I arrived in Prague last Wednesday night and wandered through customs into the arrival zone. A chap waved a banner that had 'Ball' written on it, and although I thought it was a tad rude to just use the surname, I was relieved to see that someone had come to pick me up.
The young chap had a dark suit and an electric green tie and he ushered me into his black Mercedes - very nice. And after the usual formalities, he realised that half an hour in silence (the airport is some way from the city) was not his cup of tea. "You must be the top dog for the conference," he quipped in excellent English, judging my reaction in the mirror. "Only the top dogs get the black Mercedes," he added. "If I'm the top dog," I replied, "I wouldn't like to see the other breeds that are coming"- which got a laugh from behind the steering wheel.
With the ice broken, my driver decided to pursue matters further, and on learning that I began my journey from Spain (via Paris), he moved into football mode. "We are playing Spain on Friday!" he enthused, obviously interested. I decided to apply some English humour. "I know," I replied. "That's why I've come here really - to see the match here on Friday, when the conference has finished". His face dropped. "No, no sir. There has been a terrible mistake. The game will be in Spain, sir!" he blurted, almost apologetically. When I told him I was joking, he almost crashed the car, leaning towards the steering wheel and banging his forehead against it, wheezing with laughter. "Good good!" he howled. "You pulled my head!" by which I guess he meant "You pulled my leg".
When we got onto the serious stuff, he turned out to be an interesting introduction to the game, from a Czech point of view. He'd also played up to the age of 16 for Sparta Prague, until his parents decided that he had to dedicate himself to his studies. "Ha!" he reflected. "And here I am now, driving a taxi. That is life. I played in the lower leagues until I was 20, then I broke my leg. But this is a good job. It's safe."
I asked him what he thought the score would be. "We'll be happy if we only lose 2-0. The coach has said this. We had a good side once - the generation of '96, but now there's nothing much. They will just try to stop Xavi from playing, that's all. There is no other plan." And on the way back to the airport on Friday he hadn't changed his tune. "I will watch the match in a bar, near my flat. If we score, I will run naked into the street." I must say that I thought of my Czech mate, although I tried to suppress the vision of him naked in the dark streets (with the electric green tie?) after 28 minutes, when Plasil opened the scoring for the Czechs on what proved to be their only shot of the night. I'd just walked in the door, five minutes earlier, and dumped my suitcase. It looked like an interesting night ahead.
Spain did pull it round, winning 2-1 after the visitors sensibly parked the bus in the second half, leaving the warhorse Milan Baros to plough a lonely if at times aggressive furrow up front. Xabi Alonso, already on a yellow, was replaced at half-time by Fernando Torres, since the bus-parking intention of the visitors made the presence of two central midfielders (with Sergio Busquets) somewhat unnecessary. Interesting nevertheless, that he dispensed with Alonso and not Busquets, but it was probably because he had further creative options on the bench, just in case. Indeed, he brought on Santi Cazorla after 57 minutes, and took off a defender, Joan Capdevila.
The changes worked in the end, and it might be unwise to read too much into the narrow margin of the victory. There have been some grumbles in the Spanish press about starting with Busquets and Alonso in the first place, but it's stretching matters a little to suggest that it was a cautious line-up. Alonso plays further back than a conventional central midfielder, but that is because his passing often works best from deep, like the Pep Guardiola of yore. He is, essentially, an offensive player in a defensive position, but he did have a yellow card.
The half-time shuffle looked fine to me, only Fernando Torres is going through one of his periodic wobbly phases, and fires like wet gunpowder. Not so his colleague, David Villa, who scored both goals (one a penalty) and in doing so became the highest scorer of all time in a Spanish shirt. Raul had 44, so Villa's equaliser (number 45) gave him the record. It's pretty astonishing, because the Asturian has managed his in 72 games (over six years) whereas Raul took 102 to get his, over a ten-year period.
You could read plenty of things into this. The Spanish press were obliged to publish these figures, but it was as if they were somehow questioning the legend of Raul in doing so, saddened to see him pushed from the podium. Well, Villa is from Asturias (which is okay), but he does play for Barcelona now. He has also benefitted from an exceptional side, and a wonderful collection of weapons suppliers, providing the goods whenever needed. Raul played through stickier times, and often had to drop deep to get the ball, to inspire the troops. But Villa has also known how to take advantage of the supply lines, to fit in with them and to encourage them.
It also helps now that he plays for the same club as the nexus of the creative group in the side. And he is the consummate finisher - small, stocky and perfectly balanced. His first goal was excellent, holding onto the ball for an eternity with his right foot, skirting the edge of the penalty area, until the momentary space opened up, allowing him to whack it home with his left foot.
The arch supplier, Xavi, also passed a milestone and played his 100th game for Spain, in an international career that began in the year 2000 against Netherlands. Given that the two of them are only just either side of 30, further records look likely to tumble. Xavi looks like the sort of player who will still be perfectly efficient at the age of 35. For now, it's Lithuania who will have to worry, as they face Spain on Tuesday night in Vilnius, at least if UEFA allow it to go ahead. The pitch is a patatal (potato field) according to the Spanish press, and the freezing weather (-5 predicted for the game) will make the already rough pitch even more dangerous.
The game may still not go ahead. Lithuania hardly helped their cause by playing a friendly last Friday against Poland, and messing the pitch up even more. Paco Jimenez, Spain's adviser and general spy, arrived last Thursday to watch the Poland game and described the ball as "bouncing like a rabbit", which could make things interesting. It will certainly favour the home side, but even if Spain were to lose, they are probably more concerned about injuries. Their play might not be top-dog at the moment, but it seems unlikely that anyone in the group is going to catch them, on maximum points after four games.
Czech Republic are second, but with half the haul that Spain have already amassed. Besides, Spain have yet to lose to Lithuania (they beat them 3-1 early on in the tournament), and have registered three wins and a draw against them. Lithuania have never scored against Spain, and will rely on the potato field to help them.
To conclude briefly on the domestic front, you may or may not be aware that fourteen of La Liga's 20 sides have decided on strike action for the coming weekend, and have said they will not play, meaning that the fixtures would be played in early June, as a delayed final to the season. The dispute is over television rights, or more specifically over the continued presence of the 'open' televised game each week, which the clubs have lobbied to be revoked. A final decision is to be taken this Tuesday, but I'll leave it to Ed Alvarez's possible quiniela for a more thorough analysis, if he gets to write it, of course. Barcelona and Real Madrid, both signatories to the strike action, are beginning to make conciliatory noises, but at the time of writing, things do not look good. Stormy times could lie ahead.