Monday, March 05, 2007

Spanish Football Soap Opera

I love the chaos of Spanish Football..reminds me of Egypt.

Of Busts and Bottles
by Phil Ball

No prizes for guessing this week's topic. Sevilla, for reasons good and bad, have been the main soundbite in an extraordinary week here in Spain

On Wednesday night in the 2nd leg of the King's Cup derby game at Betis, Sevilla's manager Juande Ramos was felled by a flying bottle (plastic, but filled with water) as he did a jig on the touchline after his side had gone ahead in the 57th minute. He then did a rather more worrying jig, staggering forward and losing consciousness. The game was abandoned, Ramos was taken to hospital (where he recovered) and the proverbial has been hitting the fan (not the one who threw the bottle) ever since.

The game will be replayed, from the 57th minute, on neutral ground, and Betis' stadium will be closed for three matches as punishment. Of course, Betis have appealed against the decision. Barça did the same after the famous flying pig's head incident in 2002, and have still not done penance. Useful things, precedents.

On the Saturday night, Barça visited Sevilla in what was proving to be a busy few days for the Catalans. They also played in midweek in the Cup, winning a tough-looking encounter at Zaragoza, and this week they visit Liverpool, to try to keep the Champions trophy on their shelves for another year. Oh, and then next Saturday they play Real Madrid. It's tough at the top, even though they aren't anymore. That's because Sevilla played a blinder, survived a penalty at 0-1 with 10 men on the pitch, then turned the game completely on its head to win 2-1. What a great side they are - but more of that later.

Sevilla are indeed giving out calling-cards of growing grandeur, but as with all silver linings, there's usually a cloud lurking around to spoil the view. Their president, José María Del Nido, has always been in the shadow of his arch-rival and neighbour, Betis' Manuel Riuz de Lopera, the megalomaniac rags-to-riches 'businessman' (as he likes to call himself) who humbly named Betis' stadium after himself and who stepped down in the summer because he was 'feeling tired'. Well, he stepped down, but retained a significant majority of the shares, which keeps him in charge, pulling the strings of the new puppet José (Pepé) Leon.

Del Nido, however, is a lawyer, and president of the club that supposedly represents Seville's higher-ranking social-class lineage. He's always considered himself a cut above Lopera, and he does indeed have a more silvery tongue. However, his tendency to defend some of Spain's dodgiest characters has brought him into the gaze of the same law that he represents, and he was investigated last year for 'creative accounting', as the celebrated phrase goes.

Del Nido should know all about that, of course, having agreed to defend Marbella's former mayor Julián Muñoz, a case that followed on the heels of, and was connected to, the case against the now defunct Jesus Gil - also of Marbella, also extremely dodgy, and also a former buddy of Del Nido's. By thy friends thou shalt be known - or by thy wealthy clients? It's one and the same thing, isn't it?

However, if you know anything about Spanish football you'll know that Betis and Sevilla don't get on very well. The whole complicated and volatile scene is a sociologist's dream, but no-one has ever quite managed to fully understand the problem between the two 'communities', if that is indeed what they are. Last week we were talking about the special nature of the Madrid 'derbi', but that particular encounter cannot hold a candle to the intensity of the Seville game.

I won't bore you with the whole history, but it's worth knowing that Betis were formed in 1909 after a group of Sevilla's directors left the club (founded 1905) in protest at a committee decision to exclude a player from the squad on the grounds that he was an 'undesirable' - by which they meant he was a gypsy. He came from the Triana district, the wrong side of the tracks for a club with purist pretensions.

Betis' statutes quote the club's foundation year as 1907 - meaning that this coming September will see the opening of their centenary celebrations, but this earlier date simply refers to the founding year of the club Sevilla Balompié, the club whose eventual merger with Betis in 1913 created the Real Betis Balompié of today. So it's a kind of premature centenary, but Ruiz de Lopera obviously couldn't wait. Rumoured to be ill in the summer, perhaps he thought the Grim Reaper was about to pay a call. Better get that centenary going!

This was, in fact, the root of the whole subsequent kerfuffle. For the 1st leg at Sevilla's ground, the two presidents (Del Nido and Leon) had in fact come to an agreement, mediated by the city's mayor, that there would be neither disputes nor insults before, during or after the game - a situation practically unheard of since 1909. The match ended in a 0-0 draw, and all was indeed tranquillity itself. But there was unfortunately a league match at Betis in between the two legs, a bonfire onto which Lopera decided to throw a few cans of petrol.

In recognition of the coming centenary, all visiting presidents had been presented with a gift, a mini statue - but Del Nido realised that he was walking into a trap when on entering the Director's Box he was asked to pose for a photo in which he would receive the mini-statue from Pepe Leon, but in the presence of the Mayor of Seville and next to a bronze bust of Lopera, specially brought in for the occasion.

