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Southern Sojourn

I'm down in the deep south on an Easter break, in a town called Sanlucar de Barrameda, the port that Juan Sebastian Elcano limped into in 1522, aboard the last surviving ship from Magellan's expedition to circumnavigate the world. The better-known Cadiz is half an hour down the road, but I got here too late on Sunday to seriously contemplate a trip to the Ramon de Carranza, a ground I've always fancied visiting ever since I read of the exploits of 'Magico Gonzalez', born in San Salvador in 1958 and rated by many as the best player ever to grace the planet, at least when he was sober, which wasn't very often. He played for Cadiz, and his name still resonates down here.

Cadiz is a real football city, and its fans are rated as among the most idiosyncratic and best in Spain. The team has dropped down to Segunda B, but their 2-0 defeat of Puertollano on Sunday, without my support, has seen them climb into third place and a likely spot in the complex play-off rigmarole.

It was a pity I missed the game, because I fancied writing a counterpoint to all the noisier stuff that has been going on this week. Football still goes on in every corner of Spain, obscured by the shadow of the current four-game showdown between the country's most famous teams, but also propelled and inspired by it. I can't help it, but every time I visit a new town in Spain I listen to what the men say in the bars, eavesdrop on the conversations like some nosy sociologist (which I'm not), but only to learn what they think about the week's football, to pick up on its impact at street level, where it matters most.

In the bar 'Juanito' two gents were arguing about Betis' chances of staying in the top flight next season, assuming they go up, of course. A lot of people down here support one of the Seville sides too, but they could have been Easter weekend trippers from the big city. The accents down here are baffling enough, and I can't distinguish between one city and another. My children, who speak a rather blander Spanish from the Gipuzcoa region, stare open-mouthed at the rapid-fire stuff down here, as if it were an entirely different tongue.

In spite of comprehension difficulties, I also came upon a debate over Cristiano Ronaldo in a bar in another plaza, where I was sipping a chilled manzanilla and guzzling some wonderful boquerones (marinated anchovies), as you do. The basic problem seemed to be that the senior of the three gents loved the goal that won Madrid the cup last Wednesday ("it was like watching Santillana again", he reminisced) but thought that the Portuguese match-winner had actually played quite poorly. "He was all over the place. He hardly got anything right" at which I nodded vigorously, but they didn't notice me. The other two gave him short shrift. "He got it right when it mattered" replied one, in words to that effect. Indeed he did.

Ronaldo's goal, like something out of a boys' comic of yore, may yet come to define the recent history of La Liga, as some kind of turning point where Barcelona's three-year hegemony and voodoo-like control over their great rivals was finally put to rest and the myth of their infallibility was exposed, or it may just be an anecdote, a small scratch on the gleaming surface of the paintwork, so small that in the end nobody really noticed it. Either way, the Champions League contest to come may be the arbiter of the future direction of the La Liga theatre, at least with regard to the health of its two major actors.

Alfredo di Stefano, openly critical of Mourinho's game plan in the recent league match at the Bernabeu, was strangely silent after the cup victory, and Jorge Valdano, who despises the very ground on which the Special One walks, looked uncomfortable when asked how he was feeling after the victory in Valencia on Wednesday. "I congratulate the players and el cuerpo tecnico" he spluttered, unable to single out the manager for praise, but clearly using a pre-planned phrase. He looked distinctly crestfallen, as though the victory had torpedoed his own strategy for destabilizing Mourinho's position - for which the Di Stefano announcement was all surely part and parcel. If Madrid beat Barcelona over the two legs and get to the final, it will be very interesting to see what happens to the Valdano-Pardeza-Butragueno trident. Mourinho probably won't care.

Interesting that the 85-year-old Di Stefano should have weighed in against Mourinho, during such a defining week. As soon as he did, the forums and the football tabloids seemed stricken with a sudden paralysis, as if there were no possibility of taking issue with the legend. The great one had intervened. Take heed ye wretches, for he hath spoken! But Di Stefano is far from divine. He was a legendary player but a mediocre manager. Mourinho was a mediocre player but a legendary manager. I know who I'd rather have played for. Di Stefano (and whoever set him up) miscalculated and got it wrong anyway, although I didn't manage to hear anyone talking about that particular issue in the Sanlucar plaza on Sunday.

