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Spain is different

Sometimes La Liga can drive you nuts. It's difficult to imagine any other country on earth putting on its entire league programme at 9pm on a Sunday, but as the old refrain goes, Spain is different. Football's a family game? Pull the other one. Match over by 11pm, kids tucked up in bed around midnight if you've been to the stadium, all well prepared for school on the Monday.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't quite get it. Well I do. Canal Plus always have their televised game on at 9pm on a Sunday, and that slot can't be shifted (or can it?). The league honchos, in their wisdom, have decided that Sunday is the official beginning of 'maletines' day (explained further here - but basically it's about bribes) so everyone has to play at the same time. Well okay - but at 9pm? Actually, I'm just annoyed because it means I can't really write this column until the wee small hours, which means I'm a zombie on Monday.

Nevertheless, like all Spanish forms of chaos it's kind of exciting, because you also get the open live match on La Sexta channel, which is the game between Getafe and Osasuna. As I write, it's a breathless affair. The scoreboard of all the games is on the right-hand side of the screen and every minute or so, in classic Spanish radio style, a voice from one of the grounds breaks in spontaneously with 'gol gol gol' (or versions of that ululation) and then leaves you guessing for what seems like an eternity as to the identity of the team that's scored. At the outset he said 'gol en San Mames' and I reckon it's Malaga. Yep. Spot on.

It's half-time, and the second half will be spent in the bar down the road watching the second half of Sevilla v Real Sociedad, and it's 0-0 at the moment, which is just fine. If it stays thus, I get to live in a top-flight city for one more year. Just glancing at Marca's web-page and Barcelona are 0-0 at half-time against Deportivo, in the Camp Nou. Barcelona are the champs again of course, after their point at Levante on Wednesday night. It was just a matter of time, as it was for their Champions League opponents Man Utd on Saturday, when they took a point at Blackburn. But Barcelona's team-sheet looks a little different tonight, and is very much a reserve team.

Deportivo have applauded the champions onto the pitch, as is the custom here. The problem is that hardly any of the players running out have been regulars during the campaign. The back-room boys are taking the plaudits. Valdes is a regular, followed by Mascherano, and that's it. Of course, nobody has sent any maletines to Barcelona (they don't really need the money) so that they play a normal game against Deportivo, but you can see why several teams in the relegation zone will have been looking nervously at this fixture. If the English FA saw fit to fine Wolves for fielding a weakened side against Manchester United earlier in the season (in different circumstances), what's the moral score when Barcelona rest 95% of their heavyweights for May 28 and risk unbalancing the boxing-match way down below them? Will Man Utd put out a reserve side against Blackpool next week? At least six other sides could have cause to complain about Barcelona's line-up, but anyway, it's half-time.

Barcelona have won the league, but haven't won too many friends this week, what with the Busquets-Marcelo business and the rumpus in the Segunda Division, where Granada, in third place but needing the points to certify a play-off place, are claiming three more for the game they lost against Barcelona B, when it seems that the latter fielded an ineligible player (Jonathan Dos Santos), but are reluctant to admit their guilt. Anyway, I'm off down to the bar before I'm accused of being a Madrid stooge. My (underage) son has already gone. Spain is different.

It was 0-0 when I walked out of the door, and 2-0 to Sevilla by the time I reached the bar, a journey of some three minutes. I could tell from my son's face as I walked in. On the other TV, Getafe have also scored against Osasuna, which is bad news for the barflies too. Real Sociedad play Getafe in the final game next week, in San Sebastian. Zaragoza are winning too. It can't get much worse.

Home again, and everyone seems to have picked up points apart from my team. Sporting have beaten Racing de Santander, surprise surprise, which is not a case of maletines so much as an alleged pact - not a concept exclusive to La Liga, of course. Racing, at the start of the day, were in a position of comfort, safe from any threat of descent into the fiery furnace. Sporting needed a point, but preferably a win. Racing 'no jugaba nada' (were not playing for anything) - the phrase that needs to be rubbed from the lexicon here, but Spain is different. Racing's manager is from Gijon, and Sporting's manager is from Santander. A cosy evening party, all mates together. Brings tears to the eyes.

