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Dec 5, 2011

Football and emotion

I must have been about seven years old. The playground behaviour was very hierarchical, and only the 'big kids' played football at break time. At my age, you didn't dare join in, and neither were you asked. The bigger kids seemed to organise everything, decide who would play, and who were the big shots. The best players seemed to enjoy a certain status, and the games seemed to generate a lot of emotion, given that they were only quick playground matches. You took all this in subliminally. You just weren't a part of it. The whole playground was used as a football pitch, and you just hung out and played marbles on the margins.

I remember that the goal at the far end constituted the wall of the boys' toilets, and the near-end version was just the back of a classroom wall, without windows. One day, I decided to cross the field of play at the classroom end, on my way back to class. I hadn't played football competitively up to that point, because I hadn't been invited into the inner circle. As I walked past the wall, I suddenly became aware of something large falling out of the sky. It was the ball. I had two options. Duck and avoid, or make contact. The former policy was the more sensible, but for some reason that I cannot explain, almost half a century later, I took a swing at the ball as it fell out of the sky. It was a pure reflex action, but the skinny incompetence of my Bambi-like bamboozle sent the ball looping over my head, in a sort of messy bicycle kick. It looped over the goalkeeper and hit the wall. With the teacher's whistle about to sound for the end of break, I'd scored the decisive goal.

What happened next is a bit of a blur, but I became dimly aware of two distinct reactions. One of them seemed favourable. A crowd of larger-than-me boys were running towards me, whooping with delight. Behind them, or dispersed among them, I could detect that some of these boys were less enamoured of the situation, and that the goalkeeper who had failed to deal with my backward lob was shouting "Why did you do that? Why? Why?" in a sort of plaintive chorus, as if he were predicting my imminent and untimely death. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but realising that I was about to die, I shot off down the alleyway that led to the school gates, like a young wildebeest pursued by a pack of determined hyenas. We were prohibited from leaving the premises without permission, but faced with the pack of baying predators I had no choice. I ran out of the gates, scampered down the quiet residential street (how strange it seemed in the day), turned the corner and ran into the school gates at the other side, where no hyena had thought to follow. I survived.

So anonymous were the little kids that no-one seemed to recognise me in the subsequent days, although I kept a discreetly low profile. But what interested me, in my seven-year-old sort of way, had been the emotions unleashed by my spontaneous action. The near-death experience, far from putting me off the beautiful game, actually had the opposite effect. If scoring a goal could get you so much attention - albeit 50% unwanted - then maybe there was something worth investigating in this football business. I never looked back. I wanted to experience the rush of emotion that the bigger kids were getting, seemingly on a regular basis. It looked like a good alternative to playing marbles.

Which leads me to Sunday December 4th, and Anoeta. I'd gone along to see Malaga at close quarters, to see if they were really Champions League stuff. The conclusion is that they are an excellent side going forward - with their own version of tiki-taka and with the sort of pass-and-move game we have come to associate with Manuel Pellegrini (the mentor of his alter ego on the park, Santi Cazorla), but they are wobbly at the back, especially if you submit them to a consistent bombardment. Their centre-back Martin Demichelis is also a weak link as far as I can see, marking the back line with a lack of pace.

At 2-1 up, due to a silly mistake by a Real Sociedad defender, Cazorla and Rondon went off, and Malaga tried to kill the game. The emotional conclusion was 'Ok - we've lost and it's going to be a difficult week' when suddenly the home side scored two goals in three minutes, out of the blue, and won the game. The giddy journey - from sad resignation to testosteronic euphoria - is the basis of football's attraction. In fact, if you support a side that doesn't tend to win very much, or score spectacular goals like Carlos Vela's bicycle-kick equaliser, you can be sustained for months by a win like this. It keeps you going, hood up against the drizzle of life. The prospect of dancing around and hugging people randomly, in an absurd explosion of emotion, can maintain your interest in football when your logic is telling you that you should really devote your time to something else. I suspected such back in the playground that day, and I wasn't far wrong.

Next week the Clasico will play on these emotions, but in a rather more nationally-focused fashion. The eternally wonderful thing about these games is that every one is slightly different, each one bringing its own particular set of contexts and circumstances to the stage. This time around, the difference is that the usual yin-yang nature of the two clubs' situations - whilst one is up the other tends to be down - is not the case at all. This is the first time for several seasons that I can recall a Clasico where both teams are frothing at the mouth with their own possibilities. Real Madrid's unquestionable improvement over the last year or so cannot be allowed to foreshadow Barcelona's continued excellence. Their home record is simply without precedent. Nine games played, 39 goals scored and none conceded. It would seem inhuman if it weren't for the relative contrast with their away record, with eight goals scored and seven conceded. Real Madrid will have taken note, as will have most of the Iberian Peninsula.

Madrid have the only 100% home record in the top flight, (Barcelona drew one game at home to Sevilla), and have in fact only played six games at the Bernabeu from the total of fourteen. Barcelona have played nine of their fifteen games so far at home. It's an interesting contrast. But no statistics will really persuade anyone here as to the destiny of the points next Saturday. It remains a cliché, but anything can happen. There are historians of these games who will point to the tendency of the results going to form, but that would suggest, too easily perhaps, that Madrid's current brilliance will overcome Barcelona's slightly more timid version of themselves.

Everything has gone to plan, for both sides. Both teams ensured that their key men would be there, but who am I to suggest that Gerard Pique and Xabi Alonso were both under orders to get themselves booked two games ago? The only annoying aspect of this farcical issue was the Madrid journalists' outrage at Pique's rather more blatant behaviour, with Alonso simply making it look a bit more genuine with a couple of tough tackles. Let he who hath not sinned write the first headline. Anyway, it'll be nice for the Clasico to be played with both sides fully armed to the teeth. It's likely to tell us more.

There's also the small matter of the Champions League this week, and whilst Jose Mourinho might secretly feel that his conspiracy theory is still a valid one (Barcelona play at home on the Tuesday whilst Madrid must travel to Ajax on the Wednesday), he's unlikely to send his crack troops on the plane to Amsterdam. Both sides have first place in the group assured, which was their sworn objectives as soon as they saw the date of the first Clasico in the Bernabeu.

Barcelona brought forward their game with Rayo Vallecano in midweek, and have thus reduced Madrid's lead to three points, but have played a game more. They know that defeat in the Bernabeu could condemn them, after Christmas, to a nine-point gap whose psychological effects might cause difficulties for certain members of the Barcelona squad, accustomed as they have grown to always being ahead. I only suggest this as a possibility. It may motivate them to perform even better, but the discourse in Spain has changed. Mourinho is deliberately remaining quiet, since he knows, for the first time since he trod Spanish soil, that his project is bearing fruit and that his team may be about to dethrone their eternal rivals. The change of the guard might be upon us, or not. It's going to be a fascinating game, but Mourinho's non-provocative silence is an implicit message of his confidence. He only stirs it up when he's feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Pep Guardiola remains affable but tense. He knows that it's going to be a tough game. And despite the 5-0 romp against Levante, there are murmurs of discontent at the absence of David Villa from the line-up. Normally, in the week leading up to the Clasico, I'm always asked to predict the scoreline. This week I'll leave the responsibility with Ed Alvarez in his Quiniela whilst the rest of Spain builds up for the big emotional outpouring of grief and happiness, 22.00 hours local time next Saturday.

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