Just for a change I think it might be nice to start at the other end of the football scale and leave the big boys for later on – a bit like starting Match of the Day with Watford v Burnley. That’s going to annoy somebody, but you know what I mean. Another reason is that there are no league games now for a fortnight because the next round of the King’s Cup will be played next weekend, so there’s time for pause and reflection.
One particularly interesting match occurred on Saturday in Irun, on the Spain-France border (or if you’re Basque, on the border between the south and the north of the Basque Country). Real Union, once a force in Spanish football, were founder members of the professional league in 1928 and by then had already won the King’s Cup on four occasions. Now considerably diminished, they play in the old Segunda B (now the Primera RFEF) and are owned by Unai Emery, who hails from nearby Hondarribia and whose grandfather and father both played for the club (as goalies).
Anyway – they’re doing ok in their group and sit in the play-off positions. On Saturday they had a home game against UD Extremadura, from way down south and way down in the table, second from bottom to be precise. The visitors, after months of internal struggles, strike threats and Covid too, had only three first-teamers left for the long trip north. They were forced to give temporary professional terms to eight players from the C team and borrow another two from from the B team (who had a game scheduled for the Sunday) in order to make up the numbers. The C team players were schoolboys, not expecting this temporary change in status. With the 1st team struggling anyway, it looked like a potential massacre.
The patched-up side (13 travelled in the end) travelled up by bus from Almendralejo in a nine-hour trip at the beginning of which their Galician coach, Manu Mosquera (who played 260 games for the club) made an emotive speech to the press on the steps of the bus, almost Churchillian in nature, appealing to the forces of destiny, invoking the gods and pronouncing the immortal phrase,“No solamente van a salvar un partido, van a salvar un club. Las familias de estos chicos tienen que estar orgullosas” (They’re not simply going to fulfil a fixture, they are going to save the club. The families of these boys can be proud).
Stirring stuff indeed, and what Mosquera meant was that the club, having already failed to fulfil one fixture this season, would be excluded from the competition were they to fail to play this one. With potential investors apparently hovering, staying in the top group of the old Segunda B is an obvious priority. Whatever – you know what’s coming. I was tempted to go along to the match, but it clashed with Real Sociedad v Celta, and I’d promised to go with a mate. Besides, I knew Extremadura would win. ‘twas written. And they did, having survived a first-half bombardment from a strong Real Unión side and an excellent penalty save from the first-team goalie, they got a free kick in the 57th minute which floated into the box and was poorly dealt with, enabling Assane (from the B team) to prod it magically into the net. A messy goal for a messy situation, but they players went nuts.
The scenes at the end were extraordinary, and prove the old saying that, in the end, it’s eleven dudes versus another eleven. The goal-scorer was born in Mallorca of Senegalese parents, and hasn’t had it easy. His 15 minutes of fame might turn into something, you never know, and the win might just be the turning point for the season – mainly because its effect might also persuade the investors to go ahead. The original club, CF Extremadura, from whose ashes the current side was formed, dated back to 1924 and spent two seasons in the top flight, in the 1990s. UD were formed in 2007 and need to survive, given the knock-on effect on the community.
The scene in Irun was a long way removed from the opulence of Real Madrid v Valencia the next day, but the emotions configure and conflate. There’s no point in making the monetary comparisons, and the fate of Extremadura is not the (direct) fault of Real Madrid, but it remains a truth that if the southern club were to fold, it would probably earn five lines, at the most, in the national papers. Like the ‘expensive delicate ship’ in Auden’s poem Musée Des Beaux Arts, when the boy (Icarus) falls out of the sky and splashes into the water nearby, the ship had ‘somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on’. Sorry to get literary, but it also reminded me of how equally satisfying was League One Cambridge’s win at Newcastle at the weekend. Cambridge United are not about to fold, as far as I’m aware, but the financial chasm between them and their Saudi-backed opponents lends a new angle to the new divisiveness that exists in football, and I mean the divisiveness that leads us to react with indifference when a football team folds, or an Icarus falls out of the sky. An entire community loses its team, or Real Madrid drop a point unexpectedly at home….which event causes the headlines? You know the answer.
Whatever – it was an interesting weekend, with the big ship Madrid putting four past a surprisingly timid Valencia, although they got a bit of help with a penalty for the opener. Personally I think it was a penalty on Casemiro, but as the old adage goes, it might not have been given to Extremadura. Let’s leave it at that. Madrid, with Vinicius back and dancing, deserved to win, but Sevilla continue to hang onto their coat-tails, beating Getafe at home by a single goal and keeping up the challenge. Rayo were held at home by Betis in a cracking game, but they both stay in the Euro-zone.
I went along to Real Sociedad v Celta (1-0), also an excellent game marred only by the antics of Iago Aspas, otherwise a decent bloke off the pitch but a pain in the proverbial on it. ‘Jelly man’ as my son calls him, actually disputed every single decision given against Celta, for the entire match in an astounding show of verbal bollox. You wonder how he retains the energy to actually play. He simply never shuts up, never accepts a thing. The referee, impressively patient, should really have sent him for a bath, but the rules probably don’t allow it, unless Aspas were to say rude things about the ref’s mother, for example. ‘Persistently arguing the toss for no coherent reason’ should be a new criterion for a red card. He’s not the only one of course – Athletic’s Raúl García is another leading member of the collective, with Gerard Piqué in third place. Piqué’s annoying because he thinks he’s clever, Aspas is just bonkers, whereas García is genuinely scary – as my mother used to say ‘You wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night’. All are fervently disliked by all but the supporters of their respective clubs, which is a shame because I’m sure they’re lovely chaps who are kind to their grannies.
To conclude, the result of Espanyol v Elche is crucial in order to decide the winner in the first of many duels in the Friday ‘Quiniela’. Despite perceptively predicting Levante’s first win since the Cretaceous Period, at close of play Sunday, Eduardo and myself were drawing on a miserable 3-3 (out of 9) but as long as Elche don’t win, there’ll be a 4-3 victor this week. If you wrote in and have better scores than either of us, make yourself known and you can challenge the winner for Week 21. Like UD Extremadura, you could get your fifteen minutes of fame, but don’t lose too much sleep over it.