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May 9, 2011

The change in Spain

Spain's major sport's tabloid Marca dedicated the first nineteen pages of its Sunday Edition to Severiano Ballesteros, the Spanish golfer who died last Saturday at the age of 54. My son was confused by the whole fuss, not just in the papers but on the television too. ''Who was this guy?'' he asked, which was a good question for someone of his generation.

The mourning of Ballesteros has been perfectly genuine, but the affection that he inspired in the whole of Spain shows how far the country has travelled, in sporting terms, since the 1970s when Ballesteros first came to prominence. His surprise second place in the British Open in 1976 at the age of 19 and his win in 1979 were news enough in Britain (I remember the BBC's inability to pronounce his name - that much hasn't changed) but to the Spanish, unaccustomed to real international achievement in anything save football - and even there they had declined - Ballesteros' handsome good-guy features and his media friendly manner made the country feel better about itself, at exactly the same time as they were emerging from forty years in the political wilderness.

With Franco dead and the new Constitution (1978) in place, the country's self-regard as to how they were viewed internationally was beginning to improve. 'Seve' or 'Sevvy' as the British habitually called him, became a symbol of that time, and to some extent he was the hope for the future, the first of a generation of sportsmen and women who were to benefit from the better vibes of democracy.

The Catalan tennis player Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was next, but before that you had to go back to 1966 when Manolo Santana won Wimbledon, wearing a Real Madrid badge on his tennis shirt. Now it would take a substantial paragraph to go through the country's tennis achievements, quite apart from Rafael Nadal, its prominence in Formula One racing (Fernando Alonso), cycling (Miguel Indurain), basketball (Pau Gasol), and tiddlywinks if they put their minds to it. This is a vastly different, and more confident country from the one that hailed Ballesteros a hero, and it is one that now harbours the current European and world champions in football, lest we forget. Perhaps the Spanish should take up cricket. Its more contemplative air might calm them down a bit.

I'm just putting the finishing touches to the update of the book Morbo that was first published back in 2001 about Spanish football, although there was a previous update back in 2003. Working on the new version, I was principally surprised to see that much of the original material and conceit of the book still stand, in the crude sense that Spanish football still thrives on its multiple mutual antipathies - and the Real Madrid-Barcelona cat-and-dog synergy is only a part of that, as everyone will have witnessed from the recent rash of Clásicos, where the needle between the two clubs is as acute as it ever was. Spain likes tradition and ritual. It's strong on fiestas, and it's never been keen on change - witness the opposition to the no-smoking-in-bars rule that finally came into effect last January. Bullfighting still remains unmolested by anything such as legislation, and the day that Barcelona and Madrid begin to like each other, then something serious will have happened to Spain. It will have been neutered, one suspects.

And yet there has been a change, and it seems to reside in the greater success of its sporting scene in general - in an even greater public prominence of its two most famous football teams but also in a more democratic sharing of the spoils, if only in a European sense. Since the last version of the book, after Valencia's 2004 league title, only the big two have won the crown, but Villarreal, Getafe and Atletico Madrid have all been prominent in, or won European trophies. The first two of those teams were unknown when I was writing the book around the turn of the millennium. It suggests that there is more to come, although the old hierarchies will be hard to break down.

Predicting another Villarreal is difficult, although their success hasn't really been based on money but rather on good husbandry. In general, people are still not sufficiently appreciative of just how astonishing their rise to prominence has been. In the original Morbo, when I travelled down to Huelva to watch them play in the Second Division, the game was against Villarreal. They were even staying in the same modest hotel as me. How times have changed. Well - I'm still staying in modest hotels. I don't know about them.

Maybe any topsy-turvy future will depend on sides like Malaga and Getafe, who have secured themselves the first real wave of wealthy foreign buyers. Malaga's owners are seriously wealthy, in a similar vein to those at Manchester City, and are perfectly capable of tipping the scales, a least a little bit away from the big two. They will need time and a rational project, but they have a good manager and they are currently accelerating away from the relegation zone, as one predicted they would. The return of 'the beast' Julio Baptista has re-ignited the potential of the side, and along with the powerful Jose Rondon, Enzo Maresca and Duda they suddenly look a fearsome side, sweeping away Atletico Madrid 3-0 at the Calderon and crushing any hopes the home side might have had about catching Villarreal for that fourth Champions League spot. Now they'll be happy to hang onto their Europa place.

Malaga aren't safe yet, and need another win to be sure of top-flight status next season, but they look eminently capable of securing it. Getafe also gave themselves (and their owners) some hope with a 2-0 home win over relegated Almeria, and talking of such, Hercules failed once again to live up to their name and lost 3-2 at home to Racing Santander, who are now proclaiming themselves safe, on 43 points. They could be right, and who would deny them a little bit of self-deception after the season they've had?

Another chapter that I've had to change quite substantially has been the one on Galician football. Back in 2003 I was predicting that Deportivo might sustain their achievements and become a permanent force in the game, but at the moment, although their neighbours Celta de Viigo appear to be experiencing a mild renaissance, Depor's ill-tempered 2-2 draw away to Sporting on Saturday, in which the usually mild-mannered manager Miguel Angel Lotina looked as though he was about to assault the team of officials, leaves them with work still to do. Sporting equalised in the 95th minute courtesy of their second penalty of the game and Lotina went ballistic, calling the officials sinvergunezas (shameless). He'll be joining Jose Mourinho in the stands for the rest of the season, one suspects.

Real Madrid scored six for their second consecutive away league outing, destroying Sevilla 6-2 and enabling Cristiano Ronaldo to move onto 34 goals for his league tally, leaving him four short of equalling the long-standing record of 38 set by Telmo Zarra and Hugo Sanchez. He has three games in which to make history, and it would be a brave person to bet against it. There's a full league programme this week and with Getafe visiting the Bernabeu on Tuesday, he'll fancy his chances of getting closer to the prize. Madrid seemed almost relieved to be playing someone other than Barcelona, and their attacking fluency lent a big question mark once again to Mourinho's tactics against the Catalans. But I'm reluctant to start up the debate all over again.

The Catalans themselves travel to Levante on Wednesday night, and after their 2-0 home win in the derby against Espanyol this weekend, a point will see them take their third consecutive title under Pep Guardiola. Levante are much improved, and still need the points for mathematical safety, but it's looking like the end on Wednesday. Barcelona, like Manchester United, will want to get the business over and done so that they can relax and concentrate on their Wembley date, on the 28th.

Finally, to rub salt into Real Madrid's wounds, the fifth Clásico of the (in)famous series took place on Saturday when Barcelona's juniors, with the starlets Gerard Deulofeu (check him out on Youtube) and Rafinha (Thiago's younger brother) both in the side, beat Real Madrid 3-1 in the Copa de Campeones final, down in Lepe. As one of the institutions might say, the future looks bright! And just to keep the scar open, the Barcelona Alusport Futbol Sala team also won the cup on Saturday, beating Inter Movistar 4-3, just in case you wanted to know.

I'll be in Anoeta Wednesday night, hoping to see a result that will see Real Sociedad stay up for a second season. Zaragoza are the equally needy visitors, whose defeat at home to Osasuna on Sunday night ensures that game will be fairly nuclear. Is a certain amount of stress good for your health? I'll tell you next weekend.

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