whole case is suddenly dropped from public view, we will be left, as ever, to draw our own conclusions.