The problem with the 'not playing for anything' phrase, and the problem with actions like those of Barcelona, are that although you can argue that if you are down there, it's your fault, the fact remains that 'not playing for anything' will always implicate someone. Bad blood has been created over the years by these situations, and they make a farce of the concept of sport. I think so anyway. Sometimes it's hard to motivate players at the end of the season - that's true - but there's no excuse for not playing down to the wire. It's the definition of professionalism. In 1974 Denis Law back-heeled that infamous goal for Manchester City and helped to relegate the neighbours that had made him famous. But he had no hesitation in doing it. Fate blew the ball over to him. He shrugged his shoulders and got on with the job. Here - so much for the 9pm kick-off. The appearance of fairness is guaranteed, but the reality remains at some other polarity.

Anything else annoying this week? Erm yes - the great Pichichi farce. It's a shame to report it like this, because the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 38 (or maybe 39) goals with one game to go is quite astonishing, largely because you never expect to see that sort of thing in your own lifetime. It always seems that goal-scoring records are part of the sepia of life, or of the black-and-white grainy photograph. The suspicious magic of the past, a time that your parents or grandparents always insisted was better, was something that you would never see the likes of again, or so you were always told. And love or hate Ronaldo, there is something of the throwback in him - in the almost spontaneous way he plays, all balls and bluster, power and menace.

We'll tell our grandchildren that we were around when Ronaldo and Messi went shoulder to shoulder (as it were), and that just in case anyone should doubt him, Cristiano scored in the final game against Almeria and really and truly finished ahead of Hugo Sanchez (1989-90) and Telmo Zarra (1950-51). I hope he does. Anyone who scores nine goals in three games, six of them against Sevilla and Villarreal away, kind of deserves the prize.

I was rightly ticked off by several readers last week, for it is only the great manipulator Marca (a tabloid sports paper) who are insisting on this extra goal because … well, because they can. FIFA don't seem to agree, and have Ronaldo on 38, equalling the record. Marca, but not Catalunya, have him on 39. I was present at the game in San Sebastian where the goal under dispute was scored. Ronaldo takes a free-kick, and the shot clouts Pepe on the head, with the centre half trying to get out of the way. The ball loops up and over goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, but there is no definite criterion that can judge it one way or another. The ball loops up and over, but its basic linear trajectory (now there's a phrase) is pretty much the same.

I'd give it to Ronaldo, but ESPN isn't the arbiter either. Amusingly, on the live Marca report thread for the Villarreal game, the reporter Delfin Melero was asked by a reader if he thought that Ronaldo's tally should be cut by one. Melero, slapping the keyboard, replied 'El Pichichi decidimos nosotros' (We decide on who's the top scorer).

Hmmm - interesting one that. Did Marca also decide on this in Zarra and Sanchez's case? No, of course not. Melero's response was simply saying that the paper documents the top scorer in this particular way. It is true that Marca created the idea, back in 1952, and gave Zarra the first trophy retrospectively, but the top scorer is the top scorer, whether you call him 'Pichichi' or Karl Marx. The amount of goals he scores cannot be decided by a newspaper, but ultimately by the Spanish Federation.

Pichichi, by the way, was Rafael Moreno who played for Athletic from 1911, and who died tragically of typhus in 1922 at the age of 30. As you might have guessed, he scored lots of goals. But now it makes no sense to judge these issues unilaterally. It reduces the worth of Ronaldo's achievement because it will always leave it open for argument. So take your pick - he's equalled it or he's beaten it. The debate begins.

In the silver division, Betis returned to the top flight despite losing 3-1 at struggling Nastic, and celebrated on the AVE train back to Seville. Their title celebrations are still on hold, however, since Rayo Vallecano got a point at Celta and so also need to wait before their magnificent unpaid campaign will see them return to the elite. They should be fine, with three games still to play.

Hats off to Barcelona, worthy winners despite the eleventh-hour murmurs. Three consecutive titles tell their own story, in a financially unbalanced league, but one in which it is nevertheless impossible to achieve such heights with anything other than talent. Next week, when they relax at Malaga, six teams will be fighting to avoid the drop. I'll be at one of the games, Real Sociedad v Getafe. No maletines, no messing. Just a fight to the death. The rest of the games? Eduardo's going to have a tricky quiniela on his hands this week.


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