The 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu set up the Copa del Rey win in deliberate fashion, enabling Mourinho to extend the defensive policy into a more attack-minded version, second time around. Barcelona failed to cope with either version. Pep Guardiola has so far taken each game at a time, whereas Mourinho has seen it as a series, and a series to be planned out. What's so wrong with that? Meanwhile, Real Madrid beat Bilbao 3-0 in San Mames and Valencia 6-3 in the Mestalla (they seem to like that ground now), playing attractive, attacking football. The simplistic idea that Real Madrid are defensive pragmatists only holds true for one game this season. Wherefore the fuss? As Andy Gray famously remarked - do me a favour.

The other big news this week, apart from Kaka's nutmeg on Marius Stankevicius, was the fact that Sergio Ramos dropped the Cup from the top of the bus on the victory parade, converting the trophy into scrap metal in a matter of seconds. That's something of a first in world football (although Milan Baros also dropped the Champions League trophy) , but it could start a worrying trend. The Catalan press, never too impressed with Ramos at the best of times, had a field day with the incident and seemed to imply that it was symbolic of Real Madrid's current supremacy - short-lived and accidental. It also spawned a set of jokes on the web, the best and worst of which were:

'Sergio Ramos signs for Almeria! Now there's no chance of him damaging any more trophies!'

'I thought it was Barcelona who let the cup slip through their fingers?'

'It's that awkward moment, when you hand Sergio Ramos your baby'.

Talking of short-lived (and possibly accidental), the other news from the capital, or from its outskirts at least, was the purchase of Getafe by the Dubai-based Royal Emirates Group, although the purchase was still being denied by Getafe's municipal authorities on Sunday night. The rumour that the club was about to be renamed Getafe Club Dubai was also scotched, but speculation is rife. President Angel Torres seemed happy to be photographed atop the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, but has also insisted that he was only seeking 'sponsors' - which isn't quite what the € 90 million purchase sounded like to the Spanish press. Under-pressure manager Michel, when asked for his opinion before the Mallorca game (which they lost, 2-0) declared that he wasn't really interested because he most likely wouldn't be there next season. Well he's not going to Real Madrid just yet, so where is he going? Perhaps he's going to return to his previous life on Spanish TV as a commentator. The country trembles.

The country trembled ever so slightly too when Leo Messi scored Barcelona's second goal against Osasuna on Saturday night. It turned him into the first player in La Liga's history to score 50 goals (in all competitions), overtaking Ferenc Puskas who held the previous record of 49 for almost 50 years - an almost symbolic coincidence. To complete the numerical neatness, Messi has scored them in 49 games, which is pretty astonishing in its own right. David Villa also broke his eleven-game drought by scoring the opening goal, statistics that will please, but the cold truth is that the two goals came from practically the only two decent shots on goal that Barcelona mustered. Barcelona, like Madrid, started with their heavyweights on the bench (thinking of Wednesday) but little by little brought them into the fray. Carles Puyol accompanied his defensive partner Gerard Pique in the stands, but didn't get to talk to him very much since the latter was mostly engaged in snogging Shakira. Well ok, they were little pecks, from time to time. I'm just jealous - of Pique I mean.

Talking of Pique, the new joker in the pack declared before the game 'EspaƱolitos! Vamos a ganar la copa de vuestro rey!' (Spaniards! We're going to win your king's cup). Juicy stuff, of course, but thanks to Sergio Ramos and the bus driver, he needn't really have bothered.

I watched the Basque derby in my hotel room in Trujillo on Saturday night, but the less said about the result the better. I thought Real Sociedad deserved a point, but the 2-1 defeat still leaves the drop zone too close. I'll be back in Anoeta for Barcelona's visit next Saturday night, and will be hoping that they'll be tired and emotional after their visit to the Bernabeu on Wednesday, or that they'll send the reserve team up. That's no guarantee of the three points against them, but it's been kind of enjoyable again this season, savouring the top flight every fortnight in the flesh. The cultural experience of the Second Division (with no disrespect to Cadiz) was fine while it lasted. Over a whole season, I'd prefer others to experience it, out of the kindness of my heart.


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