Rejecting the offer to pose for the photo, an indignant Leon banished Del Nido to a second-class seat in the 'palco', the mythical set of seats in all Spanish stadia where the favoured come to confer the favours, be seen, and be seen to be seen. It's all very symbolic, and so to be sent to the bottom row (behind which sat the ludicrous bust of Lopera) was too much for the foul-tempered Del Nido.

“The truth is that the guy who chucked the bottle at Juande Ramos was either lucky or a damned good shot. Stuff flies every week in La Liga, and because it misses, no-one is punished. It's just an abdication of responsibility, something that the Spanish specialise in because it makes life easier.

A scuffle broke out in which it is claimed that Lopera's nephew (Javier Páez) tried to push Del Nido down the stairs because the president had insulted him. Del Nido's exact words to Páez were apparently 'Eres más maricon que tu tío' (You're even more gay than your uncle).

As if this weren't enough, Lopera decided to ban Del Nido from the stadium for the 2nd leg of the Cup tie. Del Nido, always appealing to the law, insisted on the fact that the league's statutes obliged the host president to allow the visiting team's supremo into the stadium.

Lopera predictably refused to recognise the statutes, resulting in a peace committee arriving on neutral ground from the region's autonomous government, in an attempt to mediate. Two days from the match, and the league was threatening to cancel the game unless Del Nido was allowed in and unless Betis could convince the football authorities that they had organised sufficient security for the game.

Of course, the game went ahead - but only lasted 57 minutes. The moral's not a difficult one to follow, and you shall reap what you sow. The problem is, of course, that the dispute between the two club's presidents makes good copy. It's great theatre, and it's very Spanish. The trouble is, it's hardly surprising that some dunghead decided to chuck a bottle, almost as a coup de grace to conclude the whole farcical process.

Lopera, Del Nido and Leon stand condemned for their infantile posturing (entertaining though it was), but now the injunctions have started. As ever, people in authority here will do anything to escape the consequences of their actions. Instead of just saying 'Fair enough, we f****d up', the whole aftermath and the closure of Betis' ground will be turned into a new moral issue of righteous indignation. It wasn't our fault! Just one crazy guy with a bottle. Nothing to do with us!
But there are other issues. The truth is that the guy who chucked the bottle at Juande Ramos was either lucky or a damned good shot. Stuff flies every week in La Liga, and because it misses, no-one is punished. It's just an abdication of responsibility, something that the Spanish specialise in because it makes life easier. Spain is a very attractive country because it's still a bit 'looser' in a legal sense.

You can pay your taxes only if you feel like it, and you can still do almost anything you want to do if you feel like it - if you know the right folks. And this can only happen because the function of those in power is to turn a blind eye. If you get into a position of executive power in Spain, it just isn't the done thing to be seen as conscientious. That's for the innocent. People only work on their way up. When they get to the top - and I refer here to La Liga's pathetic bunch of back-scratchers - you must never upset the apple-cart. You must never actually confront anyone.

It's a weird mind-set, and it results in a kind of benevolent anarchy. Betis' new president claimed that the bottle-throwing was 'an isolated incident'. Who's he trying to kid? Himself?

A linesman was hit by a tin at Athletic Bilbao a few weeks back (ironically against Betis). Last year's cup match between Valencia and Deportivo was suspended l after a coin split open a linesman's head, Sevilla's goalie Palop was hit by a full beer can last year at Atlético Madrid, and Barca's keeper Jorquera was struck by a bottle at Zaragoza last week.

Luis Figo only remained alive after the game in the Camp Nou in 2002 because the hail of missiles hurled down at him somehow contrived to miss him. He was truly blessed. He could easily have been killed. But as long as nothing happens, nobody does anything. It was true of the racist stuff, and it's true of this new hoo-hah.

But Sevilla ended up the heroes, in the end. Their performance against Barcelona was wonderful in the second half - although they had struggled early on to contain the Catalans, who were playing with something like their old swagger. But once their tails were up, they had Barça on the ropes. They have ten outfield players who are all comfortable on the ball, and full-backs and midfielders who simply run at opponents as if their lives depended on it.

There is so much movement in the side that Barça - unfairly reduced to ten after Giuly was sent off - simply tired when Zambrotta also went for an early bath. Dani Alves ran them dizzy. No wonder half of Europe wants to buy him. He looks like some malnourished street urchin, abandoned by his parents and left to wander Seville in search of a Fagin. But he's absolute dynamite with a ball, and not bad without one either. He can tackle and hassle with the best of them, but his instinct to get forward as much as possible gives Sevilla so many attacking options. No wonder the very ordinary Kanouté is suddenly looking extraordinary. It's as if he can't believe he's getting so much support, and he's loving it